climate policy voting booth

Climate policy cannot be reduced to a carbon policy. Its strength is in complexity, from local food production to communal transport, renewables and Indigenous rights to say no to coal. We need to forget bi-partisan support and find our democratic strength.

“In terms of energy policy and climate policy, I think the truth is that the Coalition finds it very hard to get agreement on anything to do with emissions.”

With those words, in his final press conference as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull belled the cat on what has been core to mainstream climate politics for too long – the idea that we need a bipartisan approach.

Given what we know – and frankly have known for a very long time – it’s time to ditch this idea and move on. The Liberal Party and their National Party coalition partners are simply not interested in acting on climate change at all. They are not interested in reaching an agreement. They see it as their task to block action. When that is the case, it tells us that our politics – our democratic system as it currently operates – is fundamentally broken. It is unable to face up to an issue like climate change.

Understanding this is liberating. It frees us up to stop banging our heads against a brick wall and start looking at real, complex solutions, negotiated between people committed to action, based on a broader conceptualisation of what climate action entails. More on that shortly, but first let’s get absolutely clear on where the Liberal Party stands.

Most blatantly, Tony Abbott who clearly still pulls many strings in the party, had this to say on the 18 August: “To have a chance of winning the next election, the Coalition must create a policy contest on energy, not a consensus.” In other words: we don’t want any kind of agreement. We want the fight.

The new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is presenting himself as a moderate, but we must never forget that he is the man who

Tim Hollo

proudly brought a lump of coal into Question Time, fondled it lovingly, passed it around his colleagues, and declared: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.” Are we going to get bipartisan climate policy with a man like that?

Then we have our new Environment Minister, Melissa Price, whose main contribution to the climate debate thus far has been to tell parliament: “Whether you believe so-called climate change is due to human behaviour, planetary motion, ocean currents or solar variability et cetera, to me, is not the point.” Really? And if you’re not interested in understanding the cause, how will you find a solution?

The man whose job should really be primarily about finding solutions, new Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, has literally just told the press: “I’m not sceptical about climate science. But…” He rejects the evidence, even from the government’s own advisers. He flies in the face of reality when labelling renewable energy companies, but seemingly not coal and gas companies, “vested interests”.

With “moderate Liberals” like Julia Banks, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull fleeing the parliament, leaving people with these extreme and ridiculous views ruling the roost, it is well past time to ditch the idea of bipartisan climate politics. The system, as it currently operates, is broken. We must fix it.

As I noted, this frees us up to re-evaluate climate politics broadly. In particular, we can work towards negotiated agreements between those who actually want action, and we can finally truly embrace complexity in climate policy, dropping the assumption that we need one single, magic solution.

When you start digging into that idea, it throws open a deep and broad array of actions that can all be seen as part and parcel of “climate action”.

The one and only effective climate policy process Australia has seen so far was the Multi Party Climate Change Committee, conceived by Christine Milne and implemented through the minority government of Julia Gillard.

And the key strength of the outcome was that it embraced complexity

The MPCCC did both these things, to the extent that was possible. It brought together a cross-party group in productive conversation, explicitly leaving out those who were blockers.

This enabled a true, deliberative process, rather than a primarily adversarial one. And the key strength of the outcome was that it embraced complexity. Rather than one single, overarching policy, it was a suite of complementary measures, with the policies on renewable energy, energy efficiency, landscape carbon, and more, being at least as important as the price signal that caught most of the attention

We can hold many climate policies at once and move forward (maybe better)

Along with the idea that we need bipartisan support, I believe it’s time we ditched the assumption that a single policy is necessary to tackle climate change. This assumption has led our politics down the path of “first best”, “second best”, fourth best” solutions which has been getting us precisely nowhere for years, presenting progressively weaker ideas, none of which has ever had a chance of being legislated, let alone achieving the policy goal.

The flaw with the MPCCC was this it didn’t go far enough in either its deliberative and participatory model or its embrace of complexity. That was what led it to be torn down.

What we need now is to build models in our politics which can take both these approaches further.

I’ve written about this as “Ecological Democracy” (Part 1 and Part 2) – a politics which values and recognises the resilience in connected diversity. It embraces deep participatory democracy, and sees solutions to issues as interconnected and supportive policy frameworks. We’re not going to get to that immediately, but climate politics provides a perfect demonstration ground for it – if we ditch the two old assumptions holding us back.

Beyond cross-party parliamentary negotiation, we need to get out into the community and build deliberative, participatory models of what climate action might mean on the ground.

Climate policy is not just about carbon pricing – far from it

Beyond complementary measures, we need to see that climate change policy cannot and must not be boiled down to an “efficient” carbon price.

…From locally grown food to community transport

Climate change policy is everything from supporting locally grown food and community transport initiatives to encouraging renewable energy cooperatives.

It removes the ability of corporations to block action by reforming political donations and lobbying regulation, just as it officially grants the Great Barrier Reef the legal right to exist.

It runs the gamut from giving indigenous communities the right to say “No” to coal mining on their land to enabling citizens to decide how their suburbs are developed for their own use rather than developer profits. Climate change policy includes structurally replacing the discount rate with an interest rate in economic models to ensure we properly value our responsibility to future generations.

Democratic participation at the hyperlocal level and every other level

Climate change policy requires democratic participation at the hyperlocal level and at the global level, and every level in between, not just because local communities understand how to implement solutions for themselves, but also because this democratic engagement is vital to building resilient communities that can flourish in the less stable world we have already locked in.

With the demise of any hope in bipartisan climate policy, our only hope is in fixing our democratic system.

Tim Hollo is executive director of the The Green Institute and green candidate for the seat of Canberra

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  1. This ‘op ed’ dismisses ‘bipartisanship’ without examining why Federal politics in Australia is like it is. It skips straight to advocacy positions like ditching the idea. But why are Australian climate (and energy) politics so divisive? And why are there exceptions to this? Why – despite a backdrop of divisiveness and sniping about the last Premier’s ‘high’ ambitions – is the new South Australian Liberal government not carrying on about a ‘failed experiment’ with renewable energy like Angus Taylor (Federal Energy Minister), but rather is supporting green energy with relatively few reservations so far, including storage that in turn supports a faster transition to renewables. This is substantially a continuation of what was first and foremost ALP/Greens policy. I don’t pretend to understand the drivers for either the SA or the Morrison/Taylor approach. Social media is littered with opinions, but if we want to help make a difference, we need to start with a greater curiosity than ideology / party loyalties tend to promote.

  2. OK, not just carbon price, but surely carbon price as well – because all the economic and technical experts seem to be aligned (including Finkel) around this as the central tenet of policy that can deliver much of what we need.