I’ve been watching the Climate Change Forum currently underway in Canberra, part of the government’s Climate Change Commission. This coincides with the expected release of the Commission’s first report, The Critical Decade, on Monday.
There’s a panel of experts in everything from ecology to economics to geology and emergency management. In the audience are representatives from all areas of Australian life including agriculture, and small business.
Each question-and-answer session tackles a different aspect of the climate – the science itself, consequences of climate change if left untackled, ways to reduce emissions, and economic incentives to promote renewable energy – to name a few. The experts speak in clear language largely devoid of jargon and explain some of the more complex issues in clear and simple ways.
In this morning’s session the panel fielded questions from a farmer, an activist from an environmental campaigner, and – surprisingly – Shadow Communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull, who had apparently been sitting quietly in the back for quite some time. (His presence, in particular, lends an air of bipartisanship to the Commission – and creates a potential headache for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who has repeatedly refused to have anything to do with it.) Not everyone was happy with the answers they get, but significantly, no one was complaining that they didn’t understand or were being fobbed off, either.
It’s probably the single best strategy the government could employ. One of the strongest criticisms levelled at former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over his proposed carbon pricing scheme was that his cabinet were either unwilling or unable to explain any part of it in simple language. Now, Rudd has an enormous vocabulary, and he’s not afraid to wield it – but that’s exactly what didn’t work, and the Coalition capitalised on that.
It seems as though someone in the current government had that in mind when organising this forum. It’s less of an info-dump by experts, and more like an episode of the ABC’s QandA (minus the political spin that inevitably occurs when politicians appear on the latter show). Ordinary people and experts are trading questions, answers, suggestions, complaints. It’s extraordinarily informative.
So the question inevitably arises: why is this forum getting such limited transmission?
You can only see it if you’re able to access the high-definition ABC News Channel – or if you have cable television, you can watch Sky News. Mind you, it’s not on the main Sky channel. You need to go to their ‘multiview’ section, which provides a tiny picture and truly shocking sound quality via a camera microphone – not even a media split for the audio. And you can just bet that – at most – there’ll be a tiny sound grab on the news bulletins about it. Depressingly, the most likely piece of footage we’ll see is the farmer whose frustration at not gaining enough support for soil carbon initiatives boiled over until he was shouting into the microphone.
This forum is exactly what’s needed to ‘sell’ the government’s carbon pricing and climate change strategy. It answers the demand for information, not just from so-called ‘interested parties’ like steel manufacturers or agribusiness, but from Australian people in general. The science is explained clearly, suggestions are welcome, complaints are heard – nothing is obfuscated or blocked from discussion. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a rational, patient voice to answer fear-mongering and misinformation with facts.
It does what no amount of glossy advertising or tedious media conference speeches can do. And yet the majority of people won’t even know it’s happening, let alone be able to access it.
The government’s decision to keep this forum largely invisible makes no sense. It can only help the cause – and the presence a senior Coalition MP like Malcolm Turnbull participating constructively in the discussions lends even more legitimacy to the government’s whole strategy.
Perhaps the government decided no one would be interested – but then, isn’t the whole point to inform people so that they will support action on climate change?
Perhaps it thought that spending the money to buy more accessible television time was wasteful – but that’s hardly going to stand up after some of the government’s more lavish advertising campaigns.
Or perhaps – and I think this is most likely, and most dreadful – they simply didn’t think at all.
There’s a lot of talk in the media about how the Coalition’s near-constant criticism undermines the government and muddies the waters so that Gillard can’t get her message out – but really, the government don’t need any help from the Opposition.
They’re doing fine all by themselves.
They’ve squandered the opportunity to reach a significant percentage of the Australian population on a major policy area. In doing so, they’ve effectively ceded the advantage to Abbott. He’s out there nearly every day visiting businesses and telling them that the sky is falling and how their way of life will be destroyed by a carbon tax – and he’s not going to stop any time soon.
This would be bad enough, no matter what the proposed legislation. In the case of combating climate change, though, it’s potentially catastrophic. The government has a responsibility to inform Australians about all aspects of this issue. It’s not enough just to say, ‘The science is settled,’ and indulge in a bit of mud-slinging at the Opposition – people need to know the why and the how.
The Climate Forum, with its articulate experts capable of both formulating the plans and communicating the issues, was the perfect vehicle to answer those questions.
But instead of supporting the forum – of securing air time on a free-to-air analog channel, and playing it during the evening prime-time slot instead of after most people are either at work or otherwise occupied for the day – they relegated it to a limited, interested audience whose minds are likely already made up about climate change.
The government blew it. We can hope that somehow, the information presented at the forum will get out to where it’s needed – not mediated through the politicians, or the news, or pundits, or any one of a dozen lobby groups for and against action on climate change. That is something entirely out of their hands now.
It shouldn’t be. Some things are too important.