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Conviction politics

Will it take international pressure for the Coalition to finally budge on climate change?

Peter Brent 17 January 2020 1449 words

Year zero: Scott Morrison concedes the need for more effort at a media conference on Wednesday. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

At one point in Keating, a series of interviews aired on the ABC in 2015, talk turned to the big tariff reductions introduced by the Hawke and Keating governments and continued through the Howard years. As Paul Keating described it to interviewer Kerry O’Brien, these and other reforms gave Australian consumers access to cheaper, better-quality goods and made the economy more efficient.

Surely it wasn’t all upside, queried O’Brien. Manufacturing was in deep trouble, jobs were being exported to Asia, and “many of those working people were now staring at lost jobs, in factories and various jobs — skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled — gone.”

Keating’s response was as simplistic as it was ridiculous. Sure, factories closed, but their workers got “a better job, a week later, in a growing economy… I mean all these people got picked up,” mostly in the services sector.

The real world isn’t like that, of course. We can accept that trade liberalisation has “increased overall GDP and average Australian household incomes,” as one government-commissioned report says, and that for some people the benefit has been very great indeed. And if the existence of losers and well as winners always stymied government policy then nothing would ever get done.

Trying to wish away these inconvenient realities is the sort of dissembling that politicians, current and former, indulge in all the time, of course, though not all with Keating’s distinctive turn of phrase. (“They are not seeing their jobs disappear,” he explained to Peter Lewis in 2000, “they are seeing a new job appear — not dis-appear, a-ppear.”)

Which brings us to climate change. For a long time a discussion has been going on about how we can move to a net zero-carbon economy. Fossil fuels will be phased out and renewable energy phased in, with some advocates giving breezy assurances that workers in the coal industry will find new jobs in renewables, as if these positions will pop up in the same places and be equally well-paid.

In reality, transforming our economy will make some now-thriving communities unviable. But because climate change is real, and because we’ll have to adjust eventually, the sooner we start seriously dealing with it the better off we’ll be in the long run. Like many other reforms, it passes the utilitarian test — the greatest good for the greatest number.

When it comes to Australian governments enacting substantial, difficult policy, the political dynamics usually work like this.

Stage one: When it first reaches the public consciousness, the prospect of change is stress-inducing. The plan is picked at and turned over; the headlines scream. The extent and breadth of the downsides are easily exaggerated by opponents. And the longer this goes on the more fearful people become.

Stage two: After the policy is put in place, its bark turns out to have been worse than its bite, for the vast majority of people anyway. Life goes on largely as before — and eventually, with any luck, even if it often takes years and is not consciously registered, it ends up better than if the policy had not been put in place.

Stage three: The next election comes around, and even still-grumpy voters accept that what’s done is done, there’s no point trying to unscramble the egg.

Eventually the government accrues political credit, the prime minister gains stature from being seen to have made difficult decisions for the good of the country, for making us eat our greens. Yes, there are always losers, but in bloodless realpolitik they don’t number enough to matter politically.

The Howard government’s goods and services tax was unusual in being taken to an election first (at which the Labor opposition won the national vote, though not a majority of seats), but in other ways provides an archetype of this process. Widely disliked and then grudgingly accepted, it became a large part of John Howard’s legacy and the most cited piece of evidence to support his status as a “conviction politician.”

(Did the GST lead to job losses? At the very least it caused a mini housing boom before its introduction, followed by a slump, and it would be Keatingesque to assert that only those who benefited from the first suffered in the second.)

The Abbott government’s horror first budget in 2014, its most contentious elements permanently blocked by the Senate and increasingly loathed, produced the worst of both worlds: months and months of scarifying headlines and — because they never became policy — no political pay-off. Those bits never made it past stage one.

But usually the first phase doesn’t last long, because voters are not asked to tick off potentially contentious policy. It arises mid-term and the changes are up and running before the next election. (The extreme case was the Hawke government’s totemic dollar float, which totally bypassed stage one. Before its sudden announcement one evening in 1983, it hadn’t gone to cabinet, let alone been discussed in public.)

So which stage has Australia reached in tackling climate change? Ten years ago we were at stage one, with an emissions trading scheme; seven years ago we got to stage two, with a (different) scheme in operation. Now we’re back at stage zero. And on this issue, since the 2019 election, the Labor opposition has been at its most risk-averse in living memory. An emissions trading scheme — like the Abbott government’s GP co-payment, or raising the GST — has become too hot to touch. Leader Anthony Albanese’s chief goal seems to be charming back the miners.

Our tardiness is partly driven by a problem we share with many countries. It’s the tragedy of the commons: nothing we do, in itself, will make a tangible difference. It’s true we produce only about 1.3 per cent of global emissions, and although that number triples if we take account of the emissions embedded in our exports it’s still small. On the other hand, if we’d been pulling our weight over the past decade then the current bushfire catastrophe, which is on high media rotation around the world, would present a platform for an Australian government to scold others into playing their part.

Coal plays an important part in our economy, vested interests have deep pockets, and News Corp is always on hand to endlessly (and increasingly tediously) sow the seeds of doubt. But with a big majority of the Australian population believing the science, the denialists and nit-pickers only matter to the extent that they influence Liberal and National movers and shakers. Sky News has a minuscule viewership in the wider electorate, but a very big one among Coalition MPs and the conservative movement.

Ever since the Coalition suddenly chose to oppose the Labor government’s emissions trading scheme in 2009, and Labor reacted with a series of blundering capitulations that vindicated the strategy, the politics have become increasingly grotesque. The Coalition’s denialist tendencies are encouraged by the belief that opposing real action reaps electoral rewards.

The big swings to the Coalition in coal-mining areas last May, mostly via One Nation and United Australia Party preferences and most spectacularly in Queensland, shook Labor to its core. But contrary to some revisionism, climate change policy was not the reason it lost the election, and nor was the Adani mine (Labor lost just two seats in Queensland). Yet the party’s response risks fetishing a tiny, generally well-paid section of the community, which doesn’t really make numerical sense electorally. Preoccupied with intangibles such as remaining true to some pre–twenty-first century idea of the “base,” the party is not in a healthy place. Factory workers in the 1980s and 1990s were not so lucky.

What it all means for policies on both sides is difficult to predict. Much depends on what action, if any, the bushfires spur from the Morrison government.

In that interview with Keating, O’Brien eventually prodded the former PM into a more nuanced defence of his economic policies. In fact, the workers “didn’t lose their jobs overnight,” Keating clarified, “this took a while. There was… thirteen years of change, gradual enough, predictable enough… funded with assistance packages” for transition and retirement. As would be needed for people employed in coal today.

Perhaps help is on the way from abroad for dithering Australia. Tariffs on our carbon-embedded exports might mitigate our freeloading incentives; more generally, tariffs on laggard countries could totally eliminate them. We’d then be in a position where unilateral action would be directly beneficial.

Bring on those external incentives. Even if our politics still prove too broken to respond rationally, we would at least be making a financial contribution to solving this global problem. •

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