Freedom of speech for some

April 6, 2014

First they came for the Racial Discrimination Act.

Wrapping himself in the banner of ‘free speech’, our Attorney-General, George Brandis, proclaimed the equivalent of ‘let bigots be bigots’. Our Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson (he of right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs fame), stood shoulder to shoulder with Brandis and condemned the current laws as ‘bizarre’. Wilson – whose appointment was supposed to deliver ‘balance’ to the Human Rights Commission – claimed that, as things stand, members of any given ethnic group could racially abuse each other without consequence, but if the abuse came from outside the group, it was illegal. Curtailing one person’s freedom of speech like that was just plain wrong.

The solution? Remove virtually all of Sections 18c, d and e of the Act, and replace it with incredibly narrow language. Instead of it being an offense to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’, the proposed changes would replace those words with ‘vilify’ and ‘intimidate’. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too terrible. But then we get to the definitions.

‘Vilify’ is defined as ‘to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons’. That sounds very strong, but there’s nothing in the act that might indicate exactly how that might manifest. It wouldn’t be enough, under the proposed changes, to show that you were insulted or humiliated – you would have to prove that something was said that actively caused others to hate you.

‘Intimidate’ has been changed even further. The proposed definition means ‘to cause fear of physical harm’. Not emotional or psychological fear. It wouldn’t be enough to be so terrified of constant verbal harassment that you no longer dared to go into certain places. It wouldn’t be enough that your mental health was affected. Unless you could show that you were going to be attacked, the Act wouldn’t apply.

To make matters worse, the proposed changes are bound about with a raft of exemptions that render them all but useless. The current Act provides exemptions for artistic, academic or scientific purposes, or reporting a matter of public interest – but what Brandis announced would protect almost every form of public discourse:

‘This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.

It’s hard to envisage any arena in which hate speech would not, therefore, be protected.

And what about that pesky ‘balance’ issue? Wilson’s claim that the current Act allows people of any given ethnic group to abuse each other doesn’t stand up under even the most cursory inspection. There’s no exemption on those grounds; anyone who contravenes the Act commits an offence. What Brandis proposes would do nothing to change that. In fact, it would simply become easier to entrench racism in public discussion.

But hey, it’s all in the name of freedom of speech, right? We can warm ourselves with that thought. Maybe we’ll upset a few people (but it’s not like they’re Aussies, not real Aussies), but we’ll be champions of the right to free expression. And it doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ – everyone has the right to their opinion. After all, we’re a ‘robust society’, we can handle a bit of public criticism, surely?

Oh, but wait.

Then they came for so-called ‘environmental boycotts’. You see, companies need ‘protection’ from those pesky greenie pinko lefty commos, who have this annoying habit of identifying products and practices that harm the environment. And then they have the audacity to suggest that people not buy from those companies, with the aim of pressuring them into changing the way they conduct themselves. It worked with Tasmanian timber company Ta Ann; they not only embraced green certification, but also now speak out in favour of co-operation with environmental groups. And currently, those groups are protected by the Consumer and Competition Act.

According to the government, however, this isn’t freedom of speech, though. This is what amounts to sabotage. How dare those greenies have anything to say about businesses?

The inconsistency is baffling. And it only gets worse.

Then they came for the public servants. Specifically, those who work in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Under new regulations, anyone who works for the PM & C would be gagged from making any form of political comment on social media. A specific case study concerned criticism of the Prime Minister, but the rules extend to comments on any MP or party, or their policies.

In other words, if you work for the government, you can’t talk about the government.

And don’t think you can get around it by anonymising yourself, either. If your mate in the next cubicle at PM & C knows your username on Twitter, he’s supposed to dob you in. That’s right, folks, the government actually encourages public servants to effectively conduct surveillance on each other.

It’s not just at work, on work computers. These regulations apply any time. anywhere. Whether you’re lying on the beach in Kuta, posting about how happy you are not to be back in Australia at the moment because you’re so upset at the government’s asylum seeker policies, or you’re at the pub and see a funny political gif showing Clive Palmer twerking that you want to RT on Twitter, you’re breaking the rules. Even if you happen to work for PM & C and write a ‘Mummy’ blog in your spare time, you don’t get to say anything about the government.

And if you happen to like writing book reviews about, say, Quarterly Essays, the latest offering from David Marr, Annabel Crabb, or the like, you definitely don’t get to speak. Maybe if you gave Battlelines a favourable review, you’d be okay, but I guess that would depend on your ability to sell out.

One wonders if standing in front of banners screaming, ‘DITCH THE WITCH!’ would count. And just how far criticism of non-government MPs would be punished. But surely not. This is about fairness, isn’t it? Certainly, Tim Wilson thinks so.

So let’s get this straight.

Freedom of speech for all – unless you’re an environmental activist group or a public servant. Then they’ll throw the book at you.

Protection from public criticism for all – unless you belong to an ethnic group and are being subjected to hate speech. Then you should just suck it up and learn not to be so thin-skinned.

Yeah. Sounds fair.

By now – seven months after the last election – the comment that the Abbott government has its priorities completely skewed is getting to be a tired old saw. Whether it’s paid maternity leave for rich women at the expense of the School Kid’s Bonus and welfare for orphans of war veterans; claiming ‘green’ credentials while moving heaven and earth to abolish organisations that encourage green energy development; or appointing astonishingly biased critics of the National Curriculum to ‘review it’ and ‘restore balance’, the government has shown itself to be riddled with hypocrisy. One suspects it’s even proud of that.

These proposed speech laws and regulations are just one symptom, but they are among the most dangerous. Freedom of speech is not absolute; we don’t have the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, about whoever we want. We can’t publish lies in the media – hello, Andrew Bolt. We can’t rouse a riot and endanger lives – remember Cronulla, anyone? We cannot falsely advertise. We must tell the truth in court. All of these restrictions serve to aid social cohesion. At the same time, we can speak out if we have knowledge of wrongdoing. We can bring reasonable criticism to bear on our government.

Arguably, this last freedom is the most important. A government that attempts to make itself exempt from criticism, that punishes its citizens for speaking about its own policies and actions, edges close to the very dangerous territory of fascism. And that’s not something anyone should simply dismiss as completely impossible.

Gosh, it’s lucky I don’t work for the government. I would have lost my job before the end of the first paragraph.


Passion and conviction – the Greens campaign launch

August 1, 2010

It wasn’t a slick, professional event. The lighting was bad, the sound quality patchy, the speeches unpolished and the video montage decidedly amateurish. It looked like something thrown together in a university Media Studies class.

But it had some things we haven’t seen in the campaign so far.

Passion. Conviction. And vision.

Forget about the dodgy cardboard lectern. Forget about the embarrassing acoustic rendition of ‘Great Southern Land’ by a visibly nervous Warren H. Williams. Forget that Bob Brown stumbled over a speech that was in dire need of a proofreader, and that Christine Milne appeared to have resurrected a twinset and pearls from the 1950s. All of these things are matters of style, window-dressing at best. I’m sure there will be any number of commentators making the point that it shows the great divide between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ parties (although I suspect what it mainly shows is the great divide between the financial resources of the parties).

Focus, instead, on what was actually said.

Right out of the blocks, Bob Brown moved to quell suspicions that the Greens would not negotiate if they held the balance of power in the Senate. He listed the stimulus packages, noting that the Greens had negotiated for changes to protect jobs and to boost infrastructure in schools before voting to pass the packages. Almost as an aside, he noted that the Coalition had opposed them.

That said, Brown was quick to criticise both the ALP and the Coalition, drawing the distinction between their ‘bickering, the shortsightedness, the leadership spills and the failure of vision’ with his own party. The Greens, he said, have demonstrated stability and look to the future. He managed to both praise and damn the government in talking about the proposed mining tax. Rudd’s government had a great idea to get money to the nation, Gillard was bullied by the Big Three mining companies, and Abbott rejected the idea out of hand. Any way you look at it, he said, the result was a loss of money for schools and health.

In what I am sure will be a well-quoted sound bite, he said of the government, ‘If you say you’re moving forward, you have to know where you’re going’.

Having dispensed with both the ALP and Coalition, Brown gave us details of the Greens’ policies. It should be noted that none of these were accompanied by costings announcements. At the same time, these were only a handful of a comprehensive policy package you can find on the website.

On health, Brown proposed a national dental scheme, ‘Denticare’, and an end to junk food advertising (see here for a perspective on this policy). He also suggested the formation of a task force to look at how technology now available to us could be used to assist older Australians in maintaining independent living as long as possible.

In terms of our political system, Brown announced that the Greens would seek a referendum on an Australian republic, an anti-corruption commission and lobby for above-the-line voting in the Senate. He also proposed to end a minister’s power of veto over legislation passed in the Northern and Australian Capital Territories.

Environmentally, national recycling laws, marine reserves and an absolute ban on any nuclear waste dumps were on the agenda, along with a pledge to protect native forests.

Brown interrupted the policy roll-out here to talk about why the Greens voted down the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He claimed that the scheme would ‘give $22 billion to polluters over ten years, and fail to reduce emissions’. Australia does, however, need a carbon tax, in order to fund development of renewable energy – ‘let’s tax the polluters,’ he said.

By far the most popular announcements were on asylum seekers, high speed rail and same-sex marriage. Asylum seekers should be treated ‘decently’, sent home if not genuine but otherwise settled in Australia and give our wholehearted support. High-speed rail between cities was long overdue – there’s been a network in Japan since the 1960s, but Australia’s major parties had voted the Greens proposal down. ‘We won’t let that go,’ Brown stated.

Calling for an end to marriage discrimination, Brown displayed real anger. ‘If South Africa … Argentina … Catholic Spain can get rid of that discrimination, why can’t you, Julia Gillard? Why can’t you, Tony Abbott?’

There were also calls for a full parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, flexible work hours for carers of all kinds, and freedom for Tibet.

Summing up, Brown said, ‘The coalition offers deadlock or dominance. Neither are good for democracy. We Greens offer a responsible review of every proposal put before the people of this country’. Australians had a choice: ‘vote for the last century with the big parties … or vote for us Greens, and bring this country into the 21st century’.

Without costings, it’s impossible to analyse the financial implications of the Greens’ policies. It also makes the Greens a target for the major parties, who can claim that anything proposed is fiscally irresponsible. (That’s a line that’s been working for the Coalition, certainly. If Labor is ‘incompetent with the economy’, the Greens are ‘dangerous extremists’.) The other problem with analysing policy from a campaign launch is that it’s necessarily light on detail.

There’s nothing in the announced policy positions that leaps out as immediately objectionable. Dental care is sure to be derided as financially unachievable (by the Coalition, at least), but it would be difficult for either party to portray dental care as undesirable. High speed rail is likely to be very popular, going by questions submitted to the ABC’s Q&A program, lobbying in Community Cabinets and various opinion pieces in regional media. It is also a point on which both major parties are weak.

Announcements about freedom for Tibet are unlikely to play well with much of the electorate, who tend to consider that local issues are far more important than the fate of a country that is neither a trading partner nor a military ally. It is a cause celebre for the Greens, however; they have been speaking out against the Chinese invasion for many, many years, and the party faithful may well expect to hear it again in this election – as a matter of principle, if nothing else. Similarly, the call for a debate on Afghanistan may well provoke criticism. Australia’s presence in that war has become an article of faith for the major parties. Unlike the invasion of Iraq, the public at large have accepted that we are justified in being there.

The real sticking points will be the mining tax, carbon tax and same-sex marriage. The Coalition is flatly opposed to all three, and will continue to use the Greens’ position (and their preference deals) to bolster a scare-campaign against voting Labor. The ALP has committed to a carbon tax ‘eventually’, and has brokered a deal on the mining tax. That deal, however, is one that the Greens do not accept, and Brown warned that they would be lobbying for a higher rate to be levied against the mining companies. This may hang up the mining tax in Senate negotiations, assuming the Greens do win the balance of power.

Finally, on the issue of same-sex marriage, the major parties are in lockstep. Both have absolutely ruled out any possibility of drafting legislation to remove or amend the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act (1961). The Greens have tried to introduce legislation before – most recently Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in February this year. You can read about how the major parties treated the proposal here. The Greens have virtually no chance of accomplishing this reform. It was important, however, for them to make the point – they are the only party likely to be represented in Parliament that supports removing all forms of discrimination based on a person’s sexuality.

All in all, it was a great relief to hear that much conviction stated without apology and without reserve. The Greens know many of their positions will be controversial, if not downright rejected. Knowing that, they stated them anyway.

The age of the conviction politician is not dead; they’ve all just moved away from the major parties. And that is a real tragedy for Australian politics, and the Australian people.

A final word: While both Sky News and ABC News24 promised to carry the launch live, only Sky covered the entire program. ABC News24 gave us a slick video montage of Tony Abbott while Lin Hatfield-Dodds and Warren H. Williams were making the introductory remarks, and only crossed to the Canberra Convention Centre for the ‘major speeches’. Once Bob Brown had apparently finished speaking, they cut back to the studio – leaving Sky to be the only channel covering his final remarks, and introduction of the Greens’ candidates and sitting Senators. If you didn’t have cable TV or the ability to stream Sky’s feed, you had no chance of seeing the entire event.

Had that launch been for the ALP or Coalition, I have no doubt that at least one free-to-air network would have carried the entire program without interruption. And since the Greens are likely to become major players in the new Australian government, I can only wonder at ABC News 24’s decision to relegate them to second place behind recycled Coalition campaign footage.

It’s something that the ABC might want to think about for the rest of the campaign, perhaps. People are interested in what the so-called minor parties are saying and doing – and surely it is the place of our national broadcaster to bring that information to us??


ALP climate change policy 2/2

July 26, 2010

My take on the debate-that-wasn’t coming soon … in the meantime, here’s part 2 of my analysis of the ALP’s climate change policy.

Right now, the ALP may well be wishing they had never announced yesterday that they would set up citizen assemblies to investigate the idea of a carbon tax. The proposal has been roundly condemned from all sides of politics. Malcolm Farr, this morning on Insiders, made the most charitable comment (which happily coincided with my own conclusions) – that it’s a way for Labor to make us feel that they’re listening to our opinions. The condescension implied in such a stance is enough to put most people’s teeeth on edge.

Gillard might have been hoping that the announcements which followed over the last 24 hours would push the story out of the news cycle. Unfortunately, the issue just isn’t going away.

Although it is an idea that deserves strong criticism, it is also eclipsing the rest of the policy – and the proposals released since yesterday morning should really come in for scrutiny. With that in mind, we’ll get stuck into part 2 of analysing the ALP’s climate change policy.

Most of what follows is expected to be funded from what was originally set aside for the now-delayed (perhaps permanently) Emissions Trading Scheme, with other funds already committed and re-directed.

All new power stations will be required to meet best practice standards on their emissions. These standards are actually below the levels set in the ETS. Under that scheme a baseline of 0.86 tonnes of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced was proposed – new power stations will have to come in well under this figure. In particular, proposed coal-fired power stations will have to demonstrate that they are ready to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Alongside this, Gillard has said that existing power-stations, including coal-fired ones, will be required to assess their potential to conserve energy, and to make those assessments public.

A real problem presents itself here. CCS (which is most commonly defined as capturing CO2 before or after the fuel used to generate power is burned, then pumping the gas back into the ground) is a largely unproven technology. There are a handful of industrial scale projects in operation around the world, and none in Australia. Concerns with leakage due to seismic shifting or problems with the pipes carrying the gas have not yet been sufficiently addressed, but would almost certainly require in-depth geological surveys to be completed on any proposed sites. Finally, the increased costs in operating a CCS facility in conjunction with a power plant that would be transferred to the consumer, and the extra fuel required (up to 30% more than current levels) could well render the idea a futile exercise.

In Australia, CCS is not a viable prospect, either technologically or financially. There are currently three operating pilot projects, with five more proposed. The earliest any industrial scale project is expected to be operational is 2020. The ALP’s proposal, then, may well have the effect of preventing any new coal-fired power stations from being built.

There are currently twelve stations which have been approved, and the restrictions will not be applied to those. Perhaps those twelve stations would be able to supply our energy needs until CCS becomes viable for industry. If there is a shortfall, ideally renewable energy production would fill the gap. In a worse-case scenario, however, we might well be looking at energy shortages and inflated prices.

The question, then, turns to just what Labor proposes to do to boost renewable energy production. Gillard has reaffirmed a 2020 target of 20% of Australia’s energy to be supplied by renewables, with a grab bag of funding to encourage this.

The solar flagships project, which has $1.5 billion allocated to it, is expected to award funding to two successful project applications in 2011. Schools will be able to receive up to $50,000 (or $100,000 for multi-campus schools) to install solar or other renewable systems. Finally, a further $100 million will be set aside in a Renewable Energy Venture Capital Fund, to encourage other projects.

In order to utilise renewable energy generation, Labor will invest $1 billion in connecting these new projects to the existing electricity grid. (This would include, for example, current solar projects in Queensland, wind and wave in Western Australia, and geothermal across the country.) Existing electricity market rules will be applied, but if an otherwise viable project does not meet those rules, funding will still be available to implement connection.

On a smaller scale, from July 1, 2011, any business that improves the energy efficiency rating of their existing buildings to 4 stars or higher can claim a 50% tax deduction. This scheme will run until the end of the 2015 financial year. There will also be an extra $30 million for the Green Building Fund. The total cost will be $180 million, rising to around $1 billion by 2018-19. Initial funding has already been provided.

Car owners whose vehicle was manufactured before January 1, 1995, will be able to trade in their car at a dealership for a car which meets current emissions standards and receive a $2000 rebate. The old car will be scrapped and recycled. This scheme is capped at 200,000 vehicles, about 10% of old, emissions-intensive vehicles currently on the road. Just as an example, saving one gallon (just under four litres) per 100 miles (62.5 kilometres), saves 20 pounds (over 40 kilograms) of CO2 – which adds up to approximately one tonne per 10,000 miles (6250 kilometres) of driving.

This is being widely reported as a ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme similar to that introduced in the US to boost manufacturing during the global financial crisis. The American program attracted so much interest that its funding needed to be more than doubled, and some owners upgraded to new cars that were at least as energy-inefficient as their old ones. Labor’s program avoids the latter problem by setting minimum efficiency standards for the new purchases, but $2000 is a very small amount. For example, a new Hyundai Getz (which would be eligible under the scheme) costs, on average, $13,000, making a $2000 cash-back payment seem rather insignificant. The program is not only open to new cars, however, making it attractive to people who may be nursing an old car because they cannot afford a better used car – students and older people, particularly.

It’s not known whether this rebate would be given in addition to any trade-in offered by a dealer, although it appears likely. Finally, at this point there are no mechanisms in place to prevent dealers increasing their prices by $2000, leaving buyers back where they started. In itself, however, the program has much to recommend it. It is a small measure, but one that provides a quick remedy to an ongoing problem.

Funds will be redirected from three existing programs to support the rebate – from solar flagships, carbon capture and storage, and the Renewable Energy Benefit. Gillard stated that the government would still meet its solar and CCS targets; there had been a less-than-expected uptake of funds, so money is available to re-direct without causing a shortfall in the projects.

Lastly, a Labor government would, from 2011, begin legislating new mandatory fuel efficiency standards for future new cars. This would be done in consultation with industry, and take effect in 2015. The lead time would allow manufacturers to re-gear their production so that they could meet the new standards.

Summed up, the ALP’s climate change policy amounts to a collection of relatively small programs, new mandatory standards and one Great Big New Avoidance of the issue of carbon tax. Connecting renewables to the grid has, perhaps, the most potential in terms of boosting uptake of renewable energy projects. Historically, connecting to the grid has been done in a piecemeal fashion – and, in the case of geothermal power, sometimes not possible at all. If the Labor proposal is properly administered, it could see more projects, and more people opting to choose renewable power for their needs.

The citizens’ assembly albatross, however, is going to hang around Labor’s neck for some time to come, I’m afraid.


ALP climate change policy 1/2

July 24, 2010

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.


Flashback – the 2007 leader’s debate

July 22, 2010

Back during the 2007 Federal campaign, I decided to write a running commentary on the single leaders’ debate between John Howard and Kevin Rudd. It was an … interesting experience, and so I’ll be repeating that performance here on Sunday, July 25. Notes will be made in real-time, and the final piece published just after the first pundits’ decisions come in.

But first … step into the wayback machine with me for a while, and relive 2007 – the Rise of the Worm.

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2007 Leaders’ Debate – the Rise of the Worm

The stage is set. The Great Hall in Parliament House, Sky News’ political editor David Speers, five journalists, a split audience apparently picked 50/50 by both Liberal and Labor representatives … two would-be leaders of the country …

And …

Ladies and gentlemen – we have a worm!

Yes, folks, the plucky lad has managed to wriggle his way into the debate, despite a firm ‘NO’ from John Howard and several rounds of tut-tutting from the National Press Club. Responding to the twirling fingers of 50 voters (described by Channel Nine as ‘swinging’), Our Hero has defied PresidentialPrime Ministerial wrath and made an appearance.

(For them as doesn’t know, the worm provides a visual representation of approval/disapproval in a selected audience watching the debate, measured by turning a dial and displayed on the TV screen.)

Yes, I watched the Channel Nine feed. And I’m glad I did.

It was widely trumpeted last week that John Howard hates the worm. Last night, it became clear that the worm hated Howard. Both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the worm’s verdict – Kevin Rudd was the clear victor, coming in with 65% of the vote, compared with Howard’s 29% (a drop from his Latham debate score of 36%). Tony Abbot was quick to pooh-pooh the result, saying that the worm was rigged to display only audience preconceptions, rather than a true reflection of Mr Howard’s performance.

But is that true? Let’s have a look.

Right from the beginning, Rudd came across as more comfortable, forthright and respectful. Howard looked grumpy – in fact, more than a little put out by something. Howard’s opening statement ran overtime and necessitated two warnings, but he seemed determined to get in every last word.

Running overtime became a recurring phenomenon for Howard. While Rudd went over time once, in a response to a question regarding the leadership of the Liberal Party (‘isn’t a vote for the coalition really a vote for the unknown’). Mr. Howard, on the other hand, ran over seven times, and o two occasions was verbally warned by the moderator not to do it again. Each time, he subsided with obviously bad grace.

Mr Howard made direct, personal attacks at Mr Rudd on several occasions, describing him as ‘dishonest’, ‘pathetic’, ‘hypocritical’, and an ‘appeaser’. Mr Rudd indulged only in one such attack – but it was a doozy.

The first round of questions came from the journalists.

Asked how he would manage the economy, Howard immediately went on the offensive, citing the Dread Spectre of Imminent 17% Interest Rates and making pronouncements of doom should a Labor government be elected.

Asked why we should change governments in the midst of an economic boom, Rudd pointed out that booms inevitably end no matter who is in power and suggested the real emphasis was on managing life afterwards. Howard attacked Rudd again, attempted to educate the public as to the ‘truth’ about fiscal conservatism, and brought up Peter Costello’s record as Treasurer.

Apparently, the worm hates Costello. Every time Costello’s name was mentioned by Howard, the worm dipped – in one case, ‘all the way to Antarctica’, as Tony Wright from The Age put it .

Curiously, an attack on Mr Howard’s record as Federal Treasurer was well received. Mr Rudd’s approval climbed to near the top of the chart for his entire speech, despite the fact that he pulled a fast one with the numbers.

On the vexatious issue of union representation (or over-representation) in the ALP, Mr Rudd fronted up to it – then got cheeky by suggesting the high number of lawyers in the Liberal front bench was similarly unbalanced. He followed it up with the recent James Hardie case, in which union representatives accomplished a good deal in terms of compensation for asbestosis sufferers among Hardie employers, and the approval jumped up. Not even Howard’s ‘scary unions’ riff managed to get much of a rise.

It was particularly interesting to see Rudd cop to the ‘70% of your front bench are union’ charge. Rather than downplaying or denying it, Rudd chose to make it a badge of honour. It seemed to work – a slight dip in approval came when asked how much the ALP owes the unions, but the reverent mention of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke (himself a former President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions) cancelled it out.

The issue of tax relief played reasonably well for Howard – he riffed on it several times throughout the night, to a fairly good effect. Rudd’s contention that tax relief did not address what he called ‘real costs’ in terms of day-to-day living was much more popular, though.

Interest rates have been a big bug-a-boo in this campaign (which only feels like it’s lasted several months already, honest). Last night, it seems that ennui had finally set in with the audience and the commentators. There were minor responses to Howard’s warnings and invocation of the ghost of Paul Keating, but for the most part, it looked like it was no longer an effective Coalition weapon.

When asked to apologise for recent interest rates, Howard said he would only apologise for things which he considered himself accountable. This, at least, is consistent with his stance on indigenous reconciliation.

Industrial Relations – which has played well for Kevin Rudd so far – surprisingly didn’t make much of an appearance in the debate. Rudd’s opening statement contained the unequivocal promise to ‘abolish WorkChoices’, but after that, it was Howard who brought it up several times as an example of successful policy. The worm, apparently, wasn’t listening to that – but it was listening when Howard was asked how he could guarantee no further changes to WorkChoices, given his own front bench had been supporting the idea. Howard’s reassurances that he felt there was nothing more that needed to be done for industrial relations reform were unconvincing, especially after Laurie Oakes (who did a splendid job as devil’s advocate for the night) pointed out he’d said something similar last election – and then ‘lo and behold’, WorkChoices appeared.

The one big stoush of the night came over OECD figures that showed Australia’s woeful record for education spending compared to similar countries. We are, in fact, the only such nation to have cut education spending, in a period when other developed nations rose by up to 48%. Rudd pounced on these, only to be slapped around by Howard – who, it has to be said, appeared petulant in his insistence that Mr Rudd was dishonest, had misrepresented the figures and was ‘pathetic’. Rudd’s response was to smile at the audience and say he’d stand by the OECD report.

Climate change was an area where Howard chose to make a policy announcement – the establishment of a ‘climate change fund’ which would run on the revenue from carbon trading permits, and financial assistance to low income earners who would ‘inevitably’ bear the brunt of ‘inevitable’ higher electricity charges. As policies go, it was pretty well-received. His refusal to ratify Kyoto or go any further than to say ‘we all accept that mankind has made a contribution to global warming’ but ‘must be sensible’ got a lukewarm reception, though.

Rudd didn’t fare much better on climate change. Although the promise to ratify Kyoto was popular, his repeated dodging of specific early targets on emission reduction clearly irritated the worm, and gave him his lowest ratings of the night. It’s a clear weakness for a man who describes himself as ‘passionate’ about addressing issues of global warming.

A supplementary question to Mr Howard asked if he felt it was possible to change President George W. Bush’s mind on climate change. (Let’s leave aside the apparent idiocy of asking this about a President on his way out for a moment). Howard asserted that Bush’s attitude was changing – and the worm expressed its most immediate response of the night. Straight to the bottom. The US President’s unpopularity at home seems to be mirrored here.

Iraq was a particularly telling issue. Asked whether he felt the threat to Australia from terrorism had increased or decreased since our invasion of Iraq, Howard made another policy announcement – this time, that our troops in Iraq would ‘evolve’ to take on a training-based role for Iraqi forces. Pushed on the question, he said things were getting better. Pushed again, he gave ground just far enough to confirm that terrorism was ‘still a real threat’. His failure to answer that question played very badly with the audience.

Rudd gave a firm commitment to bring home the troops, and (in the grab of the night) described the invasion of Iraq as ‘the greatest single error of Australian national security policy-making since Vietnam’. The worm loved him for it – as, no doubt, did the media for that sound-bite.

In follow-up questions, Howard went on the attack again, described Rudd as not serious about the commitment to withdraw from Iraq and calling him hypocritical. During this response he was warned for time twice.

Rudd suffered when trying to defend his record as a bit of a flip-flopper on issues like Commonwealth land for housing and the Medicare Safety Net. His firm statements on working to end capital punishment on a global scale, however, played well.

On the thorny issue of reconciliation, Howard got some approval for his Northern Territory intervention, but repeated that he would never say sorry. It was interesting to note that, for the most part, the worm was fairly content with this. Rudd, pushed on why he’d agreed to the NT intervention, responded ‘we backed it because of the kids’, and followed up with emphasising the value of an apology for bridge-building. This was warmly received by the worm.

The second round of questions were from the leaders to each other. The only real moment of note here was Howard’s continual refusal to answer the question of whether an employee, under WorkChoices, can be stripped of his right to redundancy payments.

By contrast, Howard’s attempt to poke Rudd about his commitment to climate change came off looking like something from the schoolyard. Why didn’t Mr Rudd talk longer to Bush (who he described as the ‘most powerful man’ in the world) about it, if he’s so all fired up, accused Howard. Rudd’s response – that Bush wasn’t about to change his mind – was clearly unexpected by Howard, and there was evident chagrin on his face.

Closing statements were pretty much a recap, and the worm’s responses stayed consistent.

In the entire debate, Rudd dipped just below the midline on only two occasions. Howard spent much of the debate there. At the top end, Rudd hit the peak – and went off the top of the chart – on several occasions. Howard almost got to the top once, but only for a few seconds.

Now, there’s a lot of talk about whether the worm is a true reflection of what happened. To read and listen to the commentators, however, the worm spake true this time. Sky News’ post-game show handed the debate to Rudd without even seeing the worm, and today’s media has been largely unequivocal in following that trend. It’s worth pointing out that, despite the poor showing Howard makes in these debates, he keeps getting elected. Rudd’s team, no doubt, devoutly hopes that is going to change.

Finally, an interesting little note about the worm in action last night. Howard had insisted that the worm not make an appearance in this ‘one and only’ debate – he won’t agree to any more, and he didn’t want the worm anywhere near it. The ABC was happy with that. So was Sky. Channel Nine took a feed from the ABC via the National Press Club, and used the worm with its studio audience. According to Channel Nine, they never agreed to do otherwise.

It appears someone at the National Press Club had other ideas. When it was discovered that the worm was in residence, the ABC made a decision to cut Channel Nine’s feed. An ABC technician with a sense of fair play warned Channel Nine, who went to their back-up feed when it happened. The back-up feed was then cut. Channel Nine scrambled around, and – through the use of a cable box not unlike the ones that sit on top of the TV at home – picked up Sky’s feed, and the worm moved house.

Mr Howard denies authorising any such move, and says no one in his party would have done it. Kevin Rudd wanted the worm – even to the extent of getting a petition going on the Kevin ’07 website to ‘Save the Worm’. Everyone is pointing the finger at the National Press Club, who are angrily saying that Channel Nine were ‘told’ not to use the worm.

Ray Martin summed up my feelings on the matter last night, in his wrap-up : ‘So much for free speech’.

My verdict? It was no contest. Rudd may have won the debate, but the Worm Conquered All.


Climate change policy – the Coalition

July 19, 2010

Climate change was a hot-button issue in the 2007 election. Rudd’s promise, subsequently fulfilled, to sign the Kyoto Protocol was extremely popular with voters. The shelving of Labor’s promised Emissions Trading Scheme in April this year, by contrast, provoked outrage and a sense of betrayal, and may have been one of the major factors in his eventually losing the leadership.

It’s not an easy issue to get your head around. Most of us can accept that the planet is warming, with potentially disastrous results. Most of us accept that human activity is directly responsible for much of this problem. It’s when the jargon comes into it – emissions trading, carbon sequestration, abatements, etc. – that we end up lost. In analysing the policies of the major parties and the Greens, I hope to de-mystify some of that.

The Liberal/National Party Coalition has boasted that, going into this election, it is the ‘only one with a credible policy’ tackling climate change. It released its Direct Action Plan in early February this year, and there has been only one statement updating the policy since.

So let’s take a look at this policy. The document itself can be found here on the Liberal Party’s website.

The first striking thing about this plan is how much space is given over to criticism of the Labor government. Three pages are dedicated to ripping apart Labor’s now-postponed (perhaps indefinitely) Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – its so-called ‘Great Big New Tax’. The tone is unmistakable – you’ve heard it every time a Liberal politician gets in front of a microphone, and I won’t bother repeating the accusations here. This attack tendency is repeated throughout the rest of the document; even as the Coalition is setting out its own achievements on environmental action, it tries to put the boot into Labor.

Much of the Coalition’s stance depends on opposition to the CPRS. Now that this policy has been all but abandoned by Labor, there is little sting left left in much of its rhetoric. This, of course, may change when Labor reveals its own climate change policy.

Tony Abbott, in an interview with David Speers of Sky News yesterday, categorically ruled out any form of carbon tax, or price on carbon. He also said he ‘doubted’ that countries like India and China would sign up to any kind of carbon price in the forseeable future. Apparently, he was unaware that India already levies a tax on coal.

The Coalition’s climate change policy hinges on an Emission Reductions Fund. Described as a fund to support incentives from business and industry to help Australia meet its 2020 emission reduction target of 5%, it effectively functions as a body for issuing grants. The Fund will be $300m in 2011-12, increasing to $1.2b by 2014-15, and is projected to reduce our emissions by 140 million tonnes per year. According to the Coalition, this fund can be in place by 2011.

The Coalition says it will use the National Greenhouse Emissions and Reporting Scheme to set a baseline of ‘business as usual emissions’ for those industries which are covered by it. Whether this is a uniform baseline, or worked out on a case-by-case basis is not specific in the policy. Businesses who exceed this baseline will be penalised, with the penalties to be set ‘in consultation with industry’. Those who substantially reduce their emissions will be able to sell ‘abatements’ back to the government. What price will be set on these abatements, and what will be done with those sold back to the government is not spelled out in the policy. In effect, they will be rewarded for making their businesses greener. Smaller businesses, and those not covered by the NGERS, will be able to opt-in to the scheme.

Those who keep to the baseline will be neither penalised nor rewarded.

The onus is squarely on business and industry to reduce their emissions. At its base, it is a ‘free market solution’ – the idea is that if it becomes financially worthwhile to do so, business will change its operating parameters. In other words, any given business will end up crunching numbers to determine if the money they get from selling their abatements is better than what they will get from continuing to operate at their current levels of emission. Given that for many businesses, reducing emissions could involve considerable expenditure, there is little incentive for them to try to get under the baseline. Furthermore, this policy allows for no incentive for business to grow. Unless abatements can then be bought from the government, businesses may find themselves in a situation where they cannot grow – and if there is any idea of future availability of abatements, this becomes an Emissions Trading Scheme.

The Emissions Reduction Fund is modelled on an old Howard government initiative called GGAP, in which business was given taxpayer-funded grants to reduce emissions. Unlike the old fund, which was under ministerial control, Abbott’s would be administered by experts (who will be determined by consultation with business, environmental groups and the community).

The bulk of the 140 million tonnes (85 million) is projected to arise from soil carbon replenishment, starting with an offer to purchase 10 million tonnes by 2012-13. Put simply, soil carbon refers to the amount of carbon dioxide that is trapped in the soil, and replenishment refers to ways of increasing the amount of CO2 that can be stored.

As with all elements of the ERF, there will be a call for tenders from farms with strategies to replenish their soil carbon. This may involve anything from tree planting to crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers such as biosolids (a polite euphemism for sewage). The price for these ‘soil abatements’ is set at approximately $10 per tonne. Farms that do not attempt to increase their soil carbon will receive nothing, but equally, will not be required to change their farming practices.

There are several issues with soil carbon replenishment. Some of these are set out in a Scoping Paper issued by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry in 2008. One of the single most important points is just how much we don’t know about the process. Different soils and different climates absorb different amounts of carbon, and this is further affected by what is actually done with the land. There are only surveys for a very small part of Australia. Complicating this issue even further is the variability of Austraila’s climate. We don’t have any way of measuring from year to year how the levels fluctuate. The cost of a comprehensive survey of the country, and of working out the year-to-year levels could be prohibitive. Finally, some techniques used to improve soil carbon uptake can actually increase other greenhouse gases, particularly methane.

The Coalition’s policy does not take any of this into account. It is written with the assumption that these issues are already resolved. That they are not means that the majority of its emission reduction may not be able to take place at all. Even if they do address these problems, the potential expense would cause a huge blow out in the cost.

The policy goes on to state that ERF could also support forestry management, use of waste coal mine gas, green buildings, energy efficiency, better use of landfill, recycling, composting, and alternative fuels. Again, this is predicated upon private enterprise coming up with an idea and approaching the government for money.

Apart from the ERF, the Coalition has a list of projects that it will fund. It has allocated $60m for ‘clean energy hubs’ in the Latrobe Valley, the Hunter region and Central Queensland. There are no details on what is actually meant by this, but there is a note that it will be determined after consultation with local businesses and communities.

$100m per year is set aside for 1 million solar homes by 2020, in the form of an extra $1000 rebate for solar energy/hotwater. This will be capped at a maximum of 100,000 rebates per year.

125 ‘mid-scale’ solar projects in schools and communities will be funded. Through competitive tenders, assessed on which provided the greatest CO2 savings, grants of a maximum of $2m will be given to ‘suitable towns’, to a maximum of 25 grants. 100 projects, capped at a maximum of $500,000 each, will be allocated to schools.

$50 million will be allocated for grants to non-capital cities and towns to undertake pilot, micro and demonstration geothermal or tidal projects, to a maximum of $2m each.

Money will be withheld from the Renewable Energy Target fund for ‘big’ projects. This includes $2m for a study into the feasibility of using underground high voltage DC cables, which would free up land currently taken up by overhead powerlines and reduce lost voltage. $5m is slated for a study into the feasibility of algal synthesis to capture CO2 and production of biofuels.

There will also be support for the planting of 20 million trees in public spaces. At the time of the policy release, a study was underway to identify suitable areas. This proposal is tied to the ‘Green Army’ initiative announced by Abbott in January this year, which suggests that a suitably qualified workforce could be deployed to target areas in environmental crisis (such as sand dune loss and noxious weed infestation). At that time, Abbott invited suggestions from organisations with experience in such things to suggest how this might be done, but as of now the Green Army remains an idea that was floated, but not fleshed out.

The entire policy is expected to cost $3.2b over four years, and will be funded through ‘normal budget processes’.

Boiled down, the majority of the Coalition’s policy expects business, industry, communities and individuals to take the initiative on tackling climate change. Rather than regulate emissions from the top down, it assumes that providing a financial incentive will result in self-regulation from the bottom up. It is very close to classic Conservative policy – the government functions as a bank and gets out of the way of the actual running of business.

Unfortunately, the proposals as set out do not make emissions reductions attractive – either in terms of future profit, or of avoiding penalties. What they rely on, ultimately, is goodwill. If businesses choose to put prioritise profit over the environment, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent them.

Added to that the problems with the soil carbon replenishment idea, and you have potentially zero emissions reduction by 2020.


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