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The ALP and the environment

By Richard Denniss - posted Thursday, 29 July 2010

ALP strategists are reportedly already distancing themselves from the Prime Minister’s “Citizens’ Assembly” and you can see why. It could be the single worst idea that has ever been floated by an elected government in a federal election. Not the most dangerous or wasteful idea, but the idea most likely to ensure ridicule, confusion and, most importantly, cost votes for no apparent purpose.

Which raises the question, what were they thinking? Presumably they thought that there is nothing that some on the progressive side love more than a nice long chat so why not announce a forum for one?

The simple fact is that the vast majority of the population support the need to take serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most people accept that they will have to pay a small price to do so, and only around 10 per cent of the public believe that we should wait until there is more evidence before we act.


What is missing from this debate is not consensus, but political will. Anyone can commission a poll and ask people whether they would prefer to pay lower taxes, but that is not a reason for cutting taxes and spending less on essential services.

The best way to understand the absurdity of the proposed “Citizens’ Assembly”, is to compare the approach to the way that other big decisions are made. Let’s start with defence. Australia is proposing to spend up to $40 billion on some new submarines to help protect us from a possible attack from an as yet unspecified enemy. Should we appoint 150 people to determine our military spending priorities?

Maybe we could get 150 people to get to the bottom of our tax system once and for all. Should millionaires pay more tax or less? Should we have tax concessions for income from capital gains or shouldn’t we? We could give them the thousands of pages of tax legislation, all the recent court cases and bunch of econometric analyses and let them come up with a tax system they think is fair.

It is possible to imagine all sorts of instances in which a “Citizens’ Assembly” could play an important role in public debate. When the issues are ones of values or priorities, and when the advice is sought early in the debate before the political parties are locked into their poll driven positions it might make good sense to conduct such a process. But not for climate change, and not at this stage in the debate.

The biggest irony, or is it hypocrisy, in the whole climate debate is listening to the big fossil fuel companies talk about the need for certainty. Certainty! Their whole business is built on risk. They spend billions searching for resources in unlikely places in the hope they might, quite literally, strike gold, or oil, or something else. They invest billions more in building mines and rigs that will only be profitable if the world price for the commodity they are extracting remains above their forecast.

We have more than an enough scientific data to conclude that it is in our interest to start significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions now. Precedent shows that our leaders don’t need certainty before they make big decisions. Australia participated in the invasion of Iraq because the available evidence suggested that they possessed weapons of mass destruction. I did not see too many conservative commentators wringing their hands after the fact and condemning President Bush and John Howard for acting too soon.


At a smaller scale, most people happily insure their cars each year even though there is only a small risk of having an accident. Paying a little to avoid catastrophic loss is usually seen as economically responsible. Indeed, it is the conservative course of action.

Yet when it comes to climate change we are told we shouldn’t rush in. That’s a bit rich given that we have been talking about acting for 20 years. And now we are being told we need consensus when neither party felt it needed consensus to introduce the GST, introduce Work Choices or revoke it.

Tackling climate change is not beyond our democratic processes, it is simply beyond our current elected representatives. Both major parties clearly think the electorate can be fooled or distracted by lightweight announcements and piecemeal policies so that they can get back to familiar territory: for the Liberals, demonising refugees and for Labor, demonising the Liberals on industrial relations.

But climate change won’t go away. And the campaign for a carbon tax has just begun.

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About the Author

Dr Richard Denniss is Executive Director of The Australia Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University.

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