The insults hurled by David Leyonhjelm at Sarah Hanson-Young recently put parliamentary discourse in the gutter. Leyonhjelm was roundly condemned, but not by our leaders. A limp rap across the knuckles from Turnbull and Shorten, then on to more pressing matters, hoping it will all go away.
But not so fast; in governance parlance “the fish rots from the head”. Our leaders need to acknowledge the amoral, unethical parliamentary morass they have created, and its implications.
Australian society today is not a pretty sight. Despite the hype around Australian “values”, years of neoliberal policy have seen money corrupt everything. The Banking Royal Commission, long resisted by the incumbency, is exposing not just a few bad apples but an industry rotten to the core from excessive remuneration, greed which is certainly not restricted to the finance sector. In sport, winning is everything, whatever the cost, but it long ceased to be sport in any true sense. Violence against women and minorities escalates, egged on by the Leyonhjelms of this world. Population pressure sees tolerance disappear. Inequality increases in leaps and bounds, exacerbated by mythical “trickle-down” economics. Drug and alcohol abuse is widespread. Terrorism threats and migration justify massive over-reaction in restricting individual liberties. Crass commercial media and shock jocks incite vindictive extremism. Continuing scandals suggest that few people in positions of public trust have any idea of the moral and ethical responsibilities which go with those roles.
Above it all sits a national parliament incapable of sane discussion on anything. Screamed abuse replaces reasoned debate, any sense of civility long gone. Little wonder societal standards decline when “leaders” set such an appalling example. But there are far more fundamental implications.
Concepts of left and right in politics long since became irrelevant to solving the critical issues facing Australia. The imperative is that those issues do actually get addressed, which is patently not happening.
The first priority of government, we are told, is to ensure the security of the people. In theory, we elect politicians to govern on our behalf to provide that security; politicians who, pre-election, profess undying commitment to public service.
What we get, with a few notable exceptions, are politicians who, once elected, focus largely on party machinations, getting re-elected or otherwise feathering their nest. Much sound and fury around minor issues, whilst the critical ones are ignored. It was not always thus; historically in politics and business there were statesmen and women prepared to set aside their personal interests in favour of the common good, but they are long gone since money came to dominate. Good people are elected to parliament, but their good qualities are rapidly subsumed by party politics.
Behind it all, the creeping cancer of the neoliberal agenda dominates the current government. Driven by right wing apparatchiks in the Institute of Public Affairs, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia, the Murdoch press and elsewhere, every opportunity is taken to push deregulation, reduce the size of government, emasculate and politicise the public service making it subservient to ideologically-blinkered political advisers, with no regard for the “common good”. Power is concentrated in a few wealthy hands in the interests of “conservatism”, shorthand for maintaining the status quo for the benefit of existing elites. So dissent must be suppressed, activist groups muzzled, the ABC silenced, academic freedom undermined, public debate dumbed down and the public treated as fools. Few are even aware it is happening, except when the occasional stuff-up occurs as with Tony Abbott spilling the beans on the real intentions of the Ramsay project for the promotion of Western Civilisation.
This is where facism begins; the cancer must be stopped if we want a prosperous, sustainable and fair society.
In this, Australia is following the US, where the process is far more advanced. The insidious efforts of right wing billionaires such as the Koch brothers, to seize the levers of power has been going on for decades, the inevitable outcome flagged by Lord Acton long ago: “Remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
The deterioration of US society, with increasing inequality, violence, crumbling infrastructure and much more has, to a significant extent been brought about by this venality. US and Australian neoliberals are inextricably linked in moving this agenda forward.
Except that the status quo can no longer be maintained, as neoliberalism has long since sown the seeds of its own destruction. The inevitable result of decades of exponential growth in both population and consumption is that we are now hitting the limits of the global biosphere, which cannot be circumvented. This is manifest in multiple ways, inter alia: increasing water stress, massive biodiversity loss, decreasing productivity of agricultural land, escalating social conflict over declining resources and associated migration. To the point that the economic growth model under which our economies operate is no longer sustainable, despite desperate efforts to keep it afloat with massive financial interventions such as “quantitative easing”.
Overshadowing it all is human-induced climate change.
Its risks are intensifying and the physical impact worsening, with global climate-related losses running at record levels. Despite 30 years of political and corporate rhetoric, nothing has been done to seriously address it, notwithstanding increasingly urgent warnings.
The result is that climate change is now an immediate existential risk to humanity. That is, a risk posing large negative consequences which will be irreversible, resulting inter alia in major reductions in global and national population, species extinction, disruption of economies and social chaos, unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced. The risk is immediate in that it is being locked in today by our insistence on expanding the use of fossil fuels when the carbon budget to stay below sensible temperature limits is already exhausted.
To prevent temperatures rising above the upper 2degC limit of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, it is no longer possible to follow a gradual transition path. We have left it too late; emergency action, akin to wartime regulation, is inevitable. Market-based measures alone are insufficient.
Those still sceptical of this reality only have to look at the Northern Hemisphere now, particularly the Arctic, Asia and the US, as extreme temperatures trigger positive feedback loops, creating global climate conditions which make normal life impossible.
Neoliberals in the US and Australian fossil fuel industries long ago saw climate change as the greatest threat to the stranglehold on power from which they have benefited for so long. Accordingly billions of dollars have been devoted to discrediting climate science, raising doubts about its authenticity through every possible means, with much US money flowing in to support Australian campaigns. A process which has been remarkably successful, albeit nothing less than a crime against humanity.
But even the Koch brothers, the IPA and the MCA cannot change the laws of physics. The climate science has been rock-solid for decades and the cost of neoliberal disinformation is now coming home to roost. Unfortunately that cost is being borne by the poor who can least afford it, and groups like Australian farmers, rather than the elites who created it.
As Churchill put it: “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history”
Which places Australia in an extremely dangerous position. We are one of the countries most exposed to the impacts of climate change, particularly our agricultural sector. Yet our dysfunctional parliament has left the country totally unprepared for what is to come.
The crux of the problem is that our government is in total climate change denial. Climate and energy policy is a shambles, the result of endless contortions trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Namely expanding our fossil-fuel based economy, particularly coal, whilst pretending to meet our wholly inadequate voluntary commitments under the Paris Agreement. An Agreement which the government is doing its damndest to undermine, despite having ratified it in 2016.
Policy is dictated by scientifically and economically illiterate right wing hard-coalers, such as Messrs Canavan, Abbott, McCormack, Kelly, Christensen and Abetz who cannot understand that reliable, dispatchable and lower-cost power is now available from renewable energy sources far more effectively and cheaply than from coal. Even when coal continues to be massively subsidised, far more than renewables, by the lack of a sensible carbon price to account for its externalities, namely the enormous damage done by the health and climate impacts of coal use, which have been ignored since the Industrial Revolution. None of which matters if you are in climate denial.
They stamp their feet like petulant schoolboys whose favourite coal toy is being taken away. They lie and dissemble, misrepresenting and cherry-picking sound technical reports, twisting them to achieve their preferred pro-coal outcomes, irrespective of the severe implications for the wider Australian community, egged on by the serried ranks of the neoliberal cheer squad.
Just because we have large coal resources does not give us the right to use them if the result is an existential threat to humanity. Commodities come and go; coal is no different. Coal has created great wealth, but it’s time has passed as its climate impact, along with that of other fossil fuels, is now destroying the societies it helped create. The development of Galilee Basin coal, along with CSG in NSW and Queensland, and shale gas in the NT and WA, would be suicidal in current circumstances.
As Sheikh Yamani put it in the oil context: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil”.
Australia was built upon the innovative application of science. That is also its future, which the government is destroying with third-rate, anti-science policy such as the National Energy Guarantee. The certainty for energy investment which business and politicians crave will be non-existent until action on climate change is accepted as the absolute priority in determining energy policy. The solutions are available and blindingly obvious, including a realistic price on carbon and bans on any further fossil fuel expansion.
We have many opportunities to invest in low-carbon alternatives for both domestic and export use which provide far greater potential than traditional commodities such as coal. Particularly in providing distributed energy across the rural community. This is where our aspirations must lie, not in massive investment in propping up coal-fired power stations or investing in new ones. The cost to Australia as these investments inevitably become stranded assets, will be enormous, along with physical damage to the country from their climate impact. Rather than holding back renewable energy development, which is clearly the objective of current policy, we should be accelerating it to the maximum extent possible along with dramatic improvements to energy efficiency and conservation.
Neoliberal climate denialists insist that Australia’s domestic carbon emissions, 1.3% of the global total, are such as small amount that nothing we do will have any effect in addresssing climate change globally. That is nonsense; if exports are included, which they must be given the rapidly accelerating climate impact, Australia is already the sixth largest carbon polluter globally and will soon be fourth given the ramping up of our LNG exports. In short, we are a very big emissions player. What Australia does mattters.
The pretence that the government is serious about addressing climate change becomes ever more ludicrous. The most recent example is the $500 million allocated in a futile attempt to repair climate damage to the Great Barrier Reef, via the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, whilst simultaneously advocating the opening up of massive new coal mines in the Galilee Basin which would compound that damage, totally decimating the reef, along with tourism and other industries far more valuable than coal.
Likewise the announcement from Minister for Agriculture , David Littleproud, about an agreement with state ministers to help farmers adapt to climate change. Why was this needed? Because the climate is changing. What are we doing to stop it? Nothing, just attempting to adapt whilst making the problem far worse by building new coal-fired power stations and mines. Just how long can this cognitive dissonance continue?
The Prime Minister proclaimed in 2010 that: “Our efforts to deal with climate change have been betrayed by a lack of leadership, a political cowardice, the like of which I have never seen — “. He promised never to lead a political party that did not take climate change seriously. He now revels in doing exactly that, placing the future of generations of Australians in jeopardy. An abject failure of principled leadership.
The Opposition are little better, continually sitting on the fence denying the urgency for climate action, and ambivalent toward new coal development such as Adani. Equally lacking in leadership and principle.
Many parliamentarians are climate deniers, but that does not absolve them of the fiduciary responsibility to set aside their personal prejudices and to act in the public interest with integrity, fairness and accountability. This requires them to understand the latest climate science; it is not acceptable for those in positions of public trust to dismiss scientific warnings in the cavalier manner which has typified the last few years. Particularly when the risk is existential.
Ministers in particular do not seem to understand that they have that fiduciary responsibility, along with the related public duty and a public trust.
As Sir Gerard Brennan puts it: “A fiduciary is a person to whom power is entrusted for the benefit of another. ——- Power is reposed in members of Parliament by the public for exercise in the interests of the public and not primarily for the interests of members or the parties to which they belong. The cry ‘whatever it takes’ is not consistent with the performance of fiduciary duty ———- All decisions and exercises of power should be taken in the interests of the public, and that duty cannot be subordinated to, or qualified by, the interests of the (parliamentarian or Minister)”
Effective action on climate change must be raised above political infighting if the government’s first responsibility to ensure the security of the Australian people is to have meaning. But nowhere in the political spectrum is there evidence of leadership that might step up to the challenge.
In the corporate sector, the widespread abuse of power, declining ethical standards and falling community trust in business is calling into question corporations’ “social licence to operate”, and their right to enjoy the privilege of limited liability, which has been the cornerstone of business since the early 1800s, on the grounds that it should be a privilege to be earned, not an inalienable right.
Trust “is a belief that a person or institution will perform their role or function in accordance with its obligations, or where not bound by duty, in a predictable manner”.
Beyond trust is legitimacy “a recognised and well-founded right to claim a certain status, role or function.”
Our parliament must be held to higher standards than the corporate world. But community trust in parliamentarians is non-existent. Further, a parliament that is incapable of firstly, understanding, secondly, addressing and thirdly, is deliberately worsening, the critical issues which Australia faces, particularly climate change, has forfeited any legitimacy. It has no right to continue in its present form.
When the risks are existential, it is not acceptable to allow parliamentary renewal to await the next election and the likely continuation of dysfunctional government. The parliament is on Winter Break; it should not reconvene. The Governor General should disband it and consider alternative national governance arrangements.
Different forms of democratic structure are being canvassed widely, recognising the profound weaknesses of the current system. This expertise should be used to create something akin to a wartime Government of National Unity, with leaders of foresight and integrity.
Because the brutal reality is that climate risk now has to be handled as an emergency. Either we act, or we face a bleak future. Parliament must work for the people, not destroy them.
“Sometimes we have to do what is required”
Published in Pearls & Irritations, 9th August 2019