This week’s column for The New Daily.
Abbott’s bloody-mindedness on solar. For The Hoopla.
Of all the qualities our political leaders strive to embody, the nebulous characteristic called “leadership” is ironically the hardest to achieve.
Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his opposition counterpart Bill Shorten have discovered there’s considerably more to the leadership task than striding forward shouting “follow me!”
Leadership requires striking what is usually a precarious balance between reflecting what voters want, and convincing them to accept what the nation needs. The consequences of getting the balance wrong usually amounts to electoral defeat.
Voters are hard taskmasters when it comes to leadership. The quality can inspire respect, sometimes admiration and even less frequently, awe.
But it is a title and a role that only we can bestow; we generally only see figureheads as leaders if, in our estimation, they reflect our own values, thoughts and motivations.
We want our leaders to be an extension of us; to lead, but in reality, to follow. We favour those who ascribe to the apocryphal motto attributed to both the fictional British PM Jim Hacker and the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “I am their leader. I must follow them.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that Abbott’s reflection of our shock, grief and grim determination following the attack on MH17 initially resulted in his leadership credentials being considered in a more positive light.
Abbott has since managed to dim that glow by overreaching on the tragedy. His attempt to appropriate the retrieval of the dead as another “national security” issue, by dubbing it Operation Bring Them Home and announcing the deployment of armed police and defence personnel to the site, quickly leached much of the goodwill that previously unsupportive voters may have had for the PM.
Such is the risk of straying from the song sheet that is the collective consciousness.
There are of course other inherent dangers for leaders who follow the pack. It’s one thing to channel the nation’s collective ebullience, as Bob Hawke did on the morning Australia II won the America’s Cup, or our deep regret, as Kevin Rudd did when he apologised on our behalf to the Stolen Generations.
It’s yet another to move like a weathervane as the winds of public opinion shift from one direction to another. Voters prefer their leaders to be reliable and dependable, and usually lose respect for those who prove to be otherwise.
The greatest risk, however, is in succumbing to voters’ baser instincts such as the xenophobia, if not outright racism, embodied in the current majority view that condones the harsh treatment of asylum seekers in the name of “national security”.
Likewise the voters’ hip-pocket rejection of climate action, which has shaped both the Coalition and Labor’s abandonment of the carbon “tax”.
In these cases, a different type of leadership has traditionally been used; one that involves stepping forward from the pack and setting an example to be followed.
There is a good reason this type of leadership is less favoured; our contemporary political history is littered with the remains of those who failed to lead Australians to accept unpopular political positions.
Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s inability to successfully prosecute the case for a carbon price is perhaps the most recently notable example. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s attempt to unite voters against “the age of entitlement” is another.
And Bill Shorten’s push to democratise the Labor Party, which is meeting considerable resistance from the union and factional influences within the party membership that he’s seeking to reduce, may yet prove to be another example.
A different approach to political leadership is needed if Australia is to tackle diabolical issues such as asylum seekers and climate change, as well as less pressing but nevertheless important matters like the federal budget.
It’s not enough for a leader merely to espouse what the Australian people want, or conversely to expect that voters will trust and follow them just because of the office they hold.
A necessary precursor must first be established – political leaders must earn the respect of the Australian electorate. Only those leaders who have secured that respect, and who can effectively make the case for change, will successfully bring the community along with them.
Without political leadership built on respect, we’ll continue to be distracted by populist politicians and resentful of those who try to force worthy but unpalatable solutions upon us. And the tough issues will either be buffeted by the winds of populism or simply consigned to the too hard basket.
The harrowing events that began to unfold in Ukraine at the end of last week firmly put into perspective the preceding fortnight’s wrangling in the Senate.
The seemingly endless days of political point-scoring, filibusters and guillotines seemed even more shallow than usual, and the supposed victories felt all the more hollow.
Any enjoyment of the proceedings, either in witnessing the repeal of the carbon price or Clive Palmer giving the Prime Minister a lesson in wilful obstructionism, was dispelled by the singularly horrific act of barbarity.
Having therefore been stripped of its triumphalism and schadenfreude, the scrapping of the carbon price revealed the stark quandary that remains: is some climate action better than none at all?
The “idealist or realist” dilemma goes to the heart of the deal that former Greens’ adviser Ben Oquist reportedly shepherded between former US vice-president Al Gore and parliamentarian Palmer, who happens to own one of Australia’s top 400 greenhouse gas emitters.
The realists would emphasise that without the Gore intervention, Palmer would have sided with the Coalition to completely scrap the Clean Energy Future package negotiated by Julia Gillard with the Greens and country independents in 2011.
Palmer vowed instead to protect key elements of the package including ARENA and the CEFC, which support development and commercialisation of the next generation of renewable energy technologies, and the advisory Climate Change Authority.
Palmer also said he would protect the Howard-era RET (until the next federal election), which drives the adoption of mature renewable energy technologies.
The idealists would in turn point out that Gore took a hit to his credibility by appearing with Palmer, and that by being seen to sanction his vow to repeal the carbon price Gore and his handlers were essentially turning a blind eye to the miner while he continued to benefit from enterprises that produce high levels of carbon emissions.
They’d also note that saving a few climate action entities, at no political expense or financial cost to his coal and nickel operations, would have seemed to Palmer a negligible price to pay for the world-class green-washing bestowed by the former US vice-president.
There is of course no easy solution to this impasse.
The idealist-realist conflict has long been a point of contention within the environment movement. Purists like Greenpeace refuse any government or corporate funding and rely on high-visibility media campaigns to make an impact on public policy.
Pragmatists like WWF see benefit in stepping inside the tent to work with businesses and governments to improve environmental standards throughout the economy. This cooperative approach can extend to WWF endorsement through vehicles such as the forest certification scheme, which many purists see as just another form of green-washing.
Much of the friction between the idealists and realists on climate action was minimised with the launch of the CEF package. Granted, the purists wanted a much higher price on carbon to drive changes in consumer behaviour, but were placated with serious money being directed to the development of renewables instead. And the pragmatists saw compensation to middle-income households as a necessary concession even though it neutralised the price signal.
Things remained relatively quiet until the election of the Abbott Government and the prospect of Gillard’s climate action architecture being totally dismantled became reality.
The differing interests have since begun to clash again over what is the best approach to maintaining climate action under the Abbott regime.
Prior to the great unveiling of the Palmer-Gore “understanding”, the most notable recent example of the purity/pragmatic contention on climate action was the struggle within the Greens to finalise a position on petrol excise. Greens Leader Christine Milne took the idealistic view, supporting the indexation of excise in accordance with party policy. However, political pragmatists within the party prevailed with cost of living concerns instead.
No increase in the cost of a fossil fuel was preferred to the sub-optimal alternative, just as had been the case when the Greens rejected Kevin Rudd’s seriously flawed ETS in 2009.
A similar choice will befall the Greens, and Labor, when Palmer’s “dormant” ETS and the Government’s Direct Action package of greenhouse gas mitigation initiatives are considered by the Parliament after it returns in late August.
The idealists will want to dismiss the initially zero-rated trading scheme as a hollow gesture, while the realists will want to support it in the desperate hope that a benevolent future government will one day transform the fake into the real thing.
Similarly, the purists will press to have Direct Action denounced as the fig leaf policy that it is.
And what position will the pragmatists take? If they adopt a similar approach to the one taken with Palmer, they’ll turn a blind eye to Abbott’s carbon emission free-for-all and accept the limited emission reductions that are on offer as better than nothing.
While the realists usually dominate when it comes to the vexed question of climate action in Australia, in the case of Direct Action it’s a fair bet the idealists will be the ones to prevail.
RIP carbon tax: What next? 2nd post this week for The Hoopla.
Life was never going to be easy for the environment movement under the Abbott Government. As expected, hard-won environmental gains from the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years were the first to go to the wall once the new ministry was sworn in.
Perhaps most importantly the entire climate action architecture, created by the minority Gillard government in negotiation with the independents and Greens, was slated for demolition.
Given they faced a minimum of three years’ Government obstructionism, abetted by a socially conservative Senate crossbench, it’s surprising the environment movement didn’t simply decamp to the nearest beach to await the next federal election.
Maybe that’s what many were contemplating. That is, until the first Abbott budget ignited a spark of unrest in the Australian community that breathed new life into the protest movement.
Suddenly the value of environmental (and other) protest was re-established, and what had only recently seemed as pointless and painful as hitting one’s head against a brick wall suddenly became a vital part of the democratic process again.
Even so, it appears green advocates are unsure how to meaningfully leverage voters’ new appetite for dissent. This is particularly the case when it comes to addressing climate change.
Climate action undoubtedly remains a tough sell. The Australian public has been desensitised by almost five years of Abbott homilies on the evils of the “toxic” carbon tax, conservative media attacks on climate science, and progressive parties’ relegation of the issue to a matter of faith by jostling over the moral high ground.
To counter this, several attempts have been made over recent years to create a bandwagon effect – with the 2011 Say Yes rallies being the most prominent – to create a groundswell of support by suggesting there already is one.
However such rallies can be labour-intensive, unpredictable and to a large extent ignored by the media as an indicator of broader support. So climate action advocates have taken instead to commissioning opinion polls to suggest there’s growing public support for their cause and an inevitable consensus approaching.
This tactic can prove tricky, however, if the numbers are not moving strongly in one’s favour.
A time-honoured way of showing weak polling results in the best possible light is to selectively quote the numbers in a text-heavy report instead of publishing the full tables of data. Such cherry-picking depends on journalists being too busy to read more than the executive summary and discourages independent analysis of the outcome.
This approach was used last week by the lobby group, The Climate Institute, with its Climate of the Nation 2014 report.
In fact TCI’s tactics would have done a shonky corporate lobbyist proud. Their selective interpretation of the poll results was released at a media event replete with puppet dinosaurs and the Liberal anti-hero John Hewson, guaranteeing a great picture and headline but limited scrutiny of the numbers.
The “full” report was not launched until 24 hours later. Even then the results were only partially provided and obscured within 25 pages of mostly text. This allowed TCI to avoid any detailed examination of whether the questions were leading, what the real trends were, and what the percentages really meant. The report could well have been an embarrassing own goal if TCI’s pre-cooked summary turned out to be less than representative of the actual results.
It must have seemed a good idea at the time to offer Palmer some reflected Gorish glory and a blind eye on the scrapping of the carbon price in return for the retention of most of Gillard’s other climate action mechanisms.
But the Faustian deal with Palmer means the centerpiece of Australia’s emissions reduction effort, the carbon price, will be scrapped. And there is no chance Palmer’s zero-rated pseudo-ETS will take its place.
So Australia will have an increasing amount of renewables in the electricity supply mix but no price on carbon to drive down emissions from transport, agriculture or other forms of energy production.
Yes, something is better than nothing, and the retention of artefacts like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority could be seen as a win.
But let’s not forget Palmer’s commitments are as certain as the shifting sands. He moved from being a climate sceptic to a believer overnight, and took a similar time to shift from wanting the renewable energy target to be voluntary to insisting that it be untouched for two years.
Now the Member for Fairfax is reportedly moving away from the environmental rhetoric he used when standing alongside Gore, to argue that Australia needs to avoid as-yet non-existent climate tariffs imposed by our trading partners. PUP Senator-elect Jacqui Lambie has also jumped onto the economic bandwagon by insisting that businesses in Tasmania be exempted from the renewable energy target.
Meantime, The Climate Institute is running a campaign to stop the scrapping of the carbon price that was essentially sanctioned by their climate action compatriots.
It could all yet end in tears.
Nobody expected the Abbott years to be easy for the environment movement. But green advocates have been given a gift by the Coalition Government that they’ve squandered so far.
While the Government’s environmental vandalism has less immediacy for the community than other budget measures, the opportunity remains for it to be incorporated into the ongoing campaign about the unfairness of the budget.
Environmentalists should be tapping into this voter angst instead of spinning survey results and making devil’s pacts with unreliable politicians.
Direct Action: A load of meh. Weekly post for The Hoopla.
Here’s my latest piece for The King’s Tribune…
Fear is a fascinating thing. It’s fairly easy to initiate, can sometimes be used to motivate, and can bring out the best or worst in any of us. Right now, it’s being used against us for craven political purposes.
Fear motivates some people to wear a seat-belt, insure their house, take their medication, run from a person brandishing a knife, or perform heroic feats to save loved ones. It can also cause people to be prejudiced, belligerent, aggressive, or perhaps even trample others while trying to escape danger.
Fear is a powerful emotion, and it’s used daily by companies, governments, political operatives and the media to influence our behaviour.
While the tabloid media are best known for playing the fear card, politicians now seem to be trying to trump them. The Greens proclaim that devastation will soon be wrought by dangerous climate change; the Coalition foretells the doom that will befall us from the carbon tax; and the ALP warns about the apocalypse that will come with the ascension of Prime Minister Abbott.
Added to this, we’re cautioned about mining magnates, asylum seekers, newspaper proprietors, rabid Christians, vampiric bosses, a burst housing bubble and another global economic meltdown.
It’s no wonder the Australian citizenry has become anxious and seeks solace amongst the glittering halls of Westfield Plazas scattered thoughtfully around the country. Perhaps the public’s whinging and wringing of hands, attributed by many to our selfish sense of entitlement, actually arises from our confidence being battered by fear-mongers on a daily basis.
Click here to keep reading….
Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.
With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.
This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.
The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.
It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.
There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.
And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.
Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.
The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.
I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.
That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.
This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.
Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.
This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum
Let’s admit it. One time or another, most of us have taken the easy way out. We’ve criticised instead of giving constructive criticism; we’ve focused on what can’t be done instead of what can.
When it comes to the carbon tax, my hands aren’t clean. I’ve been critical of the climate change mantra that claims putting a price on carbon in Australia will reduce global emissions.
However, putting my misgivings aside, if I look at the carbon tax as a communicator I’ve no doubt that it could more effectively be pitched to the Australian community. So I challenged myself to craft a communications strategy that would successfully sell such a tax.
And here it is. This strategy is an all-or-nothing approach. Each of its four components relies upon the other. It also relies upon the sincerity of our Prime Minister to be successful.
Step 1: Say sorry
There’s only one way for Julia Gillard to defuse the ongoing and escalating accusations of deceit. She must apologise, unreservedly and genuinely, for breaking the commitment she made before the last federal election.
Such apologies can be done badly, so the PM must study key examples to avoid making similar mistakes. Ms Gillard would do well to note how her predecessor mishandled an apology exactly 12 months ago by mouthing the right words, but in such a sing-song manner that any perception of empathy was shattered in the process.
Like Rudd, Gillard also seems to have been standing behind the door when empathy was handed out, so she will need to keep this in mind when delivering her mea culpa on the carbon tax.
Step 2: Be honest
Secondly, the Prime Minister must dispense with the pretence that Labor holds government in its own right. When apologising for the broken pre-election commitment, Gillard must remind voters that she was obliged to do so in order to form a minority government.
Ms Gillard must remind voters that it was their decision to give the Greens and independents the power to form government with one of the major parties. And she must remind voters that negotiation and ultimately concession are the price that Labor must pay every day to deliver as many of its elections commitments as possible to the nation.
In being straight with voters about the constraints they’ve imposed upon her, the Prime Minister would achieve two things. She’d earn respect for acknowledging this democratic decision. She’d also be telling those who voted in protest for the Greens last time that they should consider this outcome and vote more carefully next time.
Being honest in this way doesn’t necessarily give credibility to the Opposition’s claim that Bob Brown is the real Prime Minister. If delivered by Julia Gillard with honesty and authority, this message will demonstrate that she has the leadership capability to accommodate Green voters’ interests while still pursuing a broader Labor agenda for the benefit of the whole community.
Step 3: Put Australia in a positive light
Thirdly, the Prime Minister must focus and build upon Australia’s greenhouse positives, not the negatives.
Australians want to be told they’re winners, not losers, and preferably on the international stage if at all possible. We don’t like being scolded for emitting the highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions per person in the whole world. We don’t like being made to feel guilty about our quality of life. And we feel anxious, resentful and even angry about government actions that may threaten that lifestyle in any way.
Rather than tell Australians they need to take their greenhouse medicine and cop a little pain for the public gain, the Prime Minister should spruik how Aussie greenhouse technologies, services and know-how are smarter and more successful than our international competitors.
In this context the carbon tax can be pitched as the way for all Australians to help fund our smarter greenhouse actions; the way to pay for the expensive research, development and demonstration projects that are needed for Australian clean energy technologies to get the edge on their overseas competitors and be winners on the international stage.
Step 4: Make it real
And finally, Australians must be helped to make connections between their own everyday actions and greenhouse mitigation.
State governments did this successfully with their water restriction campaigns. By drawing a link between climate change, the drought and dwindling water resources, state governments gave their constituents a way to see the tangible benefits of their water parsimony; whether they changed their water consumption behaviour, paid to install water tanks, or let their turf die.
The altruistic “payback” for these actions was the daily progress reports on roadside electronic billboards showing the results of the previous day’s efforts in terms of water used, targets reached and dam levels achieved.
Australians were happy enough to comply with water restrictions because they felt they were doing their bit for the collective good, and in reality the required change in behaviour was not overly costly or inconvenient.
Similar initiatives are needed to sell the carbon tax. Daily electricity use numbers, targets and perhaps even $$ saved or exceeded could be shown on the same electronic roadside billboards that have become a familiar sight to commuters on their daily trek home.
Real-time feedback of this kind will remind Australians that they are doing their own bit for the planet, and help them to feel good about it.
These are the success factors for selling the carbon tax. Make an apology to reset the tempo of the debate. Treat Australian voters like adults and tell them the truth about the constraints of minority government. Tell us we’re winners in the greenhouse action game. And help us feel not only connected to that action, but also proud to be doing our bit.