Watching or listening to Julia Gillard’s first press conference at the University of Queensland this morning, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the ALP’s climate change policy began and ended with a twelve-month community kaffeeklatsch.
Apparently, that’s all part of the strategy. Rather than make a single announcement with details in media releases, the ALP is slowly doling out the policy in measured doses over several days. There are several reasons why they might be doing this. Multiple announcements can create the impression that an issue is a very high priority for Labor. New measures at every press conferences ensures more media exposure, which could hurt the Coalition (since not everyone watches ABC News 24 or Sky). It also gives them the chance to push any unpopular announcements off the news cycle by bringing in new content.
So yesterday, Julia Gillard made the first of several announcements, launching Labor’s climate change policy. The cornerstone was expected to be a carbon tax, or ‘price on carbon’. (In a nutshell, this is a way of encouraging industry and business to use cleaner standards of production by levying a fee against every tonne of carbon they produce over a ‘baseline’ amount. It’s usually accompanied by financial incentives to ‘green’ the business. The idea is that free market principles – notably, the idea of making bigger profits – will guide industry towards doing the clean thing.)
There was no such announcement. Instead, Gillard told us after the failure of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, that Australia needed to ‘rebuild consensus’. To this end, an independent climate change commission would be established, made up of respected scientists, economists and other experts. The task of this commission would be to convey the science and economics of climate change to the Australian people, to ensure they understand the issue thoroughly.
She also announced the formation of a ‘citizens’ assembly’ – 150 ‘ordinary’ people, drawn randomly from the electoral roll, who would spend 12 months examining the case for putting a price on carbon and the possible consequences of doing so. At the end of this time the assembly would make a recommendation to the government. If that recommendation was not wholeheartedly positive, Gillard said, it would indicate that ‘more needs to be done’ – presumably to build the consensus she is seeking.
These initiatives are projected to cost $9 million, paid for out of the Renewable Energy Future Fund.
It’s easy to see the rationale for establishing the commission. There is still considerable confusion about what exactly is going on with our climate. The science seems at times to be written in some strange alien language, people play fast and loose with the figures, and accurate reporting gets lost in scare-mongering rhetoric – from both sides. Having a commission that would just lay it out for us is long overdue. Of course, the obvious objection is that the panel will be ‘stacked’, but frankly, I think that would be said no matter who was appointed. There is a great deal that a commission can do to explain the situation to us without giving us a party line at the same time.
If the commission does its work well, it could go a long way towards informing and encouraging people to make changes to their lives that will help address climate change. It won’t just be a matter of letting someone change all the light bulbs in the house because it’s free, or complying with water restrictions because there are fines involved. I believe people are more likely to support something they understand, and they will be able to make informed choices as to what appliances they buy, how they regulate their electricity consumption, exactly what the hell ‘green energy’ even means on the electricity bill, and any one of a dozen other measures that have nothing to do with government policy.
But what, exactly, is the point of this citizens’ assembly?
It has no possibility of having a helpful effect, such as the commission could. Its job is, as stated, to report to government. It has no power, nor even any real influence. At best, it would recommend going ahead (‘moving forward’, perhaps) with a carbon tax. At worst, it would be completely ineffectual. Should they hand down a verdict of ‘we don’t like it’, Gillard has indicated she would simply press on with the issue. Just what that would involve, she did not say. Would she press on with a carbon tax anyway? Convene another citizens’ assembly? Or perhaps abandon the carbon tax idea altogether?
The citizens’ assembly appears to be completely useless, in practical terms. So what is really going on here?
I think there’s a clue in Gillard’s speech. ‘We ‘will not allow our country to be held to ransom by a few ppl with extreme views that will never be changed’, she said – but she does want to see a process with a ‘representative range’ of all views. Sound familiar?
On July 6 Gillard addressed the Lowy Institute on the issue of asylum seekers. At that time, she spoke of defusing the fear-based rhetoric that surrounds the issue, taking pains to point out the statistics showing how small the problem really was in Australia, and saying that nothing was helped by those who were ‘overstating’ the issue. Right on the heels of that, however, she gave tacit support to those very people by saying that she understood their ‘very real’ concerns, and that they should not be subject to labels like ‘redneck’ and ‘racist’. There was a very clear attempt to capture both sides of the argument.
I suspect the same thing is happening here. This citizens’ assembly is supposed to be made up of people who are chosen randomly. The obvious reason for this is to prevent any arguments claiming that she has ‘stacked’ the panel. These 150 people will be given a tremendous amount of access to paperwork, science and (presumably) experts. It almost looks like a citizens’ version of a Senate enquiry – and if you’ve ever watched one of those in action, you’ll know how broad its terms of reference can be. It’s not known whether the citizens’ assembly would have the same power to compel answers and documents, or even demand people to front up to be quizzed, though.
When you start factoring in all that access, and the idea of a so-called ‘representative sample’, and you can start to see a strategy at work. This is another attempt to encompass both sides of the issue. This is designed to make people feel heard.
Is that a bad thing, in itself? I’d have to say not. Anything that allows people to have a louder voice cannot be entirely pointless. Ah, but we have one of those in our elected representatives, right? I’d have to say no. How many times have people said, ‘They’re supposed to be speaking for us, why aren’t they?’ The complaint that our politicians ignore what we want is an old one, and not without foundation.
Is it a real strategy for addressing the problem of climate change, though? Of course not. It’s merely a very expensive way of stroking the collective ego of the Australian people. Ultimately, it has no practical purpose.
The citizen’s assembly and commission are not, however, the extent of the ALP policy. Quite a bit more has been announced over the last two days. I’ll be taking a look at that in my next post.