Chasing the consensus chimera

As Australia’s government goes to an election promising consensus-building on climate change, action

Setbacks for advocates of strong action on climate change have come in quick succession in the months since Copenhagen. If the demise of the US climate bill was the most important, the turnaround in Australia -- which boasts some of the highest per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the world -- may be the most striking.

Australian Labor fought and won the 2007 election pledging an emissions trading scheme (ETS) by 2010. It will face the people later this month promising to defer a final decision on whether to introduce an ETS to 2012.

This dwindling of political will has raised fundamental questions about the government. Climate change was the totemic issue for the "new leadership" offered by Kevin Rudd in 2007. In addition to his off-the-cuff welcome to Hu Jintao in excellent Mandarin, Rudd's climate activism was crucial to his self-presentation as a modern, forward-thinking leader. Back then, Rudd called climate change "the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation". He condemned the inaction and climate scepticism of his predecessor, the conservative John Howard.

Labor's advertising campaign even depicted Howard asleep in his bed, famously bushy eyebrows visible above the duvet, with a framed photo with George W Bush on the bedside table. While an alarm clock blared away in vain, the voice-over pronounced Howard "asleep on climate change".

But the "greatest moral challenge" does not feature in Labor's ad campaign this time around.

Labor's ETS was rejected by parliament in December after a last-minute rebellion of opposition conservatives -- one of whom branded climate change a conspiracy of "the extreme left" to "deindustrialise the western world". But instead of fighting another election on the issue, Rudd announced in April that the ETS would be delayed until at least 2013.

His credibility never recovered. Political opponents who had accused the government of having a hollow core claimed vindication. Ross Gittins, a prominent economic commentator, labelled Rudd "a weak man fallen among thieves". His standing deemed unsalvageable by party hardheads, Rudd was replaced as leader in June by his deputy, Julia Gillard.

Gillard soon called an election and announced that a returned Labor government would review plans for an ETS in 2012, after establishing a randomly selected "Citizens' Assembly" to "examine" climate change and "test" community consensus. But consensus on contentious issues is by definition a chimera. Each of the major economic reforms in Australia over the past 30 years was carried out in the distinct absence of community consensus.

The announcement drew widespread derision. Labor's lead has evaporated in most polls. The attempt to kick the ETS into touch simply exacerbated the doubts raised by Rudd's backflip.

This should not be a surprise. A recent poll found that 60 per cent of Australians want an ETS. The global financial crisis is often cited as a reason for weakening demand for action on climate, but Australia did not have a recession. What's more, many people were persuaded in 2007 of the urgent need to put a price on carbon. They find it difficult to accept that this need has become less urgent, not more, in 2010.

Australia's three-year electoral cycle makes U-turns decidedly risky. People may not have long memories, but they certainly have short ones.

Few doubt that Rudd would have won an election immediately after the parliament rejected his ETS. Eight months later, his successor is locked in a tight race with an opposition leader who once declared climate-change science to be "absolute crap". Labor did not learn the obvious lesson. It was Rudd's capitulation on climate, not his original boldness, that shattered his credibility and his standing in the polls.

Gillard's campaign has borrowed the "Forward not back" mantra from New Labour. On climate, she might have been better off paying heed to another of Tony Blair's tenets: "At our best when at our boldest."

Stephen Minas covered the Copenhagen climate summit for Radio Television Hong Kong and the Diplomat magazine and recently completed a Master's in international relations at the London School of Economics.Twitter: @StephenMinas

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle