Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Australian Prime Minister just does not get it!

The last two weeks have been fascinating here in Oz - a combination of circus and hallelujah! For the first time since coming into office the coalition government has been forced on to the back foot, politically, in relation to its stance on climate change. A number of factors have triggered this shift:

The first is the drought here in Oz and the underlying data about climate patterns and shifts. There are also significant, and distressing, social impacts. Drought, and underlying climate change, begin to be taken seriously by the coalition when it affects economic performance, particularly economic growth rate and the balance of payments.

The second has been the release of the Stern Report, and the resultant criticism, both explicit and implicit, for Australia's stance. The Uk Chancellor, Gordon Brown is to be commended on commissioning the report and attempting to raise the level of awareness, debate (I hope) and, hopefully, action.

The third is that the coalition is suffering in the polls - Australians are by an overwhelming majority dissatisfied with government performance in relation to climate change. Of course all three factors are interrelated.

Fortunately the government, either through clever design, or sheer good luck, has had some projects to announce as evidence of action. Some of these are welcome - others misguided.

Despite the circus (with its light as well as serious moments) what seems apparent to me is that the PM (and his government) just do not get it! (Or as my daughter reminds me, choose not to get it!). What is it that they do not get?

1. Their decision to reject Kyoto was not simply failure to sign a document, as the PM would have us believe, but a rejection of Australia's role as a responsible nation in an era when a new committment to internationalism is urgent. This is a point made lucidly by Irene Khan. Kyoto is flawed - everyone knew that, but it was a first step in what needs to be an on-going process. The stance taken by Australia and the USA has undermined the social and political capital for generating 'Kyoto 2' (as the PM is describing it!). The stance has also weakened Australia's position in international affairs, compounded of course by the government's Iraq policy (on this point see a recent survey of citizens of different countries which shows that most people see the US and George Bush as the biggest threat to international security - and how American's feel about themselves is changing).

2. The arguments as to why Kyoto was not signed appear increasingly specious. As the Stern Report makes clear the situation concerning climate change is a case of massive market failure. I wonder if this message is being taken on board in Canberra and other bastions of neo-classical economic ideology?

3. The stance in Australia can only be put down to one factor - political intervention on behalf of the coal industry (see my earlier posting). 'Clean coal' is both an oxymoron and a dangerous metaphor! Contrast the Australian stance with that of Sweden.

4. Whilst the government has launched a series of projects to address climate change what is singularly lacking is a systemically feasible overall policy. Despite recent denials there is still a policy vaccuum. It remains to be seen as to whether the PM (and the 'dirt digger' states of WA and Queensland) will accept the idea that the next COAG meeting of state and federal governments should be devoted to climate change.

5. Not only is there no coherent overall policy for climate change, the same applies to rural development. Handouts during droughts achieve very little in the long-term. What seems to be lacking is a national strategy for rural development in which all States and Commonweath are working together to effect more sustainable livelihoods for rural Australians. This involves mutifunctionality (as the Europeans describe it) as well as strategies to enhance the relationship between urban and rural Australians. This must also involve biodiversity conservation, management of ecosystem services, national strategies re feral pests and weeds and the provision of adequate services to make living in rural Australia a viable proposition in today's social and cultural context.

6. Finally there is a faith in technology and the overall technology mix that is questionable. New technology requires a conducive institutional environment. The investment in the large solar energy project is welcome. But what about wind? On my recent travels I had dinner with someone who had purchased second-hand wind turbines in the Netherlands and shipped them back to Australia with a view to setting them up in the NSW Hunter Valley. So far he has met only obfuscation and delay in trying to get his scheme going. In the German state of Schleswig-Holstein wind is already capable of providing one-third of energy needs whilst occupying less than 1% of the land area. Also, why are technologies like 'rock heating' missing from the mix?

The States are not above attention. With an election campaign in Victoria and one next year in NSW it is to be hoped that whoever is elected can, as a matter of priority, form their new governments around a whole of government approach to sustainable development.