Howard's Latest Spin Cycle


Last weekend, it became clear that John Howard is trying to reframe climate change as a ‘politics of fear’ issue. He has powerful allies in the media and Big Coal, but the tactic won’t work if Labor energetically exposes and discredits his new line for the shabby politics that it is.

First, Howard got a group of ‘experts’ to give the Government ‘responsible’ and ‘moderate’ advice on how to ‘balance’ climate change concerns against the need to keep the economy running smoothly on a minimum-disturbance basis.

He was employing the first rule on how to mislead the Australian public always present ‘good advice’ as that which strikes a ‘compromise’ between ‘extremists’ who see the need for action, and ‘conservatives’ who prefer no action at all. Howard stacked the Emissions Trading Task Group   with economists, senior Government bureaucrats, and representatives of the coal and oil industries and had it chaired by Peter Shergold, the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet ensuring that he would get the kind of answers he wanted.

No one on that Task Group had expertise in gas or renewable energy, or enthusiasm to talk about the economic benefits of tackling climate change resolutely by using new energy sources, or moving rapidly to retrofit buildings to dramatically lower electricity wastage on heating, cooling and lighting.

By framing climate change as just another major economic management issue, Howard hopes to marginalise those most seriously concerned about the need to start early action to peg back greenhouse gas emissions positioning them as irresponsible, fanatical, ideological panic-merchants. In Parliament, he asked: would Australians take advice from Peter Garrett, a former rock star who would drive Australia into recession, or from a committee of Wise Men?

Savvy politics, perhaps. But in that new frame, the advice of groups like the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change, [LINK:] which includes Grant King, CEO of Origin Energy, one of the country’s largest en ergy companies with interests in gas, solar and geothermal power and who talked uncommon good sense on ABC TV’s Lateline last Friday get lost in the spin.

For a dangerous two days, it seemed to be Garrett versus the Shergold Committee. It must not stay that way.

Howard’s reframing of combating climate change as an economic management issue his claimed area of expertise proceeded to bury the science in a few soothing assurances. Howard was telling voters that yes, he does now accept that human activity has contributed ‘in part’ to global warming. But he went on quickly to reassure us that it’s not going to happen tomorrow we have lots of time. And his first duty as the responsible manager of the national economy is to go slowly and minimise disturbance.

Ignoring the fact that he had rejected and debunked global warming for 11 years now Howard claimed he was the leader best placed to deal with it. Hardly a convincing claim, you’d think. Yet News Limited came in right behind Howard’s new claim. As The Australian‘s editorial of 4 June stated:

The political contest, then, is between considered risk management and what Peter Shergold, the Chair of the Prime Minister’s task group, called the politics of catastrophe Labor does its credibility no good by insisting on a harsh response with no roadmap on how to get there and no idea if it is achievable or what it will cost. These deficiencies have allowed Mr Howard to describe the ALP’s position as post-industrial and criticise it for adopting a European model more suited to a small, densely populated nation with high winds somewhere east of Denmark.

All sides have clearly staked out their respective positions for maximum political advantage. Labor is offering to take seriously an issue that it accuses Howard of having ignored. The Coalition is hoping the electorate can be scared into favouring a steady economic hand and conservative approach.

Thanks to Scratch

The Australian agrees with the underlying principle of the Prime Minister’s Task Group report: think big but hasten slowly, and adopting a target for its own sake is just a distraction. The most important task, according to this view, is ‘to develop a post-Kyoto framework that can be applied internationally and make a practical difference as opposed to a political statement.’

This argument plays fast and loose with truth. The issue of climate change has not just suddenly gained great public significance Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern Review were so well received here precisely because they articulated and validated what thinking Australian voters have been worrying about for several years. Howard has comprehensively rejected these concerns until the past two weeks his flip-flop being widely noted for what it is, and with scorn.

Finally, the editorial’s commendation of ‘considered risk management’ and ‘a steady economic hand’ is simply advocacy of Howard’s policy of minimal disturbance.

Labor must resist the issue being framed in these terms. It needs to reassert the congruence between its views and those of the moderate centre of responsible industrial and community leaders like Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change, Origin Energy and many others.

Labor needs to focus the public mind on the insincerity of Howard’s so-called ‘conversion’ to the reality of climate change.

And Labor needs to keep a close eye on the useful dynamics at the G8 Summit in between the Europeans and Bush. It is clear from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reported comments that she won’t allow Bush to haggle down targets determined by the best scientific advice available to the EU.

US Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi praised Merkel’s ‘extraordinary leadership’ in fighting climate change and Pelosi agreed that solutions must be multilateral, saying ‘We are trying to preserve the planet, which many in our country, including I, believe is God’s creation, and we have a responsibility to preserve it.’

Howard’s final tactic was simply xenophobic chauvinism. In the House censure debate last week he said of the Shergold report:

This will be an Australian report for Australian conditions to preserve the strength of the Australian economy and make sure that we protect Australian jobs. It will not be a grab bag of proposals taken holus-bolus from a report written by an Englishman for European conditions and designed to promote the political objectives of the British Government. That is what the Stern Report is all about. Stern is not the biblical scholar of climate change that is posited by those who sit opposite. Stern has written from the perspective of an Englishman, from the European circumstance and from the European point of view. He does not have in mind the unique circumstances of Australia.’

And again at the weekend, Howard boasted of rejecting ‘a European model’ and exposed his parochialism.

He cannot see what Pelosi and Merkel see that climate change is a global issue and must be addressed through efforts to achieve global co-operation. Labor should hammer home how contemptible this chauvinism is.

The right international comparison for Labor to draw is California, which has a comparable economy, population, technology base and industrial structure (ex
cept that we are a major coal exporter). California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger is a reassuring reference point for Australian voters. In California there is a broad Democrat-Republican consensus on policies to combat climate change.

What a contrast with Australia, where Howard is cynically trying to hide the fact that all he wants is to slow climate change response right down.

It is vital, finally, that Labor not allow the idea to spread that there is not much difference between the two Parties on this issue. If Labor fails to make this point, momentum could be lost and votes drain away to the Greens. Because people voters really care about this.

Labor must remember the lesson of the Beazley era and avoid me-too-ism.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.