We live in a contradictory political system. Our democracy is at best frought with inconsistencies and at its lowest is marred by our unique Australian kind of borish, second rate, beer swilling corruption. We, the average citizens of the Australian democracy, mostly wander around in a fog of political confusion. Our knowledge of our system is only half formed, and the half that is formed frighteningly often dwells in an American fairy floss land of politics drawn from CNN. We are led astray, ignored, kept in the dark, prodded into outrage and whipped into submission. We are patronised and taken for fools, and then we act like the fools we are being taken for. We are misinformed, but we rarely seek out the correct information. We are the victims and the perpetrators of our own absurd governance. And we are now being called upon to steer climate policy.
In a deeply ironic twist, after having been manipulated out of taxing Rio and BHP on the profits they make off our resources and still reeling from having our leader ousted in a party coup, we are being told that we the citizens are integral to our democratic process. Viewed cynically, The new climate ‘policy’ as of today is an attempt to outsource the responsibility for strategic policymaking while experimenting with what is essentially cute political market research. Be warned: despite the democratic pretense, the 150 Joe Bloggs pulled in off the streets who may or may not represent our views will be unlikely to influence policy at all. Far more likely to be used to legitimate existing policy. Viewed slightly less cynically, this populist take on policymaking vis-a-vis the 20-20 conference is definately a departure from the make-policy-first-then-sell-it attitude of the Howard era, regardless of how much of an ineffective circus it may be. There are most definitely raggedy scraps of honest attempts at change clinging to the edges of this initiative. Doubtless there is some visionary policy maker in there somewhere, poking around in a dark room full of pragmatic career politicians. It genuinely tries to be a breath of fresh air, and with good reason: our system is characterised by an appalling lack of citizen consultation, and those in Canberra know it. Well, they should: after all, they are the ones who dish out the instructions to the state and local governments without properly consulting. Of course, moves towards more public contribution to policy however sketchy reinforces our shaky democracy and can overall be considered a good thing. Can’t it?
Public support for action on climate change is fairly unanimous. Chewing the fat with 150 battlers is unlikely to demonstrate more or less public support for action on climate change than the results of the last election, not to mention the national marches during Copenhagen and a string of polls, the most recent being by the Australian Conservation Foundation.
But, as demonstrated by a number of studies including this five year Lowy poll, the hypocrisy of public opinion is that while we support action, many of us are still unwilling to foot the bill. 72% of the public believe that Australia should take unilateral action. Only 46% of the public support action that involves significant costs while 40% believe in gradual, low cost action. A full 20% of the those that believed in the need for immediate action that carries with it significant costs weren’t actually prepared to shoulder any of those significant costs themselves via increased electricity prices.
What sort of policy would we get out of that confusion? The answer is….exactly the sort of policy we have. A policy that is all talk, and no action. Like a miserable borrower sweet talking their loan shark, we promise much and produce little. The old adage, that we get the government we deserve, is proven depressingly correct. The question of increased consultation goes out the window, when it seems that we are, in fact, being represented. We just don’t like what we see.
This is why leadership is so important. Labor’s new climate ‘policy’ fends off the possibility of national or international leadership out of terror of taking a stand on such a contentious issue. Like a sulky child, they snivel away in the corner waiting for the big kids to go first. Leadership doesn’t mean sacrificing democratic process and acting without consultation. It is about navigating a path between majority and full consensus; balancing two sides of an argument, without giving undue attention to opinions that are unjustified. For God’s sake, there is still not a full consensus in our society on the theory of evolution; that hasn’t stopped us from getting on with the business of modernising science has it? Grassroots political participation is of course the foundation of democracy, and cannot be substituted. Our system, with its internal party wheelings and dealings and top down decision making, is far from democratic in many ways. There is vast room for improvement, a fact that we seem to have forgotten since we decided that we have reached the shining apex of western democratic capitalism and don’t need to really try any more. But sometimes, although we are reluctant to admit it, we need to be pushed to be the best that we can be. We need a little nudge to loosen our fists and put our money where our mouths are. We can only feel better when we see our reflection because of it. Activist groups have been trying to do this for years. It’s time for our elected leaders to step up.