thomas m wilson

Politricks for Australia’s 2006

December 1st, 2006

In case you’ve forgotten, Australia became a nation in 1901. For the previous hundred or so years it had only been a bunch of individual British colonies. The capital of the nation is Canberra, an inland city in the south-east of the continent. This city was planned from the start and its construction dates back to just 1913. Australia’s most highly respected research university is there, the Australian National University, where I studied philosophy and English from 1997 to 1999. The current Parliament House was completed in 1988, and is a large structure, for the most part buried beneath a grassy hill in the middle of this city.

On warm evenings at the end of the 1990s, I and a friend of mine would often sit on top of this grassy hill. We walked to the top of the hill, almost directly on top of Parliament House. I liked the symbolism of tempering the arrogance of officialdom by sitting above them. Me and my friend were usually alone, apart from the odd security guy patrolling the area. The night was quiet and we looked down across the smooth sward on the lake below, and up to the southern cross in the night’s sky. At such moments I was glad to live in this country, and glad to be in Canberra with its big granite monuments to the nation’s history and democracy.

Let us look beneath the well-mown surface of this scene. Like each of Australia’s six states, the federal parliament has an upper house and a lower house. The lower house is called the House of Representatives. Australia votes every three years for the people here, and the party with the majority of people in the house governs the country. They make up the cabinet and the prime minister.

What follows is my personal ‘snap-shot’ impression of politics in Australia in 2006.
I’m not going to dignify the federal ministers by referring to them by name. History will not remember any of them in the way that it remembers figures like John F. Kennedy, so I don’t think you should bother to remember their names either.

In September the Minister for Environment said of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth in an interview on Radio National:

‘I did see it on one of my flights in the last couple of days. My most respected scientists concur with me that the science in vice-president Gore’s movie is sound and solid. It’s based on fact and the consequences of not addressing the problems that vice-president Gore has identified are very substantial.’

This guy is clearly onto something. So why doesn’t he do something effective? He is in government, so why not just go for broke and try governing?

The federal parliament uses a cabinet system where the Ministers have executive decision making power. However in reality over the past few years the Prime Minister, after successive election victories, has made Canberra politics into more of an unofficial presidential system, where he and a couple of his friends decide what goes, and then ring Ministers and say ‘do it’. The policy priority is to get economic growth going up, and to not worry about other stuff (like, say, personal well-being or nature). Let’s strip the message of these economic fundamentalists bear: ‘Life is a perpetual eat-buy, eat-die cycle.’ And hey, don’t even think about suggesting that fetishization of a rising dollar could lead to over-work and over-consumption. Don’t mention that it leads to stressed individuals and families, and to the destruction of nature.

So what of the ship all Australians are sailing aboard? What of nature? The current government says we need to be rich to look after the environment. The say it again and again. This philosophy has hit a big and glaring snag with the world’s biggest issue. You guessed it, the climate crisis.

‘We need to be wealthy to look after the environment.’

Translate this cornel of wisdom into reality and you get the following sentence:

We need to work really hard as a society, so that when we make ourselves sick we will have enough money to buy some medicine, to, hopefully, cure ourselves.

Sound dumb? You decide. That is the current government’s policy priority in a nutshell.

In October the Minister for Environment and Heritage put out a media released entitled ‘Australia on track for a sustainable future’. This looks hopeful I thought, turning to the media release. I then read that WWF released their Living Planet Report 2006, showing that Australia’s ecological footprint was 6.6 hectares in 2006. If all of the world’s people had such a footprint we would require more than three planet earths to have a sustainable future. I wondered if the Minister was privy to some late-breaking news from the exciting world of space exploration.

As well as being stupid, the current gang of federal ministers are ugly. All of them. If you don’t believe me, go to their departmental websites and look at their photographs. Would you trust any of these faces if you were stuck with them in a broken down lift? Without even mentioning the face of the current Minister for Health and Ageing, the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources is a case in point. As well as having a head which is an assault to God’s good earth, he boasts on the official government website that he played rugby while studying engineering at university, and was dubbed “chainsaw”. Even if this moniker was used affectionately, I’m not sure we want a man with all the finesse of a self-professed power-tool in charge of industry. But then the Minister for the Arts has a degree in Commerce. Why not continue the trend of putting aggressive materialists in positions of national importance?

But let’s stick to policies.

Humans now face the biggest challenge they have ever faced collectively: a global human-caused climate crisis. It is not the only thing needed, but government regulation will be a sine qua non in meeting this challenge. The federal government in Australia is currently made up of the Liberal Party. They don’t like the idea of government regulation of the economy, and prefer to stand around smiling benignly with their hands in their pockets while the rich get richer and the GDP goes up. Australia has woken up to the threat of the climate crisis and have started to look to the federal government to see what they are doing about it. The government has found a key phrase here and they think if they parrot it enough it will let them off the hook. It is: ‘low emission technologies’.

Since roughly September 2006, the climate crisis has featured more and more in the media releases of the Environment Minister. This Minister doesn’t want to put a carbon tax in place as that would curb economic growth (despite the fact that the recently released Stern report says that this is wrong, and that it is the only viable solution to bring the power of the market to do good). The Environment Minister is advocating technological developments as the way forward. He needs to perpetuate the illusion that he is doing something after all. Biodiversity conservation is a priority of this department, but again not when it impacts significantly on the economy. This is partly why issues like whaling get so many media releases from this department. Saving the whales doesn’t impact on the Australian economy, but it does captures the public’s easily courted ‘green’ imagination.

So the approach of the Environment Minister is to give out a fistful of dollars; a few million here and a few million there (remember for context that this year the federal government spent $220 billion). But do not accomplish actually the goal of curbing CO2 emissions by harnessing the power of the market and putting a carbon tax in place.What of the other Ministers?The federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry talks a lot about financial support for farmers including drought support, water recovery packages for the Murray, Landcare, and export markets for food. His department is promoting exporting food from Australia all over the world, with inevitable increase in the burning of fossil fuels. They are also giving money to farmers suffering drought until the drought is over, which may be unsustainable if the climate is causing the permanent drying of large parts of southern Australia.

The Minister for Trade promotes the export of primary products from Australia to countries such as Japan and China. He seems to think Australia should just be a big farm and a big quarry. The shipment of large quantities of primary products overseas is not sustainable due to massive fossil fuel use and the increasing cost of oil.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs makes no mention of tailoring immigration numbers to achieve sustainable population levels.  On this point let us remember that Derek Eamus at the University of Technology, Sydney, has shown that if we want to make our ecological footprint more like that of the global average, and maintain our current population size, then we will have to halve our energy usage.  If we want 40 million Aussies on this land, then we will have to consume one-quarter of the energy we currently use (per person).  The current government’s talk of an expanding population ensuring a growing economy sounds good on one level, but if you cannot see that this nation’s supplies of water, fossil fuels and agricultural soils are limited, then you really do have your head buried firmly in the sand.  Those who put their heads in the sand deserve to have their asses kicked.

But I digress.

From the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources we have heard some talk of the worth of sustainable development and the capture of carbon from power plants, but the main priority has been the export of gas and coal, and the giving of grants to innovators in industry. This department continues the current government’s policy of generally expecting industry to do the right thing by the environment on a voluntary basis, for example on energy efficiency they require that the largest 250 energy users make public their opportunities for energy efficiency gains. Ohhhh, what an iron fist from above Honourable Minister! Rather than a carbon-trading scheme or taking part in the global Kyoto Protocol, the Minister for Industry proposes putting millions of dollars into developing clean energy production methods. Through, for example, the $100 million investment in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Climate Change (AP6, or what one US senator called a gigantic PR ploy) they expect to see adequate progress on reducing Australia’s carbon emissions.

The Minister for Tourism expresses concern over the impacts of climate change on Australia’s ability to draw tourists, for example with the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. However it has never occurred to her to discuss the impacts of overseas tourists making long-haul flights to Australia on global climate heating.

The Treasurer makes no mention of sustainability (apart from economic sustainability of course) in this year’s media releases or his speeches. This is even after the Stern report was released showing that inaction on the climate crisis will result in a depression greater than 1929 and the two World Wars combined.

So that is my snapshot of federal politics in 2006.

But let’s not get too gloomy.

Australia is not Haiti. We do not leave our doorsteps each morning and step into a chaotic world of massive unemployment, a debased currency, endemic street violence and almost total deforestation.

You might argue that Homo sapiens evolved primarily as a hunting and gathering species, and that since the Neolithic revolution roughly ten thousand years ago we were always going to have a tough time organizing ourselves in societies of millions rather than around 150 people. Consequently, you might say that sure we’re not doing a great job with securing our long-term wellbeing on the earth, but we’re doing pretty well in Australia in organizing mass democracy, at least in as botched and unnatural a job as it will inevitably be.

And politics is always behind public opinion to some extent. While the wave of public opinion breaks, the low bass swell of movement from government follows a few leagues behind. That is dynamic is built into the nature of large unwieldy organizations.

But the wave is breaking. Concern about the environment in countries like Australian, Canada, the US and Britain reached a peak around 1990, and since then it has dipped and been comparatively low. Well guess what? At the end of 2006 concern for the environment is as high, if not higher, then in 1990.

At the start of last month a News Online poll has found 75 per cent of voters want the Government to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and 80 per cent think the big polluters should pay a tax on their emissions. 92 per cent, think the Government isn’t doing enough to encourage clean technologies. There are 16 million people of voting age in this country. Millions and millions and millions of Australians want our federal government to do their bit to fix the climate crisis. Look at my photos from a recent November blog entry of the Walk Against Warming to see just a few thousand of them.

And we can change. Look at Britain. Culturally not very different from Australia in many ways, they now take part in an EU emissions trading scheme and electricity suppliers are obliged to source an increasing amount of their energy from renewables. It seems like the whole of England has gone green sometimes when I read the news. The tabloid newspaper The Sun has made clear movements in that direction, as have the conservative party the Torys, not to mention the future King, Prince Charles.

Taking a turn for the greener is possible for Australia. If an election was called tomorrow, it is quite possible that the majority of 16 million dissatisfied voters would have a rather pleasing effect on the make-up of the inside of Canberra’s Capital Hill.

This morning I was went for a dip in the Indian Ocean, at Port Beach by my home town Fremantle. The sky was blue and a few stratus clouds lined the western horizon. The sun shone down through the crystal clear and very warm water around me. I floated there, with alternating rays of sun and shadows flickering on the sandy bottom of the sea below me. A Caspian Tern flew by to the west of me, with its graceful, crisply pointed white tail feathers outlined against the blue. In my final piece of good news for today, I can report that this little Tern couldn’t care less about any of us or our government.