The Possum Box

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Archive for July, 2008

A plain man’s guide to an emissions trading scheme

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 21, 2008

By Ad astra

George Megalogenis has criticized the Rudd Government for not making it sufficiently clear what it has in mind for a carbon emissions trading scheme. He says: “OK, it’s a complex topic, but the job of leadership is to translate and educate. An ETS is how governments place a price on carbon pollution. It takes two steps to explain, which is why politicians can get tongue-tied. The Government sets a limit on how much carbon that industry can belch into the atmosphere, and sells permits for the right to pollute. But it leaves it to the market to sort out which firms continue emitting greenhouse gases at that higher cost, while the rest switch to cleaner energy sources.” The Weekend Australian 12-13 July. So there it is. But how many punters would get the gist of ETS from that ‘word bite’? Nicholson’s cartoon in The Weekend Australian 19-20 July captures the teething troubles in explaining the scheme.

I thought it might be interesting to fashion an uncomplicated statement for the typical voter, who eventually will have to pass judgement on the ETS. This is my first try. Respondents are invited to hack it about, improve it, or substitute their own. Let’s agree to a limit of around 1,000 words.

A plain man’s guide to an ETS

All political parties in Australia believe a carbon emissions trading scheme has become necessary to control the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. The Government’s Green Paper has now changed the name to a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
Greenhouse gases

Most climate scientists are convinced that the earth is warming because of an increase in carbon in the atmosphere, which is mostly in the form of a gas, carbon dioxide. This gas traps heat close to the earth, just like a greenhouse traps heat inside. This is why it’s called a ‘greenhouse gas’. Another greenhouse gas is methane, which is generated largely in the agricultural sector.

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide has one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen, and so is called CO2. It is produced whenever something containing carbon is burned – the carbon atom is joined to two oxygen atoms from the air. Some substances produce much more than others when burned – coal, particularly brown coal, emit large amounts of CO2, and are therefore called ‘heavy emitters’. Sometimes it’s said they have a large ‘carbon footprint’.

For centuries carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, especially since the start of the industrial revolution. CO2 is also emitted from animals and plants, but plants also soak it up, so plants are called ‘carbon sinks’. Cutting down forests means that less CO2 can be soaked up.

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has grown steadily over hundreds of years and is now around 387 parts per million (ppm). Its growth is accelerating. Climate scientists believe that there should be a limit of between 450 and 550 ppm by mid century, otherwise the earth will heat by more than 2 degrees Centigrade, and if that happened there would be severe effects that would change our way of living and reduce the chances of survival of many living things. Already we are seeing the effects of increasing temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic where ice is melting. As glacial ice melts into the sea, sea levels rise. Already some Pacific islands are being flooded; eventually coastal dwellers in Australia and other countries will suffer the same fate unless the CO2 level is controlled.

So curbing greenhouse gases is considered by all political parties in this country to be essential. The way of doing this proposed by the Government is called a ‘cap and trade’ system.

‘Cap and trade’

The term ‘cap’ means that the total amount of carbon emitted each year by Australia will be limited, or ‘capped’. As the agricultural sector is not included in the scheme at present, it is CO2 emissions that will be limited. Let’s say that the limit or cap will be a million tonnes of CO2 per year. This is not the real figure. All industries that emit CO2 will have to fit within that limit. The term ‘trade’ means that any industry that needs to emit CO2, say to produce electricity, has to buy a permit to do so. The Government will create and auction these carbon pollution permits. In the beginning it will give some away free, but eventually all will be auctioned. Those who buy a permit can sell or trade it to someone else. Suppose a coal-burning electricity generator buys from the Government a permit to emit a thousand tonnes a year, but because it was able to develop a way of producing the same amount of electricity with less CO2 emitted into the atmosphere through, let’s say, storing it underground (carbon capture and storage), that electricity company would be able to sell or trade some of its permit to another company that emits CO2. This would reduce the cost of production to the electricity company, which could make its electricity less costly, and thereby more attractive to customers. Therein is the incentive to companies to develop methods of making their products in a way that results in less CO2 being emitted.

The Government believes that rather than it trying to regulate the system, ‘market forces’ would be the best way to govern the purchase and sale of permits to emit CO2. Eventually the market would become international. The cost of the permits has not been set, but is likely to range from $20 to $100 per tonne of CO2. It will probably start low and increase slowly.

Who’s included?

All agree that the more sectors of the economy that are included in the scheme, the less the burden will be on each individual sector. The Government has proposed that apart from the agricultural sector, all other sectors will be included at the outset. Some say that fuel used by motor vehicles, which emit CO2 while their motors are running, should not be included as this would increase the cost of fuel. But if fuel is excluded, the others that emit CO2, for example coal-burning electricity generators, would have to bear a greater cost burden, and the cost of electricity would be higher. So what might be saved by excluding fuel would be made up by higher electricity costs.

Compensating those affected

Because even the poorest in the community pay the same price for fuel and electricity as the better off, the Government proposes to compensate those on lower or fixed incomes for the extra cost to them. It also proposes to support industries unintentionally affected, such as those, while not polluting much themselves, rely on heavy emitters for their electricity, such as aluminium producers.

In a nutshell

To sum up, most see the need for limiting CO2 emissions. There is less agreement about the best way of doing it and how fast it should be done. The Government shares the sense of urgency expressed by most climate scientists and therefore has decided to act sooner rather than later by introducing a ‘cap and trade’ scheme to cover as many sectors as feasible by 2010, and compensate those on lower incomes and industries unfairly affected. The aim is not just to reduce emissions while minimizing the effect on the economy, but to encourage innovation towards ‘cleaner’ energy technology, with a view to profitably exporting this technology to high emission economies.

Ad astra can be contacted at:

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Posted in Climate Change | 23 Comments »

Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 10, 2008

By Ad astra

While most readers will have their own ideas about the meaning of ‘adversarial politics’, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s use the following definitions: “Adversarial politics exists when the proposals put forward by government are routinely criticised by opposition parties. Any stance taken by government is automatically opposed, whatever its merits.” and “Adversarial politics takes place when one party (usually not in Government) takes the opposite (or at least a different) opinion to that of the other (usually the Government) even when they may personally agree with what the Government is trying to do.” It is a characteristic of the Westminster system, and if one can judge from its most flagrant manifestation, Question Time, most parliamentarians seem to revel in it. They enjoy the contest, which at times takes on gladiatorial proportions.

Because it provides a rich source of sensational copy, the media thrive on adversarial politics, and contribute powerfully to it through the press, TV and radio. Without it, life for journalists would be less lively and the preparation of material that might interest the public more demanding.

But to some who closely follow events in the political arena, it is a source of irritation because inherently it involves dishonesty and at times downright deceit. The main game seems to be winning or scoring political points even if that requires taking an opposing position that is inconsistent with previous positions or policy, and in the process demeaning or humiliating the other person or party. All observers of the political process applaud informed and vigorous debate that teases out the issues and ensures sound decisions are made. But is an adversarial approach required to achieve this? Some might argue that it is, but most would disagree. The purpose of this piece is to offer illustrative examples, make a case for a less adversarial approach, and suggest what ordinary citizens might do to effect change.

Because adversarial positions inherently are more often taken by parties in opposition, many of the illustrations offered in this piece are derived from Opposition comments and positions. However, the Government is not immune, as some examples demonstrate.

Adversarial politics in Parliament

A recent instance is the contrary position on an emissions trading scheme taken by the Federal Opposition in Question Time, casting doubts about whether petrol should be included, whereas in Government they said it should. Although the Opposition’s position was confused and has since changed, it was clearly different from the one it held previously. Although this change of position has been ‘justified’ by Malcolm Turnbull on the grounds that “things have changed” since being in Government, it looked like an attempt to wedge the Government for political advantage.

The Government too uses Question Time to score political points, via ‘Dorothy Dixers’. As backbenchers read, often in a stumbling manner, a question written elsewhere and designed to give the responder an opening to attack the Opposition, the object is transparently clear.

The NT intervention initially had bipartisan support. But by springing on Brendan Nelson during the Apology an announcement of a bipartisan ‘war cabinet’, Kevin Rudd quietly wedged him, and when Nelson nominated Mal Brough to that group, and Rudd rejected that nomination, a pattern of adversarial conflict over this important initiative began, which may destroy what promised to be unique and valuable bipartisanship.

Adversarial press conferences and doorstops

It’s not just Question Time that provides an opportunity for adversarial politics. The day after the Federal Parliament rose, it was announced that head of Treasury Ken Henry was taking five weeks leave during which he intended to spend time in a Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat sanctuary in Queensland. In a press conference Wayne Swan said that Henry had worked day and night since the election, right through the Christmas period, and that anyone working at such intensity, with a busy schedule ahead, needed a restorative break. Did Brendan Nelson, who had roundly criticized Rudd for placing the public service under work pressure, commend him for granting Henry leave? No. Determined to score a political point he queried the wisdom of granting leave at what he considered to be a busy time, and using a clever quip continued: “I’m concerned about who is going to look after the ‘muddle-headed’ Treasurer.” And he wasn’t joking. Malcolm Turnbull did likewise. This exhibition of ‘adversarial-speak’ is another example why many despair of our political system. Always being contrary, consistently taking the opposite position no matter what, brings politicians into disrepute. Voters are smart enough to see the hypocrisy of this sort of behaviour, yet politicians persist with it as if they somehow live in a bubble into which ordinary folk cannot critically gaze.

No wonder the electorate has become so cynical.

In an arranged doorstop we saw Greg Hunt fabricate a scary scenario from insubstantial data and suspect assumptions about the effect on petrol prices of a Rudd Government emissions trading scheme. He insisted prices could rise by 10, 20, even 30 cents a litre. Having concocted this tragic scene, he then demanded the Government ‘guarantee’ that compensation would ensure that no one would be worse off with such a scheme. The fact that this adversarial line was based on a flimsy proposition that was not in accord with the facts was of no importance. Its purpose was to provide a launching pad for an adversarial attack. It llustrated the time-honoured axiom of political life that truth is irrelevant, perception is all that counts.

Adversarial probing

Journalists at doorstops and press conferences, and particularly radio talkback hosts and TV interviewers have become patently combative and at times downright aggressive and rude in interviewing politicians. While we all want probing interviewers, with the courage to challenge politicians, their stated policies and their utterances, why do journalists persist ad nauseam in asking questions that no prudent politician would or should answer. Recently Fairfax Media’s Neil Mitchell tried to push the PM into answering what petrol would cost after the introduction of an emissions trading scheme despite being told by Rudd that until the Garnaut report was public and the Government’s green paper on the subject published, no details could or would be given. General comments by Rudd about making the scheme as wide as possible were not sufficient for Mitchell. He aggressively insisted the PM answer his unrealistic question. Adversarial politics – talkback style.

Perhaps as a reaction to adversarial probing, there are two words that are seldom used by politicians: ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Peter Costello managed to avoid using them for years, instead preferring “let me make this point”. Frustrated interviewers yearn for those blessed, unequivocal words, yet seldom hear them. Instead they so often get a long and convoluted response that doesn’t answer the question, and when it occasionally does, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have saved everyone a lot of time and irritation. Less adversarial probing might evoke a more forthcoming response.

ABC’s 774 radio host Jon Faine, and ABC TV’s Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones are devotees of the ‘will you guarantee’ or ‘will you rule out’ syndromes, hoping for a ‘Gotcha’ moment. Sometimes it’s justified, but at times it’s sheer harassment in an effort to get a scoop. While this approach may appeal to viewers when a politician of their ‘non-preferred party’ is being besieged, it is still adversarial politics media-style, does our political discourse no favours, and unnecessarily belittles our politicians; that they put up with such verbal assaults is to their enduring credit.

Adversarial journalism

News bulletins can subtly engage in adversarial journalism with the words they choose. A recent instance followed ABC’s Lateline on 27 June where Rod Cameron said that given the current popularity of Kevin Rudd and his high level of public support, he had about a year to promote his vision of an emissions trading scheme, after which it would be much more difficult. It was reported the next day on ABC 774 morning news as “Time is running out for PM Rudd to introduce an emissions trading scheme.” This impression of urgency is not what Cameron portrayed. A news-writer’s inaccurate take on the Lateline piece cast Cameron’s comment in a different and erroneous light. Is this just careless reporting, or does it reflect adversarial journalism? Countless examples of this type of reporting occur every day.

For an illustration of the difference between adversarial journalism and abalanced orientation to writing, glimpse at four articles from The Weekend Australian of June 28-29. For balanced un-emotive pieces that eschew pejorative comments, see Paul Kelly’s The Rudd Alliance“, Lenore Taylor’s Taxpayers mugged through their children“, and Mike Steketee’s They will be missed.“Contrast these articles, free of adversarial language, with Dennis Shanahan’s page one piece Climate change splinters Kevin Rudd cabinet“. You don’t have to go beyond the headlines and the first two paragraphs to see phrases like “Split on carbon costs”, “…deepest divisions over policy and politics since the election of the Rudd Government.”, “Concerns are being aired…”. There may be some truth in these adversarial statements, but little supporting evidence is offered; readers just have to take Dennis at his word.

The language of adversarial politics

Language fashions and changes perceptions. In adversarial politics exaggerated language is used to embarrass, put down, demean or diminish. It is designed to give the user a ‘win’ or an advantage over the other. There are many examples: ‘Back-flip’ and its colourful variants, ‘back flip with double pike’, ‘back-down’, ‘about-face’, or the more benign ‘about turn’ or ‘U-turn’ are terms used to indicate a change of mind or a different approach. Politicians are entitled to change their minds in the face of new evidence, different thinking or changed circumstances; the opposite, sticking stubbornly to an outdated or untenable position, is foolish. So why not use terms such as ‘change of mind’ or ‘different approach’, or ‘new tactic’ or ‘changed attitude’ or ‘revised position’? I expect journalists would see that as too wimpy.

Adversarial columnists enjoy describing ideas, proposals or political structures with which they disagree as being in ‘tatters’, in ‘disarray’, even ‘a shambles’, or in ‘chaos’. Dennis Shanahan often uses such terms to portray Rudd initiatives that he considers faulty or failures. These terms imply a disastrous turn of events, yet usually nothing catastrophic has occurred. So why not use less confronting terms? Parliamentarians making submissions to cabinet are sometimes unsuccessful – the proposal is declined or deferred. The individual is then described by journalists as having been ‘rolled’ or ‘humiliated’, or has ‘rolled over’, and painted as a loser.

The inelegant terms ‘me-too’ and ‘me-too-ism’, used throughout the 2007 campaign, have a pejorative nuance, implying a ‘copy-cat’ approach, the product of a paucity of original ideas. The words are applied by journalists when politicians indicate ‘this is our policy and so we agree’, or ‘we agree with that policy’ or ‘that sounds like a good idea, we’ll adopt it’. No one has exclusive access to good ideas. So why use uncomplimentary terms to describe those who adopt the good ideas of others? More ‘me-too-ism’ would be an agreeable antidote to unrelenting adversarial politics.

Slogans and mantras.

Slogans are part and parcel of the language of adversarial politics. ‘Stunts’, ‘gimmicks’, ‘symbolism’, ‘all style and no substance’, are frequently used. ‘Control freak’ is another that has been applied to Kevin Rudd. Julie Bishop used this slogan with gusto in trying to implicate Rudd in the so-called cover-up of the Belinda Neal affair. On the ABC’s Lateline on 27 June, John Hewson, who is no longer in politics and who usually gives a balanced commentary, mouthed ‘control freak’ time and again. The slogan had firmly stuck in his mind, and he worked it relentlessly. Yet what evidence has been proffered to support the ‘control freak’ mantra? It seems that all that can be gleaned so far is that written statements for distribution to the public are cleared through Rudd’s office.

Is that unreasonable, is it a serious restriction? Or is it a sensible approach to transmitting consistent messages to the public? Alternatives to ‘control freak’ could have been ‘having his finger on the pulse’, or ‘aware of everything that is going on’, or ‘directing traffic’, but they would not have had the desired affect that pejorative labelling achieves. Slogans and mantras are used because they work. Start a catchy slogan and soon many will be mindlessly repeating it. It doesn’t have to have much or even any substance, so long as it sounds believable. Look out for the latest Nelson quip: “Mr Rudd is all backswing, no follow through.”

Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?

Those who despise adversarial politics find it to be contemptible, a damaging affliction on our political system. They resent the stifling impediments it places on governing, on governments carrying out what they promised the electorate they would do. They see it as focused on ‘winning’, on gaining a political advantage, rather than telling or establishing the truth, or contributing usefully to the discourse. It sets the teeth of the electorate on edge, which ‘turns off’ in despair. Voters would prefer politicians to be open and upfront, more focussed on the good of the nation, less willing to corrupt the usually-worthy principles that brought them into politics in the first place. Adversarial politics may be an important reason the public has turned away from politics and has become cynical about the motivation and behaviour of politicians.

Is there an antidote?

One would hope there might be. In the new series on ABC TV, Q&A, opposing politicians have shown that free from their party’s line they can discuss all manner of topics sensibly and sensitively. Although they lapse occasionally into party slogans and indulge in point scoring, most of the time they show how productively they are able to work together. What a joy  it is to hear politicians of different persuasions agreeing with one another, or giving credit. We are told that this is often the case when they are off-camera in parliament in routine debate. Why could this not be the norm? Political discourse would be so much more productive and creative if deliberations were more collaborative, more mutually cooperative, more accommodating; if the good ideas from all sides were accepted, acknowledged and pooled.

What can we ordinary citizens do? We might be able to bring about change if we, who pay our politicians’ wages via taxes, raise our voices against the use of exaggerated, depreciatory, derogatory and dishonest language by politicians, commentators and columnists. While the media might miss the theatre and the good copy adversarial politics provides, the public would applaud a more measured approach, free from the burden of adversarial behaviour – so wasteful, so unproductive, so distasteful. We could write to our parliamentarians individually. Or GetUp could get up a petition – it might attract strong support. Responders to this piece may have other suggestions. Sadly though, if history tells us anything, any change for the better is probably a vain hope.

Ad astra can be contacted at:

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Posted in Uncategorized | 29 Comments »

Is Australia’s Dead Centre About To Turn Green?

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 10, 2008


The latest embarrassing shennanigans in NSW politics perfectly illustrate how the Left in Australia has now moved so far to the “centre” (i.e. centre right) that the Right can barely distinguish itself. The Right has only itself to blame, of course, having moved so far towards the Ultra Right over the past decade that there is nowhere left for them to go but Pauline Hanson country.

So now we have weak Liberal and National oppositions in the states and at the federal level. That’s not a good look for a democracy, is it? It creates the strong impression of a virtual one-party state. But this is what 21st Century Western democracy looks like: it’s the same thing in Britain and the USA. The corporate elite pull the levers, the lobbyists push the deals, the media hypes the message, and the politicians face the cameras to catapult the propaganda. Voters get to choose between Big Business or Big Business Lite, and any other option is ridiculed.

Of course the whole country has moved a long way to the right since John Howard first took power. And of course Howard’s friends in the media had a lot to do with engineering that social change. Just look how Alan Jones cheered on the Cronulla beach race riots, for example, or how Big Media (yes, it’s globalised now) hyped the illegal invasion of Iraq. We Australians have embraced the privatisation of everything that used to be publicly owned, including the rocks and minerals beneath our feet. Nobody asks why we still pay just as much (or more) tax, despite the government off-loading all these responsibilities. It’s not politically correct nowadays to make such observations, or to ask why tertiary eduction is now unaffordable to so many, etc. etc.

In this political environment, there is only one Australian party which retains the socialist ideals of “the Left” and that is the Greens. So why haven’t the Greens been getting more public support, particularly given the growing prominence of climate issues? Aside from some valid criticism of internal Greens politics over the years, I think there is only one clear explanation – the Australian corporate media has marginalised and ridiculed the Greens for so long that most people still do not take them seriously. That could be about to change.

In all the widespread applause for Kevin Rudd’s decision to embrace the Garnaut findings, nobody has noticed that our new PM had little choice. The Greens now share the balance of power in the Upper House, and any failure by Rudd to set ambitious targets for reducing our carbon footprint would have created a major stumbling block. It’s an issue the Greens would gladly use to force another election, because they know the weight of public opinion is behind them. Bob Brown is still threatening to force changes to legislation if Rudd does not commit to deep cuts.

Will the media recognise the important contribution the Greens have made, and continue to make, to our nation? Don’t hold your breath. But people can judge the facts for themselves, and the media will not be able to ignore the important role the Greens are going to play in coming months.

This is from Bob Brown’s speech to the National Press club today (pdf here):

“While the worst polluters clamour about the costs of addressing climate, the Greens, like the population at large, know the enormous benefits of early action. Besides the new industries and long-term jobs that will be created in the sunrise businesses of the future, climate change remediation generates deep satisfaction in people’s hearts. They know that we are re-creating our society and economy in a way that will protect the planet and its wildlife and provide a secure lifestyle for future generations…

Last year Australian voters changed the government and prime minister and, logically, ended the Coalition’s majority in the Senate.

So, when the Senate resumes next month it will have neither Labor nor Coalition nor Greens control. No party has the necessary 39 seats for a majority.

There are 76 seats in the Senate. Half plus one – 39 – is required for legislation to pass.

The Coalition, with 37 seats, will need two extra votes to pass its own measures or will need just one extra vote to have 38 – that’s enough to block government bills.

Labor, which has 32 Senate seats, will need an extra seven votes to get its way.

There are five Greens and two independents. That makes seven. Bingo! Mr Rudd.

After the election last October I wrote to our new Prime Minister, not just to say ‘Bingo!’, but to congratulate him.

Being a restrained fellow, I did not mention that Greens preferences had made sure Labor won 10 seats, including Bennelong, and helped Labor win in another 15.
With the fine exception of the Member for Solomon, Damian Hale, no Labor bouquets have ever come our way in recognition of this fact. Labor’s love was lost. Or maybe it never existed.

Mr Rudd replied to my letter, saying, and I quote “We have a great job of work ahead of us, and I am looking forward so much to seizing the great opportunities that Australia has. I will greatly value your continued support as the work now begins.”

Well, steady on a minute, mate.

The Greens Senate vote was 1.17 million people.

We are Australia’s third political party. The Greens have more than 100 local government representatives, 15 state parliamentarians and now, with five Senators, we qualify as an official party in the national parliament.

With true democracy, that is, proportional representation, Australian voters would have elected ten Greens to the House of Representatives in 2007. Far from being the unrepresentative swill in the Senate, the Greens are the unrepresented will of Australian voters in the House of Representatives.

So we too share the claim of a modest mandate. We Greens look forward to Labor’s support for our policy initiatives in the Senate, as we move to make it a house of innovation…

Labor and the Coalition, products of the 20th century, have more in common with each other than either has with the Greens, who are the innovative thinkers for this 21st century…

Australians will back leaders who, explaining themselves well, appeal to the decency we all harbour to change direction and to ensure that our children, and theirs, inherit a safer, saner, happier world…

As Labor was the right party to emerge at the start of the past century, the Greens are the right party now.

In a world where indifference to the challenges confronting humanity edges towards political culpability, I am honoured and deeply privileged to lead this new and, for these unprecedented times, most responsible of parties in our Australian Parliament.



This article was first published at Riding the Juggernaut. Ghandi can be contacted through that site.

Posted in Greens | 29 Comments »