Ferrari man and nerdy know-all come together for climate

You’d be hard-pressed to find two more different Australians than former Hawke government minister Barry Jones and John Hewson, federal Liberal leader from 1990 to 1994.

Around 1960, to this avid radio quiz show listener Barry Jones was a hero, the man who knew everything. At the time he was a humble high-school history teacher, but his astonishing quiz-show success took him into talkback radio, where, in his words, he sought to expose people to new ideas – a far cry from what talkback radio was later to become. 

Jones was elected to federal parliament in 1977, becoming science minister when Bob Hawke won office in 1983. As minister in charge of the Antarctic program when I joined the Australian Public Service, Jones was prone to ask difficult, insistent questions about what we were doing down there to further human knowledge.

There was some relief in the Antarctic fraternity when Jones was replaced by Graham “Whatever it takes” Richardson, but we should have known better. Good government is about hard work and hard thinking, not slick phrases and ladder-climbing. Getting and holding power is what motivated Richardson; for Jones it was good outcomes based on good information. 

Jones has always firmly believed that the main driver of public policy should be real long-term needs, not winning elections. In 1986 he set up Australia’s first and only institution dedicated to thinking ahead, the Commission for the Future. But in the end short-termism won out, and the commission died in the year he left parliament, 1998.

Barry Jones is unimpeachable. Whenever called on to explain himself or his party’s policies, his honesty is there for all to see. He often comes across as naïve, but never two-faced or deceitful. With him there is no hidden agenda. What you see is what you get.

And what we see is someone who never stops thinking about how Australia might be made a better country. He seeks a parliament and a government that are crucibles of good ideas whose actions are based entirely on the common good.

Ferrari-owner, economist and financier John Hewson was elected to parliament in 1987 in the blue-ribbon Sydney seat of Wentworth. Not one for wasting time on the backbench, just three years later he became Liberal leader following Andrew Peacock’s 1990 election loss. 

Hewson was a leader on the move. Infused with “dry” neoliberal thinking, he determined the way to go was a trimmed-down Medicare and income tax cuts, with revenue augmented by a goods and services tax. But the knives were out when the Coalition was surprisingly beaten by Paul Keating’s Labor in 1993, and a year later he was replaced by Alexander Downer.

The convergence of the two radically different career paths of Hewson and Jones, the Ferrari man and the nerdy know-all, started when climate change entered the political debate in the 1990s.

Jones, always focused on how science could inform public policy, had begun building a government response to climate change in 1984. This was eight years ahead of the Rio Earth Summit and decades before climate finally entered the mainstream of Australian politics. 

Hewson was somewhat behind Jones in appreciating the climate threat, but his work with the energy analyst RepuTex, which promotes social and environmental awareness in private business, long ago convinced him of the need for stronger government action.

Now both Jones and Hewson, each critical of their respective parties’ positions on climate change, have publicly come together in support of independent candidates in the coming federal election to confront what Jones calls “Australia’s grossly inadequate and mendacious response to climate change and the unprecedented levels of corruption at a federal level”.

The Jones-Hewson team-up covers transparency and integrity in federal politics, but it is as patrons of Climate200, a group founded by entrepreneur Simon Holmes à Court, that they are most likely to influence voting intentions. On climate change, says Jones, “Morrison is wicked, Joyce pretends to be crazy, while Labor is timid and fearful.”

In the wake of the traumatic Black Summer bushfires, climate change is shaping as the key underlying issue of the coming federal election. Recent Australia Institute polling shows support for independent candidates backed by Climate200, as well as the Greens, eating into government support, especially in Sydney.

Jones is now 89 and Hewson 75 – a wise old team, says Jones: “he’s wise and I’m old” – but it would be a mistake to see this as a futile fling by political has-beens. I’m tipping that at election time the Climate200 campaign will be a force to be reckoned with.

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