Second rate leadership. Part 1 of 4

Jan 10, 2020

Australia is now a confident, wealthy nation that has the right to expect its leaders to rise above the second rate.

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and … most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

It is unfortunate, but highly suggestive, that recently Donald Horne’s famous condemnation of Australia’s leadership, published in 1963, has increasingly been quoted again, far more than was the case in the last two decades of the twentieth century when Australian governments were performing rather well. Most unfortunately, the resurgence of second-rate leadership is coinciding with a new era when the nation’s luck seems to be running out.

Perhaps the two most important areas where Australians can no longer count themselves lucky are the increasing dangers in our external strategic environment and the impact of climate change on our way of life. Australians have very little ability to control events in either of these areas and in consequence the policy challenges are profound, dangerous and demanding of intellectual curiosity together with a substantial national endeavour. Recent governments have offered little to suggest that they are up to meeting these challenges. Indeed, from the bushfire emergency to America’s actions in the Middle East, the national government appears to have been “taken by surprise” with our leaders looking like rabbits in the headlights.

These surprises have struck a government that is now focussed on designing policy not by analysing the implications of any contest of ideas but in response to the supposed views of the ‘quiet Australians’. This is a much easier task, particularly for second rate leaders, because one reason that some Australians are quiet may well be that on matters of complex public policy, understandably enough, they have very little to say and are looking for leadership. In company with the rest of us, the quiet Australians are waiting for Godot. No wonder that the public service has been advised by the Prime Minister that their expertise in policy design and formulation is no longer required. Instead, we have mortgaged our future to inexperienced political apparatchiks directed by Ministers unencumbered by any discernible policy principles or agenda and subordinate to a Prime Minister with a background in marketing.

This is a dangerous approach for a couple of reasons. First, the obvious point is that the government’s programme now relies on people with perhaps some political skills but no expertise or depth of experience in public policy formulation. Secondly, while public servants are trained to propose policy approaches that are in the longer-term interests of the Australian community as a whole, government staffers are not. Their concern is to make the government look good and win the next election, with a consequent bias towards short term ‘fixes’ and promotion over substance. Such an approach means that the weakness of some Ministers and a second rate government cannot be buttressed by a stronger and more assertive public service acting in the national interest. This represents a major deviation from the principles of the Westminster system.

Australia’s dearth of good leadership has been most apparent in the response to climate change. Within the governing coalition, this issue is no longer a matter of science but one of religion. The government’s policy is informed not by the Chief Scientist or scientific experts, but by a small group of mainly old, male, white, climate change deniers, convinced that anthropogenic climate change is a greenie socialist plot. Many countries play host to a similar lunatic fringe, but none other allows them to dominate policy in an area where the clear majority view in the community generally, business, the agricultural sector and even Parliament itself is opposed both to their ideology and their policy stance.

When discussing the bushfires, it is too easy for the government to argue that nothing Australia can do unilaterally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would have made any difference. Although this is true, even axiomatic, it is also an intellectually trivial, if not insultingly stupid, debating point. Of course, the pace of climate change is determined by global emissions, of which Australia accounts for a very small percentage. But since Australia is one of the nations most affected by climate change while having the second highest level of per capita emissions, even the untutored apparatchiks now determining national policy might think it a good idea both to reduce domestic emissions and to invest a great deal of diplomatic effort in seeking to persuade other countries, such as America and China, to take much stronger action themselves. But government staffers in charge of policy take little account of the longer-term national interest. Instead, they are concerned both with placating the Luddites within their own ranks and to avoid introducing measures that would lead to higher prices for electricity and petrol that may undermine the overriding objective of winning the next election.

Given the extent of the threat to our nation and way of life, a serious government acting in Australia’s national interest would have endorsed the recent United Nations report that urges substantial action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, necessitating, inter alia, a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. This would have required, of course, a commitment to that target for Australia in order to transform this country from being a laggard into a global leader in combating climate change.

What is it about Australian Rhodes Scholars? Both Tony Abbott and the current Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, have had a malign influence on Australia’s climate change policy. Based on his claim that climate science was “crap”, Abbott was the only Prime Minister in the world to get rid of a well designed carbon price, with a carefully constructed infrastructure that could readily have been extended beyond the energy sector, and to replace it with nothing much at all.

Angus Taylor comprehensively failed to demonstrate leadership when representing Australia at the recent conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at Madrid. First, he neglected even to mention that Australia was burning, with the intensity and scope of the fires directly attributable to climate change. Next, he refused to increase Australia’s very unambitious emissions reduction target under the Paris accords by joining with Saudi Arabia and Brazil (not generally regarded as Australia’s closest confreres) to insist on the right to meet our already manifestly inadequate target by the use of carbon credits accumulated under the earlier Kyoto process. In this context it should be remembered that all developed economies that were parties to the Kyoto protocol, except Australia and Iceland, were required to reduce emissions by five per cent from 1990 levels. Australia was allowed an eight per cent increase – 13 percentage points higher than the target for other nations. This was an embarrassment at the time, multiplied in spades by the Howard government’s subsequent refusal, after securing this sweetheart deal, to ratify the protocol. On the basis of using these supposed credits, Taylor wants to meet the Paris targets by taking no significant policy action and to perpetuate the view that Australia has the right to continue to be a climate change leaner and not a lifter.

It seems quite clear that the Minister had been instructed by Cabinet to champion an approach that, while it would have been welcomed by the government’s lunatic fringe, was unambiguously not in Australia’s national interest. While other countries are deeply sympathetic to Australia’s current bushfire crisis, which is widely regarded as a harbinger of what the world will face in the future, they note Australia’s refusal to play a leadership role in emissions reduction and our unambiguous avoidance of any targets that would require significant policy action.

Australia’s international reputation is not assisted by parliamentarians like Craig Kelly appearing on Fox News in the UK, insisting that climate change had nothing to do with the bushfires, which apparently occurred because of insufficient backburning. Apart from this being a dog whistler for “it’s all the fault of the greenies”, it is also a contention that is not supported by the available evidence, including a University of Melbourne study of the Black Saturday bushfires. Among other bons mots – according to Kelly, over the long term Australia shows no evidence of warming – this offended the right wing journalist Piers Morgan, who called him “a disgrace”, and Fox meteorologist and physicist Laura Morgan, whom Kelly later characterised on Twitter as “an ignorant Pommy weather girl”.

Ultimately the Prime Minister is responsible for all this and many Australians will judge him to be culpable. His government’s performance in Madrid as well as the international reaction to Australia’s bushfire crisis gives the lie to his contention that Australia is doing its bit on climate change. But now, in light of the savage public reaction to the Prime Minister as a result of the bushfire catastrophe, only a complete mug would ignore the pressure for policy change. Surely there is a majority in the Parliament, even if not on the conservative benches, for a substantial bipartisan strategy to address climate change, encompassing both much more ambitious emissions reductions as well as significant adaptation to global warming.

In brief, this strategy should incorporate:

  • A new target to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2030
  • An economy-wide, market based instrument such as a carbon levy – it would only need to be moderate – to reduce emissions not only in the energy sector but also in transport, agriculture and land management more generally so as to meet the 50 per cent target
  • A substantial diplomatic effort to take a leadership position in the global; effort and to engage with other countries with the aim of persuading them to increase their ambition so as to achieve a target of containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius
  • Using revenue from the carbon levy, the provision of adjustment assistance to Australians most affected by such measures, including low income earners, those working in the thermal coal industry and farmers
  • The development of a strategy to enable Australia to develop new industries so as to become a major player in global low emissions energy markets
  • A substantial national strategy to adjust to climate change that is already locked in, including more effective ways to tackle drought, bushfires and the threat of rising sea levels.

Australia is now a confident, wealthy nation that has the right to expect its leaders to rise above the second rate. Given the destructive impact of the climate change issue on governments of both persuasions over the last two decades, surely common sense will prevail so that a bipartisan approach could be developed with the national interest at heart. The bushfire emergency represents an existential crisis for many Australians and has propelled us well beyond bromides such as marketing jingles – “How good is Australia?” – and invoking the spirit of the Australian cricket team. It would take a great deal in these times to put sport back on the front pages.

We can only hope that the Prime Minister can rise to the occasion, even if only for reasons of political self-interest. Surely it is time to despatch the Luddites in the Coalition back to their cave and to develop a bipartisan strategy that would largely take politics out of the debate. Ministerial staffers cannot do this effectively. It is time to re-engage with the public service.

Jon Stanford was a Division Head in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, with responsibilities that included energy and climate change policy.

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