Tackling climate change is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest policy challenges facing the international policy community. Yet from 1997 until it lost office in 2007 (and in particular from 2002 onwards), the Howard government refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change, despite the fact that Australia’s accession would have been on quite favourable terms. As a result, valuable time was lost in constructing and testing a viable policy response.
The Rudd Government ratified the Protocol, to great acclaim, at the Bali conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in January 2008. But even as the Howard years slip further into the past, it is important to understand why such a vital issue remained off the government’s “to do” list for so long. There are lessons, both for those wanting to maintain the momentum established by the new government, and for those interested in understanding more about the nature of power in this country.
There are three possible lines of explanation for the government’s inaction on Kyoto:
- John Howard was simply a puppet of the CO2-polluting industries (this is the line put forward by Guy Pearse and by Clive Hamilton in their respective accounts of the period);
- John Howard simply did not “get it” when it came to climate change, and was able, using the power of his office, to keep the issue off the substantive policy agenda (this was essentially the line argued by Rudd as Opposition leader); or
- the reasons for non-ratification were as Howard put them and as he (presumably) believed them to be: there was little point in signing onto a deal that would create major costs for the Australian economy, and that did not include commitments from developing countries and the United States.
So, were Howard and his government captives of the major greenhouse-gas emitters in general and the fossil fuel industries in particular?
Guy Pearse in his book High and Dry records the formation and activities of a cross-industry alliance of lobbyists representing the coal, oil, cement, aluminium, mining and electricity industries. This alliance, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN), claimed (in interviews with Pearse) to have enjoyed unparalleled access to decision-makers, even to the point of playing a direct role in the drafting of cabinet submissions.
Clive Hamilton goes further, charging in Scorcher that the Australian government had “hoodwinked” the community into believing lies about climate change peddled by vested interests. Moreover, the government was determined to favour the fossil-fuel industries over the renewables sector. “In summary”, wrote Hamilton, “we have a government that has allowed policy to be determined, even written, by the large corporations that have the most to lose from change” (p15).
It is easy to infer that, if industry X wants a certain outcome and government produces a policy favourable to that industry, then industry pressure must have produced the result. The reality is a little more complex. We won’t know, until and unless John Howard chooses to tell us, exactly how his views on climate change developed. But to suggest that he was a “greenhouse captive” overlooks what we know of his character, personality and ways of working.
I would suggest that John Howard was his own man on climate change and that his attitudes (including his aversion to many environmentalists) structured the part played by industry, as much as the other way around.
Members of the AIGN certainly worked hard to influence the government. Had they not acted, it is possible (although in my view not likely) that the government would have ratified the Kyoto protocol. But lobbyists will always claim to be influential, even when (as seems likely in this case) they were pushing at an open door.
We know that the Howard government’s modus operandi across a number of fields was to exercise power through the granting of access to people whose views the Prime Minister shared. This access included membership of key task forces, the Prime Minister’s preferred mode of operating when he believed he needed to bypass more conventional bureaucratic channels.
This occurred, for example, in the remaking of the social welfare agenda from 1996 through until 2006. Closeness to the government was a badge of acceptance, rather than an indication of power. On this point, then, we have to say that the verdict is “not proven”.
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