The batt fiasco and the future of government

Solid, practical action by government on climate is looking increasingly like a vain hope. Short-term gain, vested interests and opportunistic politics are making it tougher than ever for governments to persevere. [9 March 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Amid all the talk of a changing world, human nature remains as it always was. Among the many things about us that will never change is our tendency to look after immediate needs first, even when it’s obvious there will be a long-term cost. This has big implications for the future of government.

The Tasmanian election campaign is a case in point, with barely a peep from any candidate about carbon mitigation or preparing for climate change. It’s clear that there’s a high level of discomfort among candidates and parties about climate change, and the notion prevails that any attempt to communicate such a concern to voters will only turn them off. More about that, and the widely diverging climate policies on offer, next week.

Climate action has slipped down the priority list on a federal level too — except for the great batt debacle.

Perhaps we should be grateful that the important matter of home insulation has attracted so much political energy. But to me the hubbub over the government’s admittedly clumsy handling of this $2.45 billion program is profoundly depressing. There’s been a lot of noise, but over what?

Kevin Rudd deserves some censure — more than Peter Garrett, whom he demoted — for failing to see the problems inherent in the short time-frame allowed for a program as big and complex as this. But his critics should pause and consider the context in which these problems arose, and what the affair says about the future of government.

The Rudd government is right to feel a sense of urgency about carbon emissions: there’s only a narrow window of opportunity to get that upward path curving downwards. It’s right to feel that such measures as home insulation need to be rolled out quickly.

That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do. Any nationwide project needs a lot of planning and careful management. Doing things in haste can cause problems, as Rudd and Garrett found.

It’s in our genes to seek personal advantage for ourselves and our immediate circles, even at the expense of the wider community. When a government is doling out large sums of money to get something done quickly, it stands to reason there will be corruption, inefficiency and mistakes.

This is familiar ground. In World War II, much of the government’s vast budget allocation to build and maintain Australia’s biggest-ever military force went on projects that got nowhere and goods and services bought at inflated prices. The community accepted that, along with a lot of accidental death and injury, because it knew it faced a big, urgent challenge.

But today there’s no consensus about the challenge. Few people would see a link between the home insulation program and an advancing enemy, and without the sense of urgency, opponents have exploited the deaths of workers to force the postponement of a scheme that had much merit.

The batt program failed because the government buckled under a mostly unreasonable attack. Yet the need to pursue large-scale, transformative schemes will not go away as we get deeper into the climate crisis. Both the government’s emissions trading scheme and Tony Abbott’s $3.2 billion “emissions reduction fund” promise to push our governmental systems to their limits.

Advocates of emissions trading argue that the market is the simplest, cheapest and most efficient way to maintain a carbon price. They might be right in principle, but the Rudd government’s array of free permits, foreign offsets and special assistance adds many layers of complexity, making it a big administrative challenge.

For his part, Tony Abbott might reflect on what the batt fiasco might mean for his own policies. He says that providing incentives for businesses to cut emissions would be simple to administer. He should think again. The scale of his plan will mean a massive call on public service resources, and as Peter Garrett’s scheme showed, this carries a significant risk of failure.

Implementing climate policy is as tough as it gets in government. Because climate is an indeterminate threat stretching into the distant future, it will always be hard to keep people behind the big changes called for. Even with public support, the administrative burden will be colossal.

In the long term the whole future of government may be at stake. No politician will express such a notion, but I can see the batt fiasco repeated on a much larger scale, with embattled bureaucrats and ministers, against a background of deafening political and public noise and under increasing budgetary and personal stress, struggling in vain to implement policies.

Making climate policy work will require the goodwill of a substantial majority of people. I thought we had it a year or two ago, but now I’m not so sure. Over the past four months the scene has changed, with public doubt and confusion the order of the day. The setbacks haven’t just been in Australia, but everywhere else too.

The scientific evidence which persuaded governments all over the world to develop climate policies is now clearer than ever, but facts are only a small part of this political debate. Looming much larger, fuelled by moneyed interests and spurred on by political spin, is the fear of change.

The battle to win hearts and minds in support of climate action is turning out to be harder than we ever thought.

• “Vote for the Climate” is a public forum in Hobart on Thursday evening that puts climate policy under the spotlight. Starting at 6.30 pm at the University Centre (Churchill Avenue, Sandy Bay), party representatives will pit their climate credentials against a questioning audience. Organised by Climate Action Hobart: click here for more information.

This entry was posted in Australian politics, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, contrarians, education, future climate, international politics, leadership, science, social and personal issues, social mindsets, Tasmanian politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.