In the last days of July, before his wings were clipped, Brendan Nelson was still in full didactic flight. “So far”, he said, “the argument about greenhouse has been fairly emotional … I think that is about to change”. Nelson was intent on bringing a familiar and predictable reason to the debate. It was best for Australia, he said:
… not to get too far out in front of the big guys of greenhouse gas emissions, such as India and China… As we look at the economic impact of an emissions trading scheme we need to have our economic eyes wide open. I’m not a climate change sceptic … But whatever happens has to be done in the national interest (The Australian July 28, 2008, emphasis added).
No one, on either side of politics was suggesting that climate change policy should break free of the two disciplines cleverly married and identified with such force by Nelson: commercial and national interests. He may well have made an idiot of himself in some ways but he was spot on here. His “economic eyes wide open” shone with an almost weird or, dare I say, fundamentalist intensity. Otherwise, there was nothing new or eccentric in this.
Indeed, it is a faith that all major political parties in the developed world share. These disciplines overshadowed the UN’s last climate change get together in Bali, undermining the possibility of meaningful international agreement and it will do the same in Copenhagen in the absence of a fundamental shift of some kind.
In short the dogged embrace of these forms of reason will see in the planet’s ruin (see Bali’s Roadmap to Nowhere).
Nelson’s argument was with his colleagues and the media fuss he created was not based on disagreement over these fundamentals. It was the usual cocktail of ambition and ineptitude than so often heralds a fall. He thought that everyone, Howard before him, Turnbull alongside him and Rudd on t’other side, were all insufficiently attentive to the disciplines and forms of reason he alone could protect and apply. They had or were still committing thoughtlessly to unconditional start-up dates for an Australian Emission Trading Scheme or ETS.
Eventually someone helped him to understand that he was mistaken; that an ETS not fitted with a calibrated drive mechanism (an emission reductions cap and path) meant nothing and was no breach of anything. Caps would not be set until the starter’s pistol was about to fire and would be finely tuned to make sure they were not a fraction of a per cent too high.
In the meantime, smart political players could, like Labor or as Turnbull wanted, look committed in the eyes of an increasingly anxious public. Even without Costello in the wings, Nelson will lose the leadership for forgetting that democratic politics is also about theatre.
The national interest
Despite that, his words warrant recognition. His turn of phrase (above) captures the myopic liberal orthodoxy with an almost frightening precision: “Economic eyes wide open, economic wide open …” This could be the secret password for the Adam Smith Society.
Of course his injunction contains a second appeal. If our eyes are to be directed by commercial discipline and self-interest, then our hearts belong to the jealous demands of the national interest: “Whatever happens must be done in the national interest.” “Whatever happens?” “Whatever?” Absolutely no exceptions? This is the tone and language of fundamentalist appeal.
Nelson elevates his interests to the level of general principles and positions them at the very apex of climate change policy discourse. There are no higher courts of appeal. If we are in doubt about how much of an effort to make or how urgently to act … we must, no exceptions countenanced, consult these oracles.
Some liberals might want to uncouple these interests - of the self and the nation - but it is at least worth noting that they share an important common liberal source: in the work of Thomas Hobbes, arguably the first and most influential of modern political philosophers. In the 16th century Hobbes proposed that the natural condition of humans was one of fierce competition and war, in his own words, “a warre of all against all”.
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