Australian politics, society & culture

A Natural Competitive Advantage

Guy Pearse’s 'High and Dry'

John Button

Medium length read1600 words

High and Dry: John Howard, Climate Change and the Selling of Australia's Future (Viking, 480pp; $35.00) is the second recently published Australian book on climate change. The first, Clive Hamilton's Scorcher, was subtitled ‘The Dirty Politics of Climate Change'. A fair bit of High and Dry is about what the author, Guy Pearse, describes as "the contamination of the political process". Hamilton heads up the Australia Institute, an independent think-tank, sometimes in the contemporary political context described as ‘left-wing'. Pearse is a member of the Liberal Party and a former adviser to the Howard government. How funny that they should both point to something rotten in  Canberra, to the vastly diminished ethics of our public life.

As a Young Liberal, Pearse was "steeped in ‘tribal' culture". He wanted to be a politician when he grew up. So he did all the usual things, like working for a Liberal senator and spending 15 years as "literally or emotionally a servant of the Liberal Party of Australia". Later he became an industry lobbyist, a consultant and a speechwriter for Robert Hill, the minister for the environment. In a parallel academic career he did a double degree at James Cook University, studied at Harvard and did a PhD at the ANU. These were excellent qualifications for joining the serried ranks of stereotypes on the parliamentary benches in Canberra. But Pearse was also an environmentalist with a deep concern about planet earth and a politically incorrect habit of thinking for himself.

Research for his PhD, experiences in the US and his general interest in the environment convinced him of the urgency of tackling climate change. Interviews with various industry ‘leaders' and his observations of the Howard government's response to lobbying convinced him that the development of appropriate policies on climate change was being deliberately undermined by vested interests in the mining and energy sectors. These were the self-styled ‘Greenhouse Mafia'. Pearse talked about all this on Four Corners in February 2006. As a result, the door to politics banged shut. Doors, like minds, were - for the time being, at least - to remain closed in Canberra. Climate change was not an issue for serious discussion.

More recently, of course, there has been a sort of debate about climate change. In the medium to longer term, the implications are frightening. People clutch hopefully at arguments which suggest it might go away. There are some who deny the reality of climate change altogether, just as there are some who say there is no real evidence that smoking is harmful. Then there are climate-changes sceptics, on the one hand, and passionate environmentalists on the other. Sometimes they irritate each other with stupidity, way-out arguments and extreme examples.

Fortunately, most countries where the issues are understood have accepted the evidence and are starting to adopt policies to try and reduce carbon emissions and develop alternative sources of energy. Some governments in Europe see it as an issue of great urgency, believing that if action is not taken soon it will be too late. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, says that the clock is at "five minutes after midnight". There has been no such urgency in Australia. But suddenly it's an election issue, an arm wrestle over credibility.

The British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, has observed that "A failing climate means more failed states, and this has implications for everything we want to achieve from conflict prevention and resolution to counter-terrorism." This is impeccable foreign-office speak. There is more to climate change than this. The broader implications are better spelt out by Guy Pearse, who seems to have a pretty good idea of the threats of climate change as they are seen internationally.

Perhaps it's sufficient to list a few of them. A World Bank report has suggested that because of rising sea levels, Pacific Islands such as Tuvalu don't have much future for human habitation. Low-lying parts of Bangladesh are likely to be inundated, causing big movements of people to higher ground. One hundred and fifty million people in the Pacific region could be made homeless by climate change. We may need to get used to the idea of climate-change refugees. In Australia the threats are of inadequate water supply, of people moving south as temperatures rise in the north, of coastal flooding and of increased public-health risks as tropical diseases spread further across the continent. These are sample scenarios, rarely discussed.

Our prime minister did discuss climate change and the Kyoto Treaty with George W Bush on 10 September 2001. There was, it seems, agreement between these two minds. In public-service circles in Canberra it's believed that a commitment was made then not to ratify the Kyoto Treaty designed to limit greenhouse emissions. Rather, the US would provide some alternative solution by developing new technology. The prime minister, as has become his custom for such matters, took around nine months to tell Australians that the Kyoto Treaty would not be ratified.

The political story about climate-change policy in Australia has more distant origins than John Howard's discussions with Bush. As Pearse puts it, ‘‘Howard's strong views on climate change go way back. He has always been consistent on the issue; simply put, he doesn't believe it is serious. His engagement is driven by a political imperative rather than an environmental one." So what's new?

The political imperative has been dictated by the Greenhouse Mafia, which had the ear of the prime minister and who happened to be Australia's premier polluters: "Through their connections or presence on company boards, in neo-liberal think-tanks and through hired-gun consultants favoured by the Liberal Party, Australia's biggest polluters enjoyed unparalleled access to the prime minister's office, and succeeded in having their greenhouse policy agenda adopted almost in its entirety." At times this group had access to cabinet papers, had one cabinet decision reversed after lobbying the prime minister, and had their own representatives on Australia's delegations to international discussions on climate change.

On the public front the government obfuscated about Kyoto, manipulated the figures from its own sources and put pressure on scientists not to talk about climate change, resulting in one case in the effective sacking of a distinguished scientist from the CSIRO. Money promised by the government for supposed environmental projects has not been spent. Fossil-fuel producers have been subsidised and the renewable-energy sector has been discouraged. Australia's policy settings are way behind those of other countries, and great opportunities have been lost.

The story of the Greenhouse Mafia and its relations with the government - more particularly, the prime minister - is pretty grubby and it's set out in some detail in Pearse's book, for the benefit of those who like political sleaze. As Pearse explains, the contribution of the industry sectors which the government has done so much to protect represent a much smaller proportion of the Australian economy than they and the prime minister like to imagine. It's less than 10% of GDP and less than 5% of total employment. But the companies have been big donors to the Liberal Party. Perhaps this is what the prime minister means when he says these industries "give us a natural competitive advantage".

In some ways the most refreshing aspect of High and Dry is that, whether you agree with the author or not, it is a book about ideas, many of which should have been on the political agenda for years. Ideas, sadly, are not the currency of today's political discourse. Politicians and the political process do little to engage the interest of the Australian public. Perhaps things might work better if less time was devoted to reflections on past and distant triumphs and more to contemplation of the future. This might just interest people.

Pearse has a habit of asking inconvenient questions, ones seldom mentioned by politicians or lazy commentators. He suggests that the "quarry vision" which has sustained us in the past is not likely to provide us with a great future. What happens when the coal runs out? Even without climate change, what should the future economy look like? Where's the country going to be in 20 years' time? What industries are we likely to have contributing to exports? Have we squandered chances to develop industries like solar and wind power?

There are, of course, reasons why these things are not discussed. Ideas threaten a government as authoritarian and discriminatory as the present one. Labor Party factions are not the natural milieu of innovation. Political parties fail to project a sense of purpose beyond the winning of the next election. There is no positive view of the future, and in its absence fear and prejudice are employed as the weapons of political dialogue. All this goes hand in hand with the tyranny of the market, which mostly acts effectively but does not think.

Occasionally Pearse's ideas are far out or overstated. This doesn't seem to me to matter much. They are lively and provocative, a chink of light in the dark malaise of present Australian politics. And this is a bonus in an important book about climate change and, in the author's words, "the rotten politics underpinning my party's response to it". It's all worth reading and thinking about for those hoping that Australia can grasp something of its potential.