One for the true disbelievers

Pretty clearly, the big winners for Labor in this election, and the big losers for the government, were WorkChoices and climate change.

But WorkChoices or something like it was a forced move for the government once they got control of the Senate. Hatred of unions is (as the Libs pointed out in reverse about Labor) in the DNA of the Liberal party. A government which did nothing when it had the power would have suffered the same historical obloquy as Fraser’s.

By contrast, there was no need at all for the government to embrace climate change delusionism. The Liberal party was, arguably, ahead of Labor on this issue in the early 1990s. And while large parts of the business sector were inclined to delusionism, large sectors were not. A government that took the lead on this issue could have carried business with it. The push was driven by the conservative chatterati, most prominently on the opinion pages of the Australian, and reflected anti-environmentalist attitudes largely imported from the US Republican party.

While Workchoices made sure that the “Howard battlers” went back to Labor, climate change delusionism ensured that there was no offsetting gain within the core Liberal constituency.

Those who pushed delusionism in the opinion pages, the thinktanks, on the airwaves and in the blogosphere made a huge contribution to the downfall of the Howard government and, quite probably, the destruction of the Liberal Party. And Australia’s ratification of Kyoto may well have more impact now than if we’d signed up back in 2001.

24 thoughts on “One for the true disbelievers

  1. It’s interesting that the doctors’ wives seats (Ryan, Higgins, Goldstein, Kooyong, North Sydney) did not swing much to Labor Party at all, contrary to expectations.

    I think what happened here is that the Liberals’ union scare campaign successfully got to these voters. While they are all nice and socially liberal, and utterly disapproved of the treatment of Dr Haneef etc, what really scares these people is boofy thuggy union officials. So the Liberal anti-union advertising managed to hold down the swing in seats they were never going to lose anyway, Ryan possibly excepted.

    What WorkChoices did was deliver back to the Labor Party to the socially conservative lower middle classes who had abandoned it for the John Howard in 1996. It is a dilemma for all mainstream left of centre parties that the lower middle classes from time to time are prepared to abandon their economic interests and vote for the Tories because social issues become dominant. What Howard did was slap them in the face with WorkChoices, so they came back to Laboe in droves (Longman, Dawson etc), at the same time that Rudd appealed to their social conservatism. And at the same time, Rudd succesffully appealed to the middle classes on climate change and education.

    The result: a once in a generation Labor landslide where it managed to get the lower middle class vote and a large slab of the middle class vote. For the first time ever, the left of centre primary vote (Labor + Greens) exceeded 50%. It was a huge achievement.

  2. John, you said:

    “A government that took the lead on this issue could have carried business with it.”

    I’m reading “Scorcher” by Clive Hamilton at the moment and the key message I take from it was that it was in fact business that carried the government on this issue. Without doubt, this is why they got in the mess they did, when in the end, they had lost total sight of the science and had stopped listening in any way to voices of reason from the scientific community and from other nations.

    I thoroughly recommend the book to you and others.

  3. It all points to the fact that sometime during the last term or two, the Howard Government took its finger off the pulse of the electorate. You would have to be blind Freddy not to notice the groundswell of public interest and concern over climate change during the last few years in particular.

  4. Prof. Quiggin: “A government that took the lead on this issue [climate change] could have carried business with it. The push was driven by the conservative chatterati, most prominently on the opinion pages of the Australian, and reflected anti-environmentalist attitudes largely imported from the US Republican party”.

    Wrong, I’m afraid. There was never any chance that the big miners would embrace any kind of carbon-emissions policy. Look at the elaborate lengths the Shergold report (as I called it in my comment on this post) went to in order to create loopholes for them. The State Govts. carbon trading proposal is just as bad.

    The Howard Govt. was driven first into denialism then into mining exceptionalism by its very significant supporters, the mining industry. The “chatterati” were camp-followers.

    And Mullo got in first!

  5. The Howard Govt. was driven first into denialism then into mining exceptionalism by its very significant supporters, the mining industry. The “chatterati� were camp-followers.

    The Government or the John Howard faction in the Cabinet? I know that they could well be the same thing, but I for one would like to know who said what in those early 1998 Cabinet meetings.

    It would be fascinating to read the Cabinet briefing papers and the minutes of Cabinet discussions after Robert Hill returned from Kyoto with in December 1997 with a seemingly terrific outcome for Australia of 108% of 1990 levels.

    I really can’t see any compelling reasons (modulo genuine national security grounds) for all Cabinet documents not to be immediately released when there is a change of government. In fact I’d go further: on the proroguing of the Parliament by the Governor General, all documents pertaining to the now-ended Parliament should be released immediately subsequent to the swearing in of the new government.

    The 30 year rule runs contrary to transparency, the most important and effective mechanism for an informed electorate and accountable government. Pleading secrecy to ensure “free and frank advice” is just an excuse for public servants and politicians to escape timely accountability for their behaviour and actions.

  6. John B., I heard on radio some time ago that JWH had cabinet minutes kept to a bare minimum. If so, it is unlikely there will be anything new in them.

  7. I agree with your analysis JQ and believe rudd’s response should not wait for Garnaut in June 08. If those opposed to Australia’s signing of Kyoto in the business sector are well known then a little early targeting on a C tax is in order. This should see the end of the aluminium can, for which there are lower energy substitutes, within 18 months. Other ‘returnable’ containers should be quick to follow being back in vogue. Some sort of energy audit of all business with or without a C tax instituted should be under way as we speak.

  8. Pablo: Do you have any evidence that a carbon tax would reduce emissions, considering that petrol has increased by 35% without any noticable reduction in consumption.

  9. Chrisl. Your comparison is a bit unfair as there is a fair degree of inelasticity of demand with petrol. If it were to go to $5/lit it might be possible to say something. My argument is to a degree symbolic in that Rudd should be alerting all industry to the need for some emissions rigour and a C tax, even of an interim order, would be providing some inducement. I guess I shouldn’t be punishing the lobby that made JWH so intransigent on climate change but jesus if Howard can just walk away from it, then someone has to cop my anger.

  10. Oh Symbolism. I’m not sure if I like that word.
    If a 400% tax on petrol might enable you to say something,how much might electricity need to be taxed? How can these types of taxes be introduced without them being inflationary?

  11. “The Liberal party was, arguably, ahead of Labor on this issue in the early 1990s.”

    The odious Michael Costa is a denialist, on the grounds that any proposition with awkward implications for his coal-mining constituents must be untrue.

  12. Okay let’s avoid an inflationary tax where possible. But my point is that climate change calls for such a degree of reassessment by all sectors particularly as Rudd will ratify Kyoto and some radical reductions in CO2 will be necessary. From a political perspective it is probably the equivalent of Whitlam reducing tariffs 25%(?) overnight that I believe Rudd will have to contemplate.
    On Costa, my guess is that even in his coal mining constituency, the blokes who dig the stuff are probably ahead of him, based on doing HTV on Saturday.

  13. There were common themes for Workchoices and Climate Change denial. They were both positions that big business agreed with. There was no leadership on either issue as the Liberals had the opinion that they would just pay for more advertising and people would believe them. In return they expected huge donations to flow in.

    The Liberals in effect became so confident that their opinion would prevail that they couldn’t believe that voters’ opinions wouldn’t shift. Howard and his team as late as Saturday evening were still arguing that way.

    Good judgement escaped them as they took hardline positions to suit their various backers. They just lost count of how many enemies they made along the way – relying instead on the economy as everyone knew that “It’s the economy, stupid” thanks to Bill Clinton. However this is Australia and we have always been that little bit different to everyone else.

  14. Click to access mr02may207.pdf

    Let’s start with some basic information.

    Australian anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are around 560 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

    The long-term target for emission reductions needs to be around 80% or circa 450 million tonnes. (That’s without allowing for underlying growth – our total emissions only grew by 2% between 1990 and 2005 but that’s because emissions from land-clearing fell which offset large increases from all other sectors. That’s a one-off benefit which we won’t get again.)

    A business-as-usual scenario probably involves growth of 2% or so per year. To reach our target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels (i.e. to no more than 110 million tonnes per annum) will require an annual reduction by 2020 of around 700-750 million tonnes.

    As a signatory to Kyoto Australia will have the option of either reducing our own emissions or paying for emission reductions elsewhere. Global warming is, well, global. A tonne of emissions in Bangladesh, Manitoba or Queensland all have the same impact.

    Paying other people to reduce emissions is no different in principle than,say, paying a charity to feed the homeless rather than starting your own soup kitchen.

    Australia should only act to reduce our emissions where it is cheaper to do so than to buy credits. For one thing, we can achieve a greater reduction for a given level of spending that way.

    There will almost definitely be some ill-considered and overpriced emission reduction projects but the cost of that 80% reduction NEED NOT be more than the international market cost for 600-700 million tonnes of reduction credits.

    Current prices are erratic but currently the European Climate Exchange shows the longer term contracts trading at around 25 euros per tonne (roughly A$40).

    So by the year 2020 we’re talking about a maximum annual cost of $28 billion. That’s assuming advances in clean coal, geosequestration. biofuels, energy efficiency and renewable energy don’t significantly reduce the cost of emission reductions. It also omits any other benefits from reducing emissions, such as better air quality.

    So the task for policymakers is two-fold – reduce that cost as much as possible and pay for it in the most economically efficient way.

  15. Let’s look at one specific reduction strategy – replacing coal power with wind.

    Click to access ElecCostSUM.pdf

    The IEA puts the total cost, including capital and running costs, of coal-fired power plants at between
    US$25 and $50 per megawatt hour. The equivalent cost for wind, allowing for the downtime due to intermittency, is between US$35 and US$95 per megawatt hour.

    In other words, there’s a big overlap between wind and coal in terms of price and the MAXIMUM difference between the two is around US$70 per MWH- which compares the cheapest coal power with the most expensive wind power.

    So the maximum cost of displacing coal with wind would be around $70 per megawatt hour. (Equivalent to 7 cents per kilowatt hour.)

    Australia generates around 240 billion kilowatt hours of power per year. 90% of it (circa. 215 billion kilowatt hours) comes from fossil fuel sources.

    Replacing all that fossil-sourced power with wind would cost around $15 billion per year.

    To repeat – that includes both operating costs and capital costs and takes into account the low utilisation rate of wind energy.

    The question now becomes who pays and how.

  16. It’s certainly true that delusionism was popular with *some* big businesses. But John’s point is correct – there are enough hard heads in the big end of town that opposition to a decent climate change strategy would have been very muted outside of the coal miners. John’s right that, unlike Workchoices, this was an *unforced* political error (as well, of course, as a grevious and egregious policy error).

  17. Why do you refer to global warming as climate change? It’s a corruption by George Bush.

  18. It’s not a Bushism. The IPCC was established in 1992, and while Bush snr might have had something to do with it, the term is standard. After all, it encompasses sea-level rise, changes in rainfall patterns and so on as well as warming

    What distinguished GWB is not the use of “climate change” but a politically correct insistence on avoiding “global warming” at all times.

  19. It’s certainly true that delusionism was popular with *some* big businesses.

    I think the use of the “*some*” qualifier is being very generous to the BCA and big business. How about *nearly all* or “*the overwhelming majority*”? Can anyone recall out any business “hard heads” who publicly objected?

    Look at the stated position of The Business Council of Australia (denialism and special pleading) up until very recently, and cast your mind back to the position of the BCA under Hugh Morgan. It wasn’t just the coal industry who had John Howard’s ear, it was all the extractive and low-grade processing (eg smelting) industry players. John Howard accepted that their narrow sectional interests represented the national interest and tailored policy accordingly. Although I doubt he needed much convincing.

    (And to be fair to John Howard, the use of the collective pronoun rather than the singular is applicable. I didn’t notice anyone resign from Cabinet based on disagreements over climate change policy. In fact, when was the last time an Australian Cabinet minister resigned over a matter of policy principle?)

  20. Morgan was an extreme delusionist, and the fact that he was head of the organization distorted the picture. But, as far back as 2003, the BCA found itself unable to reach an agreed position despite the pressure from the government to oppose Kyoto. I restate that, if the government had given the lead, Morgan and others could have been marginalised.

  21. I guess that comes down to be tied to the Murdoch News empire. The day Rupert Murdoch came out and said he believed in global warming and that we should do something about it was the day it all ended for the climate delusionist. Its amazing how much power that man has. If he’d made that statement a couple of years earlier things might have been completely different for the co-alition.

    Maybe the next time we face a serious worldwide issue we should ignore the public and just get Al Gore to give Rupert Murdoch a slide show. Once you’d convinced Rupert you’d have half the world’s newspapers blasting the message loud and clear the next day. Would save alot of time and effort.

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