Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where are the Policies?

I've been too busy writing for the old media to post stories for a while: I'm attempting to catch up quickly now.

This op-ed appeared yesterday in the Canberra Times. It bemoans the absence of real political debate in the 2010 election campaign . . .


If you listen to campaign rhetoric, you'll quickly find out that this election supposedly offers voters a dramatic choice of two, radically different alternatives. If you pay attention to the policies, you quickly become somewhat more sceptical.

As the campaign has dragged lethargically through its first tiresome week, it's been difficult to resist drawing analogies to a battle of attrition. Both sides have committed all their forces to an intense fight over fractional differences over particular aspects of the terrain: issues like climate-change and asylum-seekers. Yet in reality this is nothing more than a static war of position, where every assault on the other side's strong point is inevitably smashed to pieces before receding to its own trench-line, where it prepares to destroy the inevitable counter-attack.

At the same time other areas of government policy are left exposed and open. Both sides are apparently content to restrict the debate to the small locales where they feel they can develop an advantage. Neither side appears interested in attempting to commit itself enormous swathes of government responsibilities are covered by nothing more than glib slogans. This terrain has been left abandoned by the forces of both sides -- to the serious detriment of public policy.

The focus has become so intense that even in areas of significant difference -- like climate change -- the debate is restricted to catch-phrases that might work in focus-groups but are completely inadequate in the real world.

It seems only fair, at this point, to scrutinise Labor's position most harshly. This is, after all, the party that insists it believes in climate change -- just not, apparently, until after the next election. The sooner Julia Gillard abandons the pathetic suggestion that some sort of ‘citizens assembly’ should be able to develop the country's policy to react to this issue the better. It represents a complete abrogation of responsibility and is indicative of a government driven more by public relations than a concern for the environment. The overwhelming and conclusive body of scientific opinion is that the globe is warming. Any group of people plucked off the street are unlikely to be able to either spot the flaws in the professors’ reasoning or come up with their own ideas with how to deal with the issues. This flawed idea should be laughed out of the public arena: it is nothing more than a political fix that justifies scepticism about whether Labor genuinely believes in climate change or not.

Tony Abbott's policy, mobilising a ‘green army’ some 15,000 strong, is the equivalent of sending the Light Brigade in a magnificent charge for the enemy guns. The image of youthful volunteers planting trees is wonderful (and perhaps they could come and weed my garden while they're at it) and empowering, but it gets us nowhere. But far more dangerously, it puts us behind the western world's consensus that developed countries must take action to put a price on carbon. This has already been done in Europe, and the certainty this has provided is already fostering new development and providing opportunities for innovative companies. Any party that is genuinely believes in a free-market, laissez-faire economy should be acting quickly to allow dynamic, innovative entrepreneurs to take advantage of this. Instead we have an opposition that appears tired to the conservative business models of the past and unable to cope with the rapidly changing future to seize opportunities, rather than defeat.

And this leads us back to the real criticism of the current election campaign: neither party is offering electors a genuine vision for the future. Both appear consumed by the danger of suggesting anything remotely resembling something ‘new’, because of the political risks that accompany getting out-in-front of the slow-moving body of public opinion. Politics is meant to be about leadership, and yet this substance is so sadly lacking in today's political battlefield.

Even on an issue like climate change, the options that are being presented to the public by our politicians are so uninspiring it's difficult to see how either side can motivate its supporters to wander down to the school halls to hand out how-to-vote cards. The weather here has been quite reasonable lately, and so it's understandable that the threat posed by drought has vanished from the forefront of political argument. The situation is quite different in the Northern Hemisphere.

In Russia hundreds of drownings have been attributed to a heatwave that's sent temperatures soaring. Doctors are also asserting that the deaths of thousands of elderly people has been hastened by the blanket of dry air enveloping the country. Scientists are concerned even worse is to come: the heat appears to be melting the Siberian tundra, releasing methane that has been buried for hundreds of thousands of years into the atmosphere.
By the time it is possible to conclusively prove a link between the sort of weather events and human induced climate change, it will be too late. Nevertheless, it's equally easy to be highly sceptical about the ability of the nations of the world to come in to any sort of global agreement that might reduce greenhouse emissions. The only logical alternative is for governments to act to ensure that -- regardless of the weather -- Australia can continue to retain its viability as an agricultural producer and place to live. Neither party is, currently, providing us with this necessary guarantee for the future.

Three ideas that could have provided water security for the country have already been proposed and dismissed. The first was to fill Lake Eyre with seawater, based on the assumption that evaporation would then produce rain which would assist the fertility of the inland. The second was to turn the rivers that flow into the sea around, so that they might finally assist the Murray-Darling to again reach the sea. The third suggestion was to utilise the rich fertile land of the North for more intensive farming activities. It may very well be that these ideas merely provide the illusion of an answer to our problems, but there are certainly no better suggestions coming from any politicians at the moment.


  1. The following comment was made in an e-mail after this article appeared:

    "Hi Nick

    I agree wholeheartedly with most of your article this morning in the Canberra Times regarding the wishy-washiness of both Labor and Coalition policies. I would call both parties pathetic. Gillard's proposal for a citizen's committee to cogitate on climate change is not just pathetic and unworkable, but is highly cynical as well. Better to promise nothing in this zone. Gillard's team must really take the public to be morons.

    The main reason I'm writing this email to you is regards to your suggestions of the three grand water plans. I am a water scientist and have worked on the Ord and Daly Rivers in the north and I can assure you that even though there is plenty of rain in the summer this does not necessarily mean this region is a prime agricultural opportunity. The soils are generally poor as most of the nutrients have been leached out of them. The north is characterised by rivers that flow like mad during the summer monsoon and don't flow at all during the rest of the year. So, storages would need to be constructed and this would not be all that easy as the land is generally flat. And then there are the insects which do quite well in the tropics. The Ord Irrigation Area is set to expand, but it has not been an unqualified success.

    With regards to the Lake Eyre suggestion there are two major problems. The first is getting the water into the basin. Pumping may be an option, but not particularly desirable as it would require lots of energy. Secondly, if one were able to get a flow of sea water into the lake, the water would evaporate leaving the salt behind. The lake would become saltier and saltier, until the salt would start to precipitate. Of course we turn this into a tourist attraction - a lake that is saltier than the Dead Sea.

    I'm not at all against grand visions and all ideas need to be considered. We should open up our minds to new ideas as we will need them. The point is that something that looks attractive may not be feasible or may be environmentally detrimental. The cane toad is one example.

    I enjoy reading your articles."

  2. This is another e-mail I recieved after the ietm appeared in the Canberra Times. Again, I haven't posted the details of the sender for privacy reasons.

    'Dear Nic

    Read your opinion piece in the CT today and one can only agree with the staggering lack of leadership shown on climate change by both major parties.

    Received this from Australia 21 this week - maybe you can pick up in a future piece before the election.

    With respect to the issue of a "new narrative around climate change" it's clear to me that we are now in emergency country, yet the major parties seem almost ho-hum in terms of urgency. NASA's James Hansen reckons the next five to ten years is critical. And David Spratt and Philip Sutton in the book "Climate Code Red" put the case for the climate emergency in terms of the science, and also with repect to implementation. Their comparison of the normal political-paralysis mode vis-a-vis an emergency mode suggests a much more urgent and focused agenda for the necessary transformation. (page 224 of the book gives a useful table summary)

    Hope you might be able to use the Australia 21 stuff somehow, and also the Climate Code Red ideas on implementation.