4 Corners “The Deal” more Jersey Shore than documentary

I was prepared to come away from watching tonight’s 4Corners program “The Deal” with an extreme emotion. To be frank, I thought that emotion would be exasperation, based on the knowledge that a similar process would be followed for each and every important policy decision brought before these men during this parliamentary term in order to secure passage through the House of Representatives.

I was correct, to a point, but my exasperation emerged from another source altogether. It struck me while watching the program that it was well cast and had a killer plot, but was hollow and jangly in its execution. It occurred to me that the program had the distinct feel of those semi-reality shows, such as The Hills or Jersey Shore, where you can’t distinguish the fact from fabrication.

This suspicion rang true for me most when Windsor beseeched Katter to let the cameras stay to record the momentous decision. It was as if capturing the moment (and its participants) for posterity was more important than having a private, no holds barred, discussion to ensure that the right decision was being made. Indeed, after Katter’s departure, Windsor and Oakeshott obliged the cameras with useful columns drawn on paper and “discussion” of the pros and cons.

My feeling of semi-reality was exacerbated by the absence of Tony Windsor’s cousin, the Labor Party’s spin-meister Bruce Hawker, from any of the footage. Being a former spin doctor myself, I know that the golden rule of PR is to never leave your fingerprints on your work. I read many times during the hiatus that Bruce Hawker was advising Windsor, so why was he not on our screens tonight? Was he stage managing the three media-tarts? Did Katter spit the dummy as a result? I guess we will never know, because the 4 Corners program wasn’t a documentary after all.

New media prejudice based on fear of the unknown

It’s human nature to dislike, even hate, what we fear and to fear that which is foreign to us. These drivers underpin many of the entrenched prejudices that exist in this world, to humanity’s great shame and dismay. Prejudice and its implications can occur on a grand scale or at the micro level. The most profound cast a shadow over people’s gender, sexuality, colour and religion.

At the micro level it may be the cut of your suit, the ink on your skin or even the way you speak that fans the embers of ignorance into the flames of prejudice. While these biases are nothing compared to the ones mentioned above, they still exist and should be challenged.

Well, at least that’s what we always say about prejudice – that it should be challenged. Perhaps it’s more a matter of deconstructing prejudice through personal experience. Attitudes are very hard to shift, but they can be altered with knowledge gained through first hand experience. There are many (but clearly not enough) examples of people relinquishing their prejudices once the unknown becomes the personally known, either through a friend or relative coming out, or by getting to know someone of a different colour or religion.

It’s the micro level of prejudice that I’ve pondered since attending the Media140 social media conference last month. Quite a number of mainstream media journalists participated in panel discussions and I was struck by the disdainful way several referred to social media platforms. One explained that they didn’t often tweet but monitored the Twitter stream to plunder it for stories. Another said they used Twitter mostly to publicise their own stories. At one point in the discussion, Facebook was summarily dismissed as being the place where you post your holiday snaps to satisfy the extended family.

It occurred to me then that many working journalists just don’t get social media and it may be for this reason that they’ve formed negative attitudes toward it. Apart from the few journalists who actively blog and engage in conversations on Twitter, it seems that many mainstream journalists see social media as a fad, but nevertheless a potential threat in the identification and reporting of news. I’m not suggesting they’re luddites, but that their unwillingness to personally experience these online phenomena has created a negatively biased perception.

I suppose I could challenge this prejudice by saying that the world has changed and people are no longer using the old ways to shop, talk, promote, research, learn, share, celebrate or mourn. I could show how models for business, advocacy and information exchange are constantly mutating in an effort to keep pace. Or even point to the fact that 54% of Fortune 100 companies have a presence on Twitter and 29% are on Facebook.

I could challenge the prejudice by showing that Australians in particular have embraced social media; that 70% of all Australian internet users visit social networking sites, and we also spend more time on these sites than our overseas online colleagues.

I could point to Facebook as another case in point. It’s not just a place for happy snaps but inhabited and regularly used not only by individuals but hundreds of thousands of businesses. Facebook has 500 million members who spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook pages. Over 9 million people on Facebook are Australians, and these are not just kids sharing fart jokes or embarrassing photos; 43.4% of all Australians on Facebook are aged 26 to 44. The communities that exist on Facebook are a marketer’s dream. Any kind of demographic or interest group can be reached cheaply and on a targeted basis using Facebook ads. Facebook is also used by NGOs, advocates, companies and individuals to build communities of support or loyal customer followings that would otherwise be impossible to create or maintain.

Sadly, any challenge would not be enough. There is no way to understand social media platforms “in theory”. Understanding can only be gained through direct experience. Mainstream journalists will never get Twitter until they actively join one of the many communities that exist in the Twitterverse. They can’t just monitor the Twitter stream or broadcast into it but truly engage in conversations as they would with friends at the pub or a dinner party to understand the dynamics and attraction of this medium. Twitter is not just about politics either; its communities are numerous and incredibly diverse. For my part, I participate in Twitter communities that are interested in politics, social media, science fiction on TV and in films, fashion and rugby league.

The reality is that social media is not a fad, it won’t fade away and its influence on the corporate, policy and political worlds will grow even more with time. Mainstream media journalists would know this, and perhaps even accept it, if they engaged fully with social media platforms and joined with the rest of us in exploring their seemingly limitless potential for information, creativity, relationships and dialogue.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed

I’m sick of running the gauntlet of smiling harassers

The smiling gauntlet

How has it come to this? How has the natural human reaction to be polite been turned against us as a ruthless selling ploy?

I guess I should be thankful I’m not naturally a people person, but I still feel a small pang of guilt or embarrassment every time I decline to be stopped by the handsome young man trying to “just ask a quick question” before he plies me with his employer’s over-priced hand moisturiser.

Or when I turn away the cute Telstra guy who appears on my doorstep on a Sunday afternoon trying to sell me his employer’s latest broadband package.

Or when I decline to take up the latest fabulous accommodation package from the friendly woman on my mobile who amazingly doesn’t stop for breath during her sales pitch.

These selling tactics rely on us being too polite to ignore them or brush them away, and too guilty to buy nothing once they have invested time and energy in the exchange.

It has now come to the point that we can no longer pop down to the local store for a loaf of bread, take a leisurely stroll through our favourite shopping mall or even open our front door without having to run the gauntlet of these smiling harassers.

I’m sick of feeling guilty when I am forced to engage with these pan-handlers. Now I feel manipulated by the charming, smiling, waving, hand-proffering young people who have been trained not to take no for an answer and to persevere with salutations and questions and dazzling smiles.

The irony of course is that I’m a profligate spender. Catch my attention in a way that lets me make up my own mind in my own time and I’ll open my wallet with surprising speed.  I’m happy to sponsor a child’s education through the Smith Family, drop a twenty on an Anzac or Legacy badge, spend $50 on a wonderful smelling candle or $300 on the right face cream.  But I do all these things because they make me feel good either directly or indirectly.  None of these expenditures were leveraged through guilt.

It’s time we all stood up to this selling tactic and just said no – tell them directly, complain to the shopping centre or mall manager and broadcast your rejection as loudly and widely as you can.  I’ve already started and I hope you will join me.

Postscript: Cornucopia Consulting is the company that trains these harassers. Here is the email address that you can use to lodge your personal complaint:enquiries@cornucopia.com.au

Surprise, surprise, The Australian censors criticism of faux Jenkins expose

Yesterday and today, The Australian carried a story attributed to “staff reporters” claiming that Speaker Harry Jenkins button-holed the PM in the Parliamentary coffee shop Aussies. A photo taken on a mobile phone was proffered as proof. I witnessed this exchange and it was nothing of the sort. The taking of the photo was an invasion of privacy and Parliament House protocol. The fact that the journalist in question was not prepared to put her name to the story could be taken as acknowledgement of these facts.

I lodged the following comment at the end of the article as is now customary, but it has not been printed. In fact, the option to comment on the article has been removed altogether. Here it is for you to read and consider:

I’m pretty appalled at this story. Mostly because I witnessed the so-called “button-holing” by Jenkins, which was nothing more than a jovial aside. I also saw the Australian’s journalist take a picture of the exchange on their mobile phone, which is contrary to Parliament House privacy rules. It was pure speculation, if not outright fabrication, to suggest that Jenkins was reduced to discussing this matter with the PM in public, in a coffee shop. I’m a supporter of the Australian, but this was a shocking attempt at gotcha journalism.

A kinder, gentler legislative log-jam

It’s no secret that I’m concerned about a small number of people, who garnered only a small proportion of the total vote, deciding who should form the next government of Australia. I can nevertheless understand the optimism vested in this political arrangement to deliver a kinder, gentler, more transparent, more accountable government.

It may well do so. But as a former lobbyist who has worked with governments dating back to the Hawke years, I can see a huge legislative log-jam looming in both houses of federal parliament, which will be bad for the economy and the community.

In the House of Representatives, where just one vote can change the fortune of any piece of legislation, there are four members who have reserved the right to vote on each Bill depending upon its individual merits.

No-one should underestimate what this means. There are literally hundreds of Bills that pass through parliament every year. Many are complex and require a particular policy expertise to decipher. Even if the Independents have secured the promise of additional staff from Prime Minister Gillard, they will be overwhelmed with the amount of detail they will need to master to judge each Bill on its merits, let alone the research needed to genuinely participate in parliamentary committees.

This means that one of two things will happen. It’s likely that in the spirit of transparency and consultancy the Indies will want to study every Bill closely and consult with all stakeholders. It’s also possible that the Indies will eventually shift their sights to pet issues and let the others fall into abeyance. Either way, this will inevitably slow down the legislative program, particularly for those Bills that aren’t related to “agreed” actions or supply. Most people aren’t aware of the scores of unsexy regulatory and policy reforms that languish on the legislative backburner because there’s not enough time in a parliamentary year to get them passed. I personally know about one important Bill that has been waiting seven years to get a slot on the legislative agenda. It still hasn’t passed and I’m sure there are many more.

On a less idealistic level, the pressure to keep on top of the whole legislative program will also expose the Indies to “helpful” lobbyists, keen to alleviate the load by providing “pre-cooked” legislative analysis. One needs to think no further than the assistance that Manildra will provide them on ethanol or Telstra on the NBN.

I believe we face a similar conundrum in the Senate. While the eight Green senators will have better resources, and a party platform, with which to assess every Bill, they will still hold out for their preferred position on every piece of legislation. Inevitably this will slow down the legislative process too.

While some might say that a legislative log-jam is a small price to pay for a kinder, gentler Parliament, I would disagree. Legislative uncertainty and delay can lead to less transparency and less accountability, as well as economic uncertainty. None of these are good for the Australian community.

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory

Refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.

This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.

I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)

My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.

This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.

Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.

This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.

Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?

The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election

There’s a lot of outrage mixed with genuine bewilderment being expressed about the role of the media in the federal election campaign.

Much of this angst is due to a lack of insiders’ knowledge about how media, politics and policy work in Canberra and during election campaigns.

Annabel Crabb did a sterling job explaining some of the campaign minutiae in a recent piece. The scorn and derision she received from some readers would have been surprising if not for a related (and heartfelt) complaint by blogger Grog’s Gamut. Even the redoubtable Laura Tingle bemoaned the apparent lack of willingness by the political media to seek and scrutinise policy.

These posts elicited for me an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter exchange with journalism lecturer Jason Wilson during which we pondered why political journalists focus on the superficial drama of the campaign rather than policy. We explored whether political parties’ efforts to tightly manage the media and messages are a defensive move because journalists only focus on drama and superficiality, or whether it is an offensive move to ensure that the key message, and nothing more, makes the TV news each night.

From my perspective, based on real inside experience, it is the latter. Parties are the organ-grinders, doing everything they can to get journalists to dance to their tune, rather than lion-tamers holding a vicious beast at bay.

I believe much of the dissatisfaction with media coverage this election comes from Labor voters/sympathisers because they have not, for many generations, witnessed the degree of media scepticism that is currently being applied to the ALP. Their instinctive reaction is to label this media negativity as bias.

In fact, they are witnessing journalists rebelling against the parties’ (particularly Labor’s) “media management” strategies. Most journalists have finely tuned bullshit detectors and can identify even the most subtle attempts to manipulate them. Journalists’ instinctive reaction is to subvert and therefore expose this constraint in any way they can.

Before you jump to label me a Tory sympathiser, dear reader, cast your mind back over the past 30 years. Can you remember a time when the conservatives were overwhelmingly treated well by the media? I cannot. I’ve observed over that time that most journalists are “small L” liberal or left-leaning. This is no surprise considering that liberal philosophy fits so well with the journalistic motivation to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Journalists’ liberal values were clearly observable during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years. During that time, conservative politicians and parties felt they could never win a trick with the print media, television networks or the ABC.

The political media participated in the Australian community’s adoration of Prime Minister Hawke during his heyday. As Hawke’s light faded, many journalists shifted to actively support Treasurer Keating during his campaign to destablise and ultimately overthrow Australia’s most popular Prime Minister.

At no time in the 80s or 90s were Opposition Leaders Peacock, Hewson, Downer or Howard feted by the media. The conservatives’ only allies were found amongst the conservative shock-jocks in the retail-communication worlds of tabloid newspapers and talkback radio.

Kevin Rudd, in fact, was the first Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke to be given the overwhelming support of the media. Can anyone remember a conservative Opposition Leader who enjoyed this support? No. Labor supporters may be upset at the current unprecedented lack of media support, but it cannot be labeled bias. Its real name is rebellion.

Ironically, and with foresight, the media’s support for Opposition Leader Rudd was begrudging. This sentiment sowed the seeds of the campaign media’s current discontent.

Kevin Rudd is known to have vigorously worked the media during his rise from regular Sunrise guest to Leader of the Opposition during the dark and final days of the Howard government. But once the election campaign-proper commenced, Rudd mimicked the successful small-target strategy utilised by Howard in 1996. Under the tight media-management direction of former Carr spinmeister Bruce Hawker, Rudd became unavailable to the “real” news media. Rudd opted instead to appear on youth-oriented radio programs and television variety shows – affording him the double benefit of direct access to mainstream Australians without having to address pesky questions of policy and substance.

Nevertheless, the political media were so enthralled with the community’s growing dissatisfaction with Howard and the prospect of the government being overthrown, that they were prepared to humour Rudd for the duration of the campaign. A story at the time featured former Hawke media adviser and now ABC Insiders host, Barrie Cassidy, candidly quoting another journalist saying ‘We all know we have to go to war against Kevin Rudd as soon as the election campaign is over.’

This media “war” was held off by the unprecedented honeymoon that Prime Minister Rudd enjoyed with the Australian public during the first two years of his term. Not only did the media sit back in awe of this popularity, so did the political hard heads in the ALP.

In the end though, perhaps Rudd the organ-grinder forgot that monkeys also have teeth. Or that other sidewalk entertainers can be ruthless enough to knife you for the optimal position on the street corner.

Those who wish to lay blame for the behaviour of political media in this election campaign should look no further than the genial Bruce Hawker and the entourage of former media advisers that he brought to Canberra in 2007-08 from the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government. While Hawker’s tight media management strategy, aligned to the relentless 24/7 news cycle, may have delivered for the state government, it did not fit well with the communication needs of a federal government.

Journalistic resentment about Rudd’s media management, and the ALP’s more generally, had been simmering for some time. This was exacerbated by Rudd’s inability to fulfil the great expectations that he created during the 2007 election campaign to positively differentiate himself from the ageing, discredited Howard.

As shocking as Rudd’s removal was, many journalists were relieved and optimistic that the Gillard era would herald a more sensible and less frantic approach to newsmaking. Some of these journalists are young and are travelling with the Leaders’ teams in their first election campaigns. Regardless of their experience, it is easy to infer from their various writings that most campaign journalists are tired, dazed and disoriented. They are sick of being herded from one pic-fac to another, told nothing, given no time to absorb or analyse, and no latitude to report anything other than the message of the day.

It is no wonder then, that they subvert the process by ignoring the strangled notes of the squeeze-box and dance instead to their own tune, asking the most inconvenient and embarrassing questions, and attempting to catch the Leader off guard? Is this natural reaction enough to justify their policy-free questions?

No it’s not. But it should also be remembered that the campaign we see on the nightly news is no more than a flimsy facade. The only campaign that really matters is being deployed in the marginal seats. The purpose of the national campaign is to maintain the status quo (not lose any “tribal” voters) and secure enough supportive voters’ attention/engagement to guarantee they turn up on polling day.

Most policy announcements are designed to do nothing more than grab a headline to reassure a particular demographic. While it is understandable that amateur politicos would like to see genuine analysis of these policies, it’s worth remembering that most political journalists are not policy specialists and do not have a good understanding of how policy is developed or implemented. As a consequence, they pay less attention to these processes and only focus on what they know – the political dimension of policy.

In closing, let me remind you of one small matter. While I have lamented in the past that we do not elect our media, we are ultimately still responsible for their behaviour and their output. At no time have ordinary citizens had more power than now to shape their news media; with their purchasing power, with their voices and with their keyboards. I look forward to reading further contributions to this debate!

Postscript: This excellent piece by senior political journalist Tony Wright is an illuminating addition to the subject

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory.

Nielsen poll – wakeup call for protest voters, not Gillard

This morning Australian voters woke to read that the tide has turned on Prime Minister Gillard, with the Herald/Nielsen poll showing the Coalition now leading on a two-party-preferred basis.

The commentariat are saying that the bell is tolling for Gillard. This interpretation may sell papers, but it is wrong. We are still three whole weeks out from polling day. Previous contemporary elections have shown that around 5-10% voters do not firmly make up their minds until the last week. 2-3% do not decide until THE DAY. This percentage is still enough to decide the election.

Today’s poll shows nothing more than an expression of protest by those voters not happy with this week’s ALP campaign. It costs voters nothing to shift their “vote” around during the weeks of the campaign. What they tell pollsters they will do, and how they actually DO vote are two different things.

A more interesting result from the poll is that 69% expect Labor will win the election, while only 21% believe the coalition will. Another is that 21% of voters have not yet firmly made up their minds.

This reflects the wormers’ views after Sunday night’s Leaders’ Debate – when asked to finally choose between Gillard and Abbott, the vast majority chose the PM.

Today’s poll is nothing more than a wakeup call for protest voters. Expect Labor to press the point – do voters unhappy with Julia Gillard REALLY want Tony Abbott to be their next Prime Minister?

If votes swing back, then the superficial protest will be confirmed. If the trend remains, then we can start to toll the bell for Julia.

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late

John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?

Symbolism or substance: Will a decarbonised Australian economy fix climate change?

As an old campaigner, I implicitly understand the need to condense complex matters into sound bites or slogans.  The problem with stripping the details out of an issue and reducing it to a memorable phrase is that people tend to defer to their own interpretation of what that phrase actually means.

This can be dangerous territory for a politician or party if the sound bite or slogan implies an undertaking.  While the nature of the undertaking may be clear in the mind of the spruiker, it might have an entirely different meaning to the audience.

Rudd’s lesson

Kevin Rudd learned this lesson the hard way.  During the 2007 federal election campaign, Rudd differentiated himself from John Howard on two points: he would scrap Work Choices and ratify Kyoto.  Neither Rudd nor the ALP made any effort to explain what ratification of the Kyoto protocol meant in practical terms.  They were content with the electorate inferring from this undertaking that Australia’s ratification would fix climate change.

But of course, it did not.  In reality, ratification of Kyoto granted access to a number of climate mitigation activities including a future global emissions trading scheme amongst parties to the protocol and emission credits for businesses investing in greenhouse gas reducing projects in developing countries.

After formally ratifying the Kyoto protocol, Rudd subtly shifted his language to the need for Australia to adopt an emissions trading scheme to fix climate change.  Having trusted the Prime Minister on ratification, and feeling no adverse effects, Australians were comfortable in the belief that adopting an ETS would be equally painless.

Green words not green deeds

It is important to understand that while people say they want environmental action, and that they are prepared to pay for it, their actions disprove their words.  Australian green energy schemes continue to languish in the single-digit percentages because people do not want to pay a premium for a product that has no discernable difference.  Surveys of grocery shoppers have found that the actual contents of their trolleys undermine their previously- stated preference for green products.

Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?
Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?

In reality, most people don’t want to pay more to be environmentally friendly – unless the expense can be expressed in a way that can be seen such as having a water tank or driving a hybrid car or carrying a green canvas shopping bag.

This is where Rudd came unstuck.

The point of an ETS is to wean an economy off fossil fuels.  This is done by putting a price on carbon so that fossil fuel based products become more expensive and the renewable based products start to look competitive in comparison.  That’s the economic theory.

Problems with decarbonising Australia’s economy

There are several problems with this theory for Australia.  Firstly, 80% of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal and we have coal reserves that could last for several hundred years more.   Our plentiful coal has allowed electricity prices to remain consistently low, and as a result we currently have the third lowest electricity prices in the world.

Not only have these low electricity prices brought energy intensive industries to Australia, they have contributed directly to the Australian community’s quality of life.  Around 11.5% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from households and another 14% from transport (most of which is cars, trucks and planes).  An ETS would place cost pressure on the households to move them away from the activities and products that use fossil fuels.

Once voters began to realise this, they felt conned and unhappy.  This unhappiness has clearly been picked up by party polling, evidenced by both major parties moving to distance themselves from an ETS before the impending election.

While the ETS is now on the backburner, we will nevertheless continue to hear the latest slogan promoting the need to decarbonise the Australian economy if we are to fix climate change.

As point of substance, this contention is patently absurd.  Australia contributes less than 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  No amount of reduction in Australia will make a material difference to the phenomenon.  Even if every Australian house had solar panels, and every family drove a hybrid car and grew their own vegetables, there would hardly be a perceptible dip in global emissions.

So, as a point of symbolism, should Australia decarbonise its economy to show leadership and coax other developed nations into doing their fare share to mitigate the problem that they originally created?

If leadership leading to deep cuts in global emissions is the real objective of Australian action on climate change, then penalising Australians for their quality of life will not achieve that objective.

An unconventional solution

There is no way to stop the developing world from using coal in the foreseeable future.  These nations are rightly focused on bringing their people out of poverty and will use the most reliable, affordable and safe means of electricity generation available to them.

The International Energy Agency has projected that from the year 2000 to 2030 around $16 trillion dollars will be spent on developing and providing energy to the global population.  Over that same period, the number of people with no access at all to a reliable/commercial supply of energy will reduce from two billion to one billion.  Those of us sitting in our air-conditioned homes and offices need to bear this in mind when we nod sagely about the need to decarbonise the economy.  In 2030 there will still be people on this planet burning cow dung to heat their homes and cook their dinner.

Where does that leave Australia?  I believe we can take credible climate action that has both substance and symbolism.  Firstly we need to take the economists out of the equation – they have no interest in the human cost of their proposals.  Stop focusing on the business case too – there are too many vested business interests on either side of the climate change debate for the market to sort this out.

My solution lets all Australians feel involved, with minimal financial pain, and with greenhouse gas reductions being deployed where they are needed most.

Firstly, impose a greenhouse levy on all taxpayers in the same manner as the Medicare levy, which currently raises around $8 billion each year.  Attaching the levy to income ensures that those who earn more will pay more, and those who are disadvantaged or unemployed will not pay at all.

Secondly, use the funds to develop and deploy clean energy projects in the developed world – particularly those countries that have the potential to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in future.  In doing so, the Australian people would be getting more global greenhouse action for their dollar than they could ever hope to achieve at home.

Does this proposal make economic sense? No.  Does it make business sense? No.  Does it make sense in terms of Australia being a leader and making deep cuts in greenhouse emissions? Yes.

Maybe its time we changed the way we looked at climate change in Australia, and even the world.