Tag Archives: John Howard

Coal and the Coalition: the policy knot that still won’t untie

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

As the Turnbull government ties itself in yet more knots over the future of coal-fired power, it’s worth reflecting that climate and energy policy have been a bloody business for almost a decade now.

There was a brief period of consensus ushered in by John Howard’s belated realisation in 2006 that a price had to be put on carbon dioxide emissions. But by December 2009 the Nationals, and enough Liberals, had decided that this was a mistake, and have opposed explicit carbon pricing ever since.

Read more: Ten years of backflips over emissions trading leave climate policy in the lurch.

The resulting policy uncertainty has caused an investment drought which has contributed to higher energy prices. Now, with prices a hot potato, there are thought bubbles about extending the life of coal-fired power stations and a new effort to set up a Conservatives for Conservation group.

But the Liberal Party’s tussles over climate and energy policy (as distinct from denying the science itself) go back even further – some 30 years.

Early days and ‘early’ action

It’s hard to believe it now, but the Liberal Party took a stronger emissions target than Labor to the 1990 Federal election. Yet green-minded voters were not persuaded, and Labor squeaked home with their support. After that episode the Liberals largely gave on courting green voters, and under new leader John Hewson the party tacked right. Ironically, considering Hewson’s climate advocacy today, back then his Fightback! policy was as silent on climate change as it was on the price of birthday cakes.

In his excellent 2007 book High and Dry, former Liberal speech writer Guy Pearse recounts how in the mid-1990s he contacted the Australian Conservation Foundation, offering to to canvass Coalition MPs to “find the most promising areas of common ground” on which to work when the party returned to government. The ACF was “enthusiastic, if a little bemused at the novelty of a Liberal wanting to work with them”. Most Liberal MPs – including future environment minister Robert Hill and future prime minister Tony Abbott – were “strongly supportive” of the idea. But others (Pearse names Eric Abetz and Peter McGauran) were “paranoid that some kind of trap was being laid”. Nothing came of it.

Elected in 1996, Howard continued the staunch hostility to the United Nations climate negotiations that his Labor predecessor Paul Keating had begun. Not all businessmen were happy. Leading up to the crucial Kyoto summit in 1997, the Sydney Morning Herald reported how a “delegation of scientists and financiers” led by Howard’s local party branch manager Robert Vincin and Liberal Party grandee Sir John Carrick lobbied the prime minister to take a more progressive approach. Howard did not bend.

Howard stayed unmoved until 2006 when, facing a perfect storm of rising public climate awareness and spiralling poll numbers, he finally relented. Earlier that year a group of businesses convened by the Australian Conservation Foundation produced a report titled The Early Case for Business Action. “Early” is debatable, given that climate change had already been a political issue since 1988, but more saliently the report tentatively suggested introducing a carbon price. And Howard finally relented.

The carbon wars

The ensuing ten years after Kevin Rudd’s defeat of Howard don’t need much recapping here (go here for all the details). But one interesting phenomenon that has emerged from the policy wreckage is the emergence of some very unusual coalitions to beg for certainty.

In 2015, in the leadup to the crucial Paris climate talks, an “unprecedented alliance” of business, union, environmental, investor and welfare groups called the Australian Climate Roundtable sprang briefly into life to make the case for action.

Then, after the seminal South Australia blackout last September, a surprisingly diverse group of industry and consumer bodies – the Australian Energy Council, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Clean Energy Council, Energy Users Association, Energy Consumers Australia, Energy Networks Association and Energy Efficiency Council – called on federal and state energy ministers to “work together to craft a cooperative and strategic response to the transformation underway in Australia’s energy system”.

Read more: Who tilts at windmills? Explaining hostility to renewables.

It’s in this light that the new Conservatives for Conservation lobbying effort should be seen. Its spearhead Kristina Photios surely knows she has no chance of converting the committed denialists, but she can chip away at the waverers currently giving them comfort and power.

Questions on notice

Of course, there are always cultural (or even psychological) issues, but you’d think that conservation would be a no-brainer for conservatives (the clue should be in the name).

There are a few questions, of course (with my answers in brackets).

  • Where were all the people who are now calling for policy certainty back in 2011 when Tony Abbott was declaring his oath to kill off the carbon tax? (They were AWOL.)
  • Will any business show any interest in building a new coal-fired power station? (No.)
  • Is renewable energy technology now advanced enough for them to make serious money? (We shall see.)
  • Can we make up for lost time in our emissions reductions? (No, and we have already ensured more climate misery than there would have been with genuinely early climate action.)
  • Will the Liberals further water down the Clean Energy Target proposal? (Probably.)
  • What will Tony Abbott say to UK climate sceptic think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation when he gives a speech on October 6? (Who knows –
    grab your popcorn!).
  • What will happen to the Liberals in the medium term? (Who knows, but Michelle Grattan of this parish has some intriguing ideas.)
  • Are there reasons to be cheerful? (Renewable energy journalist Ketan Joshi thinks so.)

Perhaps the last word on this issue should go to John Hewson, who noted last year:

The ConversationThe “right” love to speak of the debt and deficit problem as a form of “intergenerational theft”, yet they fail to see the climate challenge in the same terms, even though the consequences of failing to address it substantively, and as a matter of urgency, would dwarf that of the debt problem. The “right” is simply “wrong”. It’s political opportunism of the worst sort, and their children and grandchildren will pay the price.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Today’s leaders could learn from Menzies, who built modern Australia without acting in haste

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

The ABC’s two-part documentary, Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, is an ambitious enterprise. It seeks to establish the centrality of the Menzies years in the creation of modern Australia, thereby emphasising the crucial importance of Robert Menzies himself in building the Australia of today.

This program is a work of historical and political revisionism. Its target is the view, expressed most forcefully by Paul Keating, that the 1950s was a time when Australia remained locked in the past in a self-induced stupor, brought about by a failure to recognise that the time of the British Empire was over.

Keating’s rhetoric is both anachronistic and an expression of a sectarian view of the world that was long dead by the 1990s. There can be no doubt that Australia became modern between 1949 and 1966, the year Menzies retired as prime minister.

Australian modernity

Two examples, neither mentioned in the documentary, of events in 1966 are emblematic of the coming of Australian modernity. One was the introduction, just after Menzies’ retirement, of decimal coinage. Gone forever were the days of dinars, zacs and tres.

The other was the closing of Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre. This marked the funeral rites of Australian vaudeville, once dominated by Australia’s greatest comic genius, Roy Rene.

The documentary captures this transformation to modern Australia quite well in two ways.

One is its depiction of the growing affluence of Australian society under Menzies, as Australians sought a home of their own and consumer goods.

The other was in the Menzies’ education revolution, whereby the Commonwealth government assumed responsibility for funding universities and began to provide money for non-government schools.

Menzies’ advances

Modern Australia would be both addicted to consumer goods and increasingly come to see education as the panacea for its problems. What was dying was an older version of Australia that existed largely to supply the metropolitan part of the empire with primary produce.

It also included a vision of Australia as a rural civilisation in which ordinary people could own their own small farm. That vision was finally put to rest in the 1950s.

Australia was confirmed as an urban civilisation, which nevertheless would become wealthy by selling mineral products to Asia. Menzies’ role in the creation of that new order is confirmed in terms of the way in which he opened up trade with Asia.

Menzies’ great virtue, which can be seen by watching him in this documentary, is that he was not in a hurry, as compared to, say, Gough Whitlam.

Robert Menzies’ great virtue was that he was not in a hurry as prime minister.

Menzies’ demeanour and carriage were those of someone who was relaxed and comfortable, who was willing to make what changes needed to be done, but would not force the rate of change as do many 21st-century politicians. For him, liberalism had its traditional Australian meaning of good government.

It is often forgotten that when Menzies came to power in 1949 Britain was still a major destination for Australian exports, and those exports were largely primary produce. The shift away from trade with Britain occurred during the Menzies years, and Australia adjusted accordingly.

Now, it might be argued these changes would have occurred under whatever government was in power and that a Labor government would have been more progressive. That would be to read today’s politics back into the 1950s.

Labor was far more supportive of White Australia than the Liberals; there is a lovely scene in the documentary in which Labor leader Arthur Calwell gives the big NO to Asian immigration. The Labor Party of the 1950s was not a party of educated individuals; it was locked into the past far more than the Liberals.

Explaining history

There are two facets of any attempt to explain history. One is composed of long-term social, economic and cultural changes. The other is the day-to-day events, especially in the world of politics.

In the first facet, this documentary succeeds in portraying very well the way in which Menzies played a key role as a midwife of modern Australia.

In the second area it might be seen as being less successful. One reason for this is that when one looks at political change it is always complex.

Books can deal with this complexity; documentaries by their nature must reduce complexity to simplicity. For example, I cannot recall a single reference to the Country Party in the documentary – and yet the Country Party played a crucial role in Menzies’ political career.

If any event holds the key to Menzies’ long term as prime minister it was the 1954 election and its consequences. This did not seem to be treated adequately in the documentary.

There is discussion of the Petrov Affair, presumably because it provides good footage, but no real explanation as to why the defeat was so devastating for H.V. Evatt and the consequences so dire for Labor.

Here, it seems to me is the prime example of the benefit of Menzies’ “steady as she goes” approach. Labor tore itself apart because of two men who were in too much of a hurry, Doc Evatt and Bob Santamaria.

In 1952 and 1953 it really looked as if Labor was certain to win in 1954. This raised both Santamaria’s and Evatt’s expectations, which, among other things, encouraged Santamaria in his task of “permeating” the Labor Party in the hope a Labor government would be able to put into place his utopian scheme of re-Christianising Australia.

Defeat devastated both men and helped create the circumstances under which Menzies was presented with the Labor Split. John Howard is right, Menzies’ calm hands on the ship of state ensured his government calm waters with a light breeze, while the clash of personalities of Evatt and Santamaria pushed Labor towards the rocks.

Howard is also correct in emphasising that a united Labor would have won back government. The claims by journalist Greg Sheridan that Labor was unfit to govern and had a number of senior figures who were closet communists only make sense when it is realised Sheridan is a one-time Santamaria operative.

Documentaries unfortunately cannot help but simplify. Once one allows for this, one can only say that Howard has achieved his goal of linking Menzies with the changes that created, for better or for worse, a new “modern” Australia.

Menzies was not opposed to change; for example, he welcomed the advances of modern science. But he also understood that not all change is good. Unlike later politicians he did not seek to rush Australia into the future.

Part two of Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia will air on ABC1 on September 25.

The ConversationGregory Melleuish, Associate Professor, School of History and Politics, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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