A citizen’s jury would capture “a balance of gender, age group, ethnicity, and income”
The Covid crisis has evolved into a social-distancing crisis. And this supervirulent member of the Coronaviridae family, couldn’t ask for a more perfect host. We humans are social creatures — we love each other’s company.
Viruses have existed for billions of years — perhaps as long as four billion years. Theory has it that they evolved after cells but well before human evolution: as Homo sapiens evolved into more complex organisms, viruses regressed into the simplest form of life, needing a host cell to replicate.
And they do this exceptionally well. Most forms of life — bacteria, plants, and animals — are vulnerable to a virus attack.
A sneak preview
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a sneak preview of the potential impacts of climate change, but on a much smaller and less comprehensive scale. Like Covid, climate change places enormous stresses on our economic, political, and health systems.
The employment, logistical, supply chain, and public healthcare complexities Victoria is suffering under its current lockdown, is a learning model, in part, of what to expect in the near future from climate change.
Although estimates range wildly, direct and indirect fatalities from climate change — from extreme weather events, food and water insecurity, the inevitable conflict and ultimately, economic collapse — will far outweigh the final cost of Covid, and continue to accelerate year on year. The firestorms of 2019-20 were just a forewarning of what’s to come.
Like Covid, climate change will also inflict significant health-related fatalities because of changes in temperature and precipitation, mainly through water-related diseases and vector-borne infections.
Covid-like outbreaks could become commonplace.
Battle of the ideologues
The danger in a slow-moving crisis like climate change is to delay until it’s too late, as opposed to Covid, which was in our face from the very beginning.
Australia’s battle over climate change is a chronic culture war between conservatives and liberals that dates from the 1960s. It rose to a crescendo in 2010-11, descending into death threats and bitter exchanges between politicians of opposing faiths.
What should have been a rich and rewarding debate on a pressing issue of enormous consequence was reduced to a petty imbroglio over a tax on CO2 emissions.
Arguably, we have arrived at a similar crossroads with this pandemic — albeit with more bipartisanship than we ever had with climate change. But the real test is about to begin — free-market fundamentalists and pro-market interventionists see a post-pandemic world very differently.
Factional warfare over open markets, privatisation, deregulation, and the golden arches of globalisation, versus the logistical fragility of globalised supply chains and just-in-time inventories, combined with a decimated manufacturing base, is already brewing. And the stakes are high — some argue that Australia’s sovereignty is at risk.
Self-regulation never works
As the renowned Noble Prize-winning economist Joseph E Stiglitz (2001) pointed out, “There is no respectable intellectual support for the proposition that markets, by themselves, lead to efficient, let alone equitable outcomes … self-regulating markets never work; their deficiencies, not only in their internal workings but also in their consequences (for example, for the poor), are so great that government intervention becomes necessary.”
The supreme irony of free-market economies is that much effort is expended deregulating and privatising only to spend large sums of taxpayer funds correcting the deficiencies of deregulation and privatisation.
Although the GFC stands as an exemplar of free-market fundamentalism, Australia’s succession of royal commissions continues to warn us of the downside of deregulation: it seems that if you look too closely at any private and deregulated institution, you will find some degree of corruption or immoral behaviour.
This is not to say that public institutions — our political institutions, for instance — are free of corruption. But they are also more open to media scrutiny and thus, public accountability. If there was anything more crucial to democracy in a post-truth world, it is freedom of the press. Hats off to the free press fraternity!
Recognising and responding to risk
At its bare roots, politics is a battle for the rule of minds — of what future path should be taken, what that path should look like and most importantly, who should lead us down it.
Although the response by all levels of government to both Covid and climate change should be void of ideological barriers — that often stifle a legitimate reaction — and depend on the fundamental competence of decision-makers, it’s not always the case.
Consider the Morrison government’s Covid response compared to its climate change response, recently highlighted by several media commentators. The standout disparity is the early, resolute Covid response, compared to the relatively timid, indifferent response to climate change. Both are emergencies but viewed in entirely different ways.
The war on Covid
Conservatives are more likely to view a pandemic as a war, and have regularly declared war on Covid, both metaphorically and literally. But they have yet to declare war on climate change.
Esoteric threats, like climate change, don’t incite the same pragmatic response. That is, conservatives are more likely to react to tangible threats like the brutality of war, and less likely to respond to intangible ones like climate change.
And when it comes to long-term risk versus short-term risk, urgency often devolves into apathy. Although both Covid and climate change are crises of “pay more now to pay less later”, and costs will be borne by future generations in both, the visceral power of the “here and now” that Covid provokes, takes precedence.
We might also presume that because resources are limited, the Covid pandemic will suck the energy out of the transition to renewable energies, and will be subsequently used as a rationale for climate change inaction, due to cost.
This might sound cynical, however, our political leaders have already made reference to the role of our mineral and fossil fuel exports as crucial to sustaining our economy throughout the pandemic.
Is it time for a new democracy?
Often, the only commonality between liberal and conservative governments is their ambition to win the next election. With senior politicians now holding individual discretionary power over immense decisions of consequence, is it time to seek a much broader public response?
An alternative to our current adversarial political framework, might be the newDemocracy Foundation model of deliberative democracy, which entails the random selection of public representatives. Anyone with vested interests or ideologies or an agenda to peddle are excluded from selection.
There is no denying the need for elected officials to govern — perhaps on a less long-term basis. But a body of citizen-led oversight, a mini-public acting like a citizen’s jury, as opposed to an expensive, drawn-out referendum, would be more representative of the people, and infinitely more timely and less costly.
“When given the authority, time, and information, everyday people take the tough questions, sidestep party lines, and deliver sensible answers.”
In a deliberative democracy, a citizen’s jury would capture a balance of gender, age group, ethnicity, and income. Jurors would be given ample time to interview expert witnesses, and the so-called “independent review”, established by the politico-elites themselves, would become a somewhat shady relic of the past.