Mark every box when you vote

Tomorrow the breakneck speed summer election campaign comes to an end.

We go the polls, enjoy a snag and elect the MPs that will form the next parliament of Queensland. Despite the increasingly presidential style of elections, we don’t actually vote for a leader but for a member to represent local interests in George Street, and long may that continue. Yet we do have a say in who forms government.

No one can say who will lead Queensland next week. The polls suggest Campbell Newman will lose his seat in Brisbane but the LNP government will hang on (if Newman does not accept this possibility, I suggest he take some remedial maths classes).  What is certain that either the LNP or Labor will form government next week, so people should remember that fact when they go to the polls, and vote all the way down the line choosing one or other of those major parties.

Yesterday I published an article on the Gatton Star which had Pauline Hanson urging voters to understand the electoral system so they can make an informed choice. I agree with Hanson however I disagree with One Nation’s and Katter Party’s how to vote card. They preferenced each other only but they should have been more honest with voters and ranked all candidates 1 to 6. That way we could have judged which of the major parties they want to see in government.

It’s a shame civics is no longer taught in schools as it gives people a useful primer on how our system of democracy works. Why does that matter? Well, because, voting is compulsory for one, and secondly politicians spend our taxpayer dollars and make important decisions that affect all our lives.

You’ll have noticed our Gatton Star website top heavy with political stories over the last few weeks and I don’t make any apologies for that.

We’ve also mainly covered local issues and local seats and I don’t apologise for that either. All politics is local and we’ve been fortunate here in the Lockyer and Brisbane Valleys to have candidates who have a real passion for local matters as well as keeping an eye on what is happening across Queensland.

If I have an apology, it is to the voters of Nanango, which I afraid we’ve not covered as well as I would have liked. I said at the start of the campaign the LNP’s Deb Frecklington would retain that seat and I believed she would be a senior minister if the LNP retains power, which will be great for the wider region. Nothing I have seen in the last three weeks make me change my mind.

The other two seats are less clear cut as shown in the candidate forums in Ipswich and Gatton this week. Ipswich West polling suggests Jim Madden is about to reclaim that seat from the LNP’s Sean Choat. Choat played up to his reputation as a maverick at the forum and launched a spirited defence of his time as local member. Choat is likeable, approachable and young and I hope he continues to stay in politics and demonstrate his independent streak. In contrast Madden and his fellow Labor candidate for Ipswich Jennifer Howard played it safe in their forum speeches knowing the seat is now theirs to lose. I would welcome Madden in the new parliament as a rare Labor politician who understands rural issues and I hope he becomes an advocate for the bush in the party room and on the floor of parliament.

Over in Lockyer, the seat has become second only to Ashgrove for intrigue. Most of this can be put down to the entry of Pauline Hanson on the ballot paper. Hanson has come a long way from the fish and chip shop owner in Ipswich who bagged Asians and Indigenous people to win the seat of Oxley in 1996 as a disendorsed liberal. Hanson’s views these days are more mature but I disagree with her on halal certification and multiculturalism. In the election she has steadfastly stuck to state issues apart from her people’s forum in Gatton last week where I was unimpressed by her fellow panellists who used the occasion to sprout conspiracy theories about climate change and the UN taking over the world.

Hanson however I could not fault. She was gracious, thoughtful and always willing to listen to others. She is inspirational to supporters and has a great connection with the audience who listened rapt to every word she said. If I have one criticism it is her tendency for a victim complex, but she is clearly a compelling figure. I believe that Hanson is playing a long game and sees herself as Prime Ministerial material.

That is a laudable ambition but the problem is she does not belong to a major party. Only a Labor or Liberal MP will become Prime Minister any time in the near future. It’s the same with Premier. So my only advice when you voting in Lockyer is this. Mark all six boxes.

Mark Craig Gunnis of the Palmer Party last. Gunnis is a fly-in candidate who works for Palmer and he showed great disrespect by claiming a “prior engagement” to avoid scrutiny at the Gatton forum. Mark one of the minor parties 1, 2 and 3 depending on your personal preference for Hanson, Katter’s Neuendorf or the policies of the Greens.

But think hard about your choice for 4 or 5. Will it be Labor’s Steve Leese or the LNP’s Ian Rickuss? That’s your call. But only the LNP or Labor will form government and ultimately you need to decide who you prefer. Think about that as you put pencil to paper.  That, and support your P&C by buying a snag or a cupcake.

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Springborg cleaning

springborgOn Saturday Queenslanders go to the polls. However for many people, myself included, the election is already over. I pre-polled last week, realising I would be too busy working covering the election to have time to vote. My feelings were similar to many campaign workers and even some candidates I spoke to. Pre-polling means losing out on the sausages but also means avoiding long queues. In the bone-headed absence of internet voting, it is an increasingly popular option to the time poor.

I live in Lutwyche, an unwanted suburb the Electoral Commission shuffled between the electorates of Clayfield, Brisbane and Stafford in recent years. Currently we reside in the seat of Clayfield, held by the LNP’s Tim Nicholls. Nicholls took the seat from Labor in 2006 and despite an unfavourable re-distribution two years later (thanks to us plebs moving in from Stafford) he has increased his majority at every subsequent election. There will be a correction this time round, but Nicholls should escape the carnage of many other Brisbane seats. With Ashgrove likely to fall, Nicholls is tipped to be Premier if the LNP still fall over the line in victory. I don’t share that belief.

I met Nicholls when he addressed an LNP meeting in the Lockyer Valley last year and he impressed as a master of his Treasury brief. He is a good operator but perhaps too suave and too urban for some tastes within the party. The LNP is still less than a decade old and remains a marriage of convenience between the old ruling class of the rural Nationals and the city bridesmaid of the Liberals. Nicholls is a true blue Liberal and deputy leader of the party prior to the merger. That didn’t matter in the Newman landslide of 2012. Suddenly the parliament was awash with urban Liberals. The old Nationals were butchered in the cabinet allocation with only one minister from west of the great divide. That minister was Lawrence Springborg.

Springborg seems to have been around for ever as the youngest person ever to be elected to Queensland parliament in 1989. Indeed he will become Father of the House in the new parliament on the retirement of Howard Hobbs. Yet when he celebrates his birthday next month, he will be just 47. Springborg’s parliamentary career coincided with Labor hegemony and despite a long reign as opposition leader, his time at the top of the Nationals and then the LNP ended in three election defeats in 2004, 2006 and 2009. Springborg was written off as a bumbler and yesterday’s man but began his rehabilitation when he took on the difficult health portfolio in the Newman government of 2012.

Springborg was given the task of bringing enormous health expenditure under control. He deflected criticism for sackings by appointing hospital and health boards who did the dirty work. Slowly but surely Springborg got health back on track. He succeeded in getting it off the front page as he dealt with a litany of problems including payroll issues, dodgy doctors, and congested waiting rooms.

Springborg is far from charismatic. Yet he comes across like Nicholls as a master of his brief and has a dogged and determined air of an experienced operator who knows how to get things done. Significantly, Labor has not denied Springborg has been successful in his portfolio but says his success was based on money he got from the Labor Federal Government. This is partially true, and if Springborg is health minister in the new term he will have a tougher ride thanks to Abbott Government cutbacks.

But I don’t think he will be health minister, I think he will be Premier. The distribution of seats in the new parliament will be vastly different than is now. There will be less LNP MPs from the south-east and more from country and regional areas. I believe these MPs, many of them ex-Nationals, will remember 2012 and vote for Springborg in the party room ahead of Nicholls (though Fiona Simpson is a possible compromise candidate). Whoever it is, will also likely face a new opposition leader. Annastacia Palaszczuk has done a fine job in making Labor electable again but has an image problem as a preferred leader. Cameron Dick or Stirling Hinchliffe will surely swoop if Labor fall short of government.

The last Monday in January: updated arguments for an Australian treaty

An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)
An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)

I’m pleased Australia Day is a Monday this year – it should always be the last Monday in January. Australia Day celebrates summer, it celebrates Australian achievement and diversity, it celebrates sport, it celebrates the long weekend, it celebrates the end of summer holidays and back to school, work and routine for the year. What it does not do is celebrate the uninvited arrival of the British in Australia over two hundred years ago. January 26 is the date in 1788 that Australia’s first jail was opened and given the name Sydney. Initially a dumping place for Britain’s riff raff, it took British authorities 50 years to realise sending people to Australia was no punishment. With its sunny weather, good prospects, easy land and its promise of gold, governments were footing a travel bill for eager adventurers. A labour-poor Western Australia continued to import prisoners but eventually also admitted defeat. Over time convictism became a stain that history sought to whitewash. With Federation on January 1, 1901, the new nation ignored Australia’s raison d’etre as it defined itself as a southern Britain. Blacks outside and inside were not welcome to share in its bounty. The six colonies had gradually encroached on all Aboriginal land out-competing indigenous people for resources. The fiction of British law across Australia as imposed by Arthur Phillip on a tiny sliver of land in 1788 was made real in small and often violent installments far from official scrutiny.

History is a handy heuristic for making sense of the world and white Australia needed a new history to go with their gleaming new possession. They created a new history of a determined and resourceful people that tamed and conquered a tough but empty land. Borrowed from America, the myth was called pioneering. It was a useful mythology and inclusive of women and men, and British and non-British could aspire to it. But it excluded the Aboriginal people. Land was something they had managed for 2000 generations. But they had no writing, no money, no leaders. Europeans ignored them where they could and took the land.

They brought agriculture and technology but were unprepared for Australian weather, soils, and the needs of native plants and animals. Much accumulated Aboriginal wisdom died with loss of habitat while Europeans held a pig-headed belief in their own superiority. They reminded themselves of this with the help of their history. A terra nullius of space and mind covered the difficult bits of violence and land appropriation. The new constitution of Australia was informed by white superiority and its few mentions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people considered them fauna requiring the “protection” of the states.

The new Australians were creating other laws kept foreign “blacks” out of the country. All sides of politics supported White Australia, the right influenced by social Darwinism, the left by worries of cheap labour. Newly federated Australia didn’t want full independence but didn’t want interference from London. Britain’s brown empire was not welcome. The process of changing from colonists to nationalists was slow. Adventures such as the Boer war and Gallipoli were seized upon by recruits as escapism from a dull existence and a sense of patriotism to the mother country. But when the trickle of deaths in Turkey became a flood, nationwide grief was weaved into a new thread of remembrance.

The legend of Anzac Day was suitable material for history, unlike convictism and the war against the blacks. Remembering January 1 as Australia’s founding day never took hold, but Anzac Day did and today is more inclusive than the date of Phillip’s arrival in Sydney. January 26 and April 25 are both invasion days but while the Turks have forgiven the Australian state, Indigenous Australians have not. War with Turkey was acknowledged and ended, war in Australia was never admitted and never ended. If war is politics by other means, then treaties are the way to resume politics after wars.

Australia is in dire need of a treaty. I say that as someone born in Ireland where a treaty ended a war. It was an imperfect treaty and started another one but it was broadly supported because it was broadly useful. It helped Ireland forge its own path and it helped England end a long and costly struggle. Colonial powers have often used treaties but only where they were deemed useful. The Waitangi treaty was useful to Britain as a way of overcoming an inconvenient declaration of New Zealand independence. But a treaty was no use to a 1788 prison colony under armed guards nor was it useful for a white Australia of 1901.

Indigenous Australians did not lie on the dying pillow as predicted and marched back into history forcing whites to re-examine the past. The pre-invasion population of 750,000 went down to 60,000 by 1921 but has been on the increase ever since, with close to half a million Australians now identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Aboriginal constitutional achievement peaked in 1967 with the removal of two clauses that enabled them to be counted in the census and managed by commonwealth powers. Supporters marshalled a range of arguments. including shame, to convince the white community.

Around the same time anthropologist Bill Stanner started calling out the lies by omission in Australian history. Stanner called it the “great forgetting”, a structural telling of history that deliberately left out crucial bits. A new historiography emerged putting Aboriginal people into the centre of Australian history. The research from colonial times was confronting and not flattering to settlers or government. There was a backlash from conservatives as their cosy relationship with the past was threatened. The new history was damned as too negative against the achievements of old Australia.

White Australia was slowly dismantled in the 1960s and 1970s as the country welcomed settlers from all over the world. In the 1990s, landmark decisions like Mabo and Wik removed the fiction that Aboriginal people did not own the land before white settlement. No court will touch Phillip’s 1788 statement of possession but there is recognition this is a country of two peoples, one which suffered significant structural disadvantage. The counting of Aborigines in the census revealed deep problems against social indicators of health, education, and employment.

These problems remain profound 50 years after the referendum, especially in the nation’s Aboriginal towns. “Closing the gap” on these indicators is a necessary part of any equality agenda but must appeal to the heart too. Symbolism is detested by many conservatives who prefer to concentrate on “practical reconciliation”. But a body cannot be healed if the spirit remains sick. A constitutional preamble might have success as a symbol but it would need to have some serious meat on its bones. It must acknowledge there was a war and it must also acknowledge it is now over. It must hurt otherwise there is no atonement. It must give away things. It must be owned by Indigenous people. Yet it can’t be too radical or it wouldn’t get the 80% support of non-Indigenous people it needs to pass a referendum. There should be a guaranteed two percent indigenous MPs, a return to some form of self-government, and a promise for the states to support land claims or at least not fight them. A treaty must invoke the same triggers that got whites in large numbers to vote yes in 1967 despite the dryness of constitutional language. It must be real and something all Australians would be proud to support. The day of its signing should become Australia day – I suggest that day be always be celebrated as the last Monday in January.

The Charlie Hebdo challenge: to seduce not offend

A Charlie Hebdo cover from 2011 equates the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
A Charlie Hebdo cover from 2011 equates the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

A French satirical magazine no one heard of three days ago has become the worldwide poster boy for “western values” after the latest atrocity by extremist Muslim fighters. Islam may not be a country, as Foreign Policy magazine stated, but the death of cartoonists and other editorial staff in Paris was the classic case of a front line action in the war of ideas between the West and Islam.

Charlie Hebdo has become a metaphor for the western right to free speech trumpeted by European ideals, but finding itself trumped by the Islamic right to punish blasphemy. The debate has become heated as a civilisation-calling cry of “Je Suis Charlie”. Defending to the death someone’s right to say something you don’t like is a powerful Voltairean notion of tolerance (though the phrase belongs to his biographer Evelyn Hall) but sentencing to death someone who said something you didn’t like, belongs to an older tradition. It is increasingly synonymous with the all-or-nothing approach Islamists are taking, a fact some in the west prefer not to acknowledge.

Whether this points to structural flaws within Islam or is merely the actions of a twisted few whose numbers are growing is a moot point. It is not a simple equation of “us and them” as the death of a Muslim policeman at Hebdo’s office and the hero Muslim shop assistant who saved Jewish hostages in the Paris siege shows. The gulf between civil liberties and freedom to practise religion is problematic for France’s six million Muslims, of which two thirds have abandoned their faith. They are true westerners, who like ex-Christians leave behind certainties of religion for secularism and a slow and rocky retreat to materialism.

Regardless of whether a world without religion is better than one with it, Europe and Islam’s history is long and bloody. Charlie Hebdo follows centuries of Christian-Islamic bloodshed despite being people of the book with similar cultures and Semitic languages. Muslims viewed Christianity the same way Christians viewed Judaism: with a grudging respect for followers of an older but incomplete truth. For Christians, Islam was a subsequent religion which meant it had to be false (a feeling Islam shares for its successor Ba’hai) and had Inquisitions at the ready for apostasies.

Islam had the obligation of jihad, a striving in the path of God, that scholars translate as “holy war”. Jihad is a Muslim duty to fight in a war against the unbelievers. This war does not end until all of humanity embraces Islam or submits to the authority of the Muslim state. While the obligation was in force on all frontiers, jihad had a particular character in Europe where Islam met its fiercest resistance.

Europe may be a place and Islam may be a religion but as Bernard Levin said, the pair are not asymmetrical. The Arabic word for religion is “din” which Levin said was a cognate word for law in other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. Islam promoted belief and worship but never became compartmentalised. Islam embraces all of life’s practices and laws. Religion is life for practising Muslims.

Islam did not produce great institutions of religion. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was not martyred and achieved military success in his lifetime. Not content to render power unto Caesar, he founded a world of Islam ruled by one sovereign, the caliph. This belief hampered the growth of nation states in the Islamic realm while Europe gradually went regional, then dynastic and finally nationalistic. That unity of purpose remains a powerful motif in modern Islam and helps understand the attraction of Islamic State’s revival of the caliphate.

The ideal of a single Islamic polity transcending nations remains appealing to many Muslims, who find the western world’s libertarianism an excuse for weakness. Europe invented the notion of “the western world” and Europe invented the cartoon, which was originally a full life drawing, typically pasted together into a larger work. The name has Catholic and Protestant roots, a combination of the Italian “cartone” and Dutch “karton”. Both words meant the strong heavy paper cartoons first were drawn on. The plaster of early cartoons would stay damp for days making it good for pasting together into large frescoes. The transition from art materials to art itself began with the Italian caricatura of the 18th century, a drawing with features exaggerated for comic effect.

The crossover into political satire progressed with the social commentary of Hogarth’s paintings. During the French Revolution, British satirists used the medium for lampooning and caricature of prominent people and events (including the Revolution itself). These prints were one-off creations that did not sit in any other body of work. In 1843 Punch magazine used the concept to describe satirical drawings in its pages and called them cartoons. Punch knew their cartoons were dangerous especially when attacking expensive reputations, but hoped that by making them a part of the glue of a magazine, they would be seen as an essential part of the whole and might escape censure.

Cartoonists have been using this ‘escape valve’ of humour ever since to push the boundaries of criticism. The simple power of cartoons has also been used to push political agendas. Where the boundaries lie between freedom of expression and propaganda is constantly shifting. In 2005 Danish cartoonists risked Muslim wrath when Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, mostly depicting the prophet Muhammad. The newspaper called it an attempt to debate the issue of Islam and self-censorship. It caused protest across the Islamic world and several deaths, mostly in Muslim countries. It did nothing to improve relations between Islam and the West. Charlie Hebdo also republished the cartoons.

Speaking after the Danish controversy, Jerusalem Post cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen was convinced cartooning is on the faultline of civilisations. To be successful, cartooning has to be funny. “My cartoons are designed to make someone laugh and through this laughter, which causes the person to drop his guard,” Kirschen said. “I am able to change the individual’s mind and convince the reader to see things the way I do.” That is the lesson for Hebdo and supporters: to seduce rather than offend.

Three more years: the prognosis for Queensland’s election 2015

Premier Campbell Newman gets selfied at Wivenhoe Dam in 2013 (Photo: Derek Barry).
Premier Campbell Newman gets selfied at Wivenhoe Dam in 2013 (Photo: Derek Barry).

Queensland voters may not like it, but Premier Campbell Newman is defying conventional wisdom and taking the state to a mid-summer election. The election is on Saturday, January 31 and the barbecued sausages won’t be the only thing generating heat.

Whether voters will punish the LNP for their inconsiderateness remains to be seen, but it is a high risk strategy in an already tight election with the Premier struggling to hang on to his Ashgrove seat in a renewed challenge from popular former member Kate Jones. Possible reasons for the early poll include catching Labor on the hop, removing useless election date speculation, and a feeling the downward poll trend is unlikely to be reversed and may as well be faced up early. It may even be some bad news down the track that would only have made matters worse.

Whatever the reason, it smacks of a government in trouble and represents a remarkable turnaround in three years. It is also a problem entirely of the LNP’s own making.

The LNP won a huge mandate for change in 2012 with voters tired of a government that had lost its way after two decades of near continuous rule. Campbell Newman won an unprecedented victory from outside parliament providing what seemed a fresh apolitical perspective on government. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.

The government practiced classic first year austerity measures, with large-scale public service redundancies. They said no front line services would be affected, but it was hard to pick off bits of the house of cards without serious impact. After three years, the Government can claim credit in reining in borrowing while finding efficiencies, particularly in health. But a sour taste has lasted, especially from those affected by job losses.

A more surprising downside came with an unsavoury and botched manoeuvre in the field of law and order. A campaign against vicious criminal motorcycle gangs, who seemed immune from prosecution seemed to be tailor-made for a first term conservative government. The draconian and humiliating Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) laws had some success in cutting down on crime but are universally loathed. The government underestimated just how many middle-aged and middle-class motorcyclists there were, who felt outraged against what they saw as a personal sleight.

Newman also tried to be too clever when going against the Queensland distaste for privatisation of government assets. His government’s campaign that they were merely “leasing” the assets and they would be “returned” to the taxpayer in 99 years fell flat. Large-scale advertising at the taxpayers’ expense did not help.

These issues are a windfall to a Labor party still bruising from the 2012 election bloodbath. The prospect of a close call in 2015 must have seemed unlikely when Anna Bligh’s government lost 44 seats in 2012 leaving them with a netball team of seven seats. Bligh resigned and talents such as Stirling Hinchliffe, Cameron Dick and Andrew Fraser all lost their seats.

New leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has been a dogged campaigner for three years but has failed to cut through, particularly in preferred premier polls. The Victorian state election showed a leader with a low profile is not a fatal handicap. That election also showed the effect of national issues and the unpopularity of the Tony Abbott government is a factor in Queensland too.

Yet I cannot see how Labor can win this election. The polls are currently 50-50, which will favour incumbency and many new LNP members have created a good profile in their electorates. Labor have nine seats and need to get to 45 to form government, a task that just seems beyond them. A possible outcome is a hung parliament with a handful of independents having the balance of power, though Queensland’s exhaustible preferential voting mitigates against that outcome. The Palmer party might have done well had the election been called a year ago, but is fading rapidly. The most likely outcome is for the LNP to retain government with a small majority. The big question is: who will be the next premier?

Mr Turner: Mike Leigh’s homage to the artist

turnerWhen I was living in London in the 1980s, I loved going to the great galleries and museums where I became familiar with the work of the great British artists. The galleries were beautiful but the artists were not to my taste. Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds and the rest were worthy but dull compared to the European masters. I liked Blake’s weirdness but he did not capture my imagination the way a dark Goya could. Hogarth was earthy but he didn’t made me laugh the way a Jan Steen tableau could. But something clicked when I got to the Tate Gallery. There was something about J.M.W. Turner I couldn’t put my finger on. All I knew was that I was in the company of great art and I liked it very much. Turner was as complex as any artist I’d seen in the Louvre, Prado or the Uffici.

I wondered whether Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall could tease out this mystery of great art when I saw “Mr Turner” last week. I knew little of Turner’s life so the film was like one of his blank canvasses. Mike Leigh is one of Britain’s great directors and films like Bleak Moments, High Hopes, Secrets and Lies and Naked lay bare the psyche of agonised characters while drawing their lives with humour and tenderness. Mr Turner is his second Victorian costume drama after his Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy Turvy. In interviews Leigh bristles at the suggestion these films distract him from kitchen sink drama. “You are familiar with my work and you know I am fascinated by everybody,” he told the Independent.

It wasn’t immediately clear what drew Leigh to the artist. Despite Turner’s unorthodox sexual practices and dark talk of slavery there was little in Leigh’s film to distinguish it from a high quality but apolitical BBC costume drama. It had similar attention to period detail and colourful characters. It wasn’t until near the end when Turner refuses to sell his paintings to a wealthy businessman that Leigh’s politics made a brief appearance. Turner wouldn’t sell them because he was going to give them to the nation and have them hung in one place. It was astonishing altruism and something that must have deeply appealed to Leigh.

Turner remains a palimpsest after seeing the film despite Timothy Spall’s magnificence in the title role. Spall dominates the screen, filling the gaps of a great but mysterious man as best he could. Spall as Turner has an impressive bearing, a marvellous turn of phrase, and an harrumph to kill for. But there were other more troubling aspects of his personality. Mister Turner loved his father but wasn’t very nice to his wife, other family members or his long-suffering housekeeper. He denied the existence of his daughters and lived a secret identity with an older widow. Turner’s art was his life and his life was art.

Leigh said he was attracted to Turner as a “profound artist who is creating the profound”. Turner wanted public adulation but wasn’t prepared to compromise his vision to get it. It is an issue Mike Leigh has been dealing with all his artistic life. Mr Turner is slightly long and slow at two and a half hours, but for those with patience, it is a wonderful journey into the mysteries of great art and great artists.

Power Failure: the tragedy of Australian climate politics

power failureThe book Power Failure, about Australia’s intransigence on climate change, was a personal mission for journalist Philip Chubb. Chubb and his family lived at Cottles Bridge near Melbourne and watched year after year as the summers got hotter. On Saturday, 7 February 2009 he stood in record-breaking heat with fire plan in hand hoping the blaze would not come over the hill and kill his family. They survived but Chubb’s closest friends died as they hid under their kitchen table. Chubb knew changes in the climate had fuelled the intensity of the fire.

The reaction to Black Saturday showed there was still divisions and fears from those who could not, or would not, see the connection. News Corp columnist Miranda Devine said the fires weren’t caused by climate change but habitat protection promoted by environmentalists. “Greenies,” Devine said, should be “hanging from lamp-posts” for their ideology which prevented “landowners from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.” Devine could have been dismissed as a lunatic outlier, but she carried a big megaphone News Corp were willing to lend to anyone who muddied the waters on climate change science.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recognised climate change as a national emergency when he won the election in 2007. He saw surveys showing climate change response could impact every seven votes in ten. Rudd spoke of great moral challenges and pledged to reorganise the national economy around new energy industries. He introduced an emission trading scheme into parliament and appointed Ross Garnaut to examine the economic impacts and recommend a framework. With bipartisan support, it seemed as though intelligent and non-partisan debate about climate change had become the norm.

The Australian Public Service Commission defined climate change in economic terms as a “wicked problem” – a pressing and complex issue involving many causes and much disagreement about possible solutions. Australia relies on fossil fuel with four out of five power stations running on coal, making the nation the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter. Private companies making money from fossil fuel also had a vested interest in climate policy failure for 25 years.

In 1990 the Bob Hawke government developed Australia’s first climate change policy aiming to stabilise emissions but not at the expense of the economy. In 1996 John Howard rolled back these modest goals refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and overriding advice to bring in emissions trading in 2003. Howard’s position was repudiated by the electorate in 20007. After temperatures in the high 40s led to the Black Saturday fires, Rudd had the opportunity to go on the front foot. Chubb’s book forensically examines how that unravelled over the four years that followed, leaving Australia further adrift than ever on effective climate action.

Rudd’s character flaws are discussed in detail in Wayne Swan’s autobiography. Kevin 24-7’s micromanaged leadership style led to dysfunction in many areas of government including climate change. Policy making was the sole preserve of Rudd, Swan and Penny Wong but with Swan absorbed in the financial crisis, Rudd and Wong were the only ones who fully understood Labor’s climate change policy. Everyone else was in the dark. There was little or no inter-departmental or stakeholder consultation and most cabinet ministers were out of the loop. Power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rudd and Wong also made the fatal mistake of not keeping the people informed as the policy took shape. Early enthusiasm for change dissipated in an information vacuum, robbing Labor of the threat of an early election to resolve the growing political impasse. As the passion for action dulled, the Opposition hammered away to create doubt and weaken resolve. Murdoch media was unforgiving while affected companies warned of job losses and an investment freeze. The year 2009 dragged on in arguments over compensation to polluters, eventually agreed at $7.3 billion, a huge amount the companies still weren’t happy with.

Rudd had a pressing need to cash in on his phenomenal personal popularity to lock in public support for climate action, but he wouldn’t talk about it. Nor was he open about the impact of carbon pricing on the cost of living. Because the community had stopped hearing about the issue, they started questioning its importance and whether it was worth paying for. Rudd had squandered consensus. Between 2008 and 2010 Newspoll showed an 11% drop in belief in climate change and by 2011 the proportion of Australians opposing action with significant costs had doubled. The breaking of the drought in late 2009 also contributed to change in public perception with many equating climate change with a lack of rain.

Having abandoned the public, Rudd put his trust in two dangerous sources: the parliamentary opposition, and global action at the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He would be betrayed in both battles. Rudd’s parliamentary failure was entirely his own fault. He wanted to pass his legislation in the Senate with the help of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. But he also played wedge politics against Turnbull and Liberal moderates which saw Opposition climate sceptics grab power in the party room. By then Rudd had alienated the Greens so there was no plan B.

The clumsily-named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme first hit the Senate in mid-2009 when Turnbull was still in charge. Turnbull said the legislation was hasty and pushed for delay. The Opposition voted against it but Turnbull was worried at that stage about fighting a climate change election so he promised to negotiate later in the year. By then National party maverick Barnaby Joyce was openly calling the CPRS a “great big new tax on everything” and said the Sunday roast would cost up to $150.

This scare campaign was inaccurate but devastating as the government had never conceded there would be any cost of living increases. Turnbull’s party room openly grumbled about giving supporting the government on climate change. Shadow Minister Tony Abbott told a September 2009 meeting in Beaufort, Victoria that climate change was “absolute crap”. The speech went down well with his older rural audience.Abbott later said this was not his “considered opinion” but also admitted the meeting convinced him to act against the policy.

In November Penny Wong and Ian Macfarlane finally began negotiations on the CPRS. The resulting deal was good for the big polluters. The LNG industry got a top-up allocation of permits, the coal industry’s handout was doubled, there were more handouts to electricity generators, steelmakers and other manufacturers and the global recession buffer was extended to 2020. Yet it was still a climate deal. Turnbull was delighted but his party room was not. There was a spill on December 1, 2009 and Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott by one vote. The third contender Joe Hockey ruled himself out with his accurate but cowardly stance that voting on climate change was a conscience decision. Abbott had no conscience on the matter. He immediately reneged on the deal with Labor and the climate consensus was finished.

Rudd’s office was initially delighted by the result thinking Abbott would shoot himself in the foot and never be electorally popular. But Abbott pushed hard on the simple message of the “great big new tax” saying emissions could be reduced by other less costly means. Rudd’s hope of getting the Greens onside were destroyed by the Wong-Macfarlane compromise. The CPRS was defeated a second time in the Senate in December 2009 by the Opposition and the Greens, despite two Liberal senators voting with Labor.

Rudd went to Copenhagen undaunted, convinced by his ability to knock together world heads. The conference was chaotic to the point of anarchy with many different alliances and divisions. Rudd told delegates a grand bargain was within their grasp but no one was listening. The conference ended without agreement. An emotionally drained Rudd blamed “Chinese fuckers” for trying to “ratfuck us” but as the Chinese economy continue to expand, it was mandarin scholar Rudd that ended up “ratfucked” in 2010.

Abbott began his onslaught buoyed by the failure of the summit and the release of hacked emails of climate scientists that wrongly suggested the environmental threat was exaggerated. Unable to openly embrace the sceptics, Abbott developed “direct action” to reduce emissions. Rudd became paralysed by doubt at the prospect of a double dissolution election. He gave the impression he would call the election in January so many staffers cancelled holidays to work out a campaign. Rudd’s supporters later claimed Julia Gillard talked him out of that election though Gillard said it was Rudd’s idea.

By Australia Day Rudd had abandoned climate change and was instead promoting health reform, leaving staff and ministers speechless. In early 2010 UK climate sceptic Chris Monckton toured Australia, garnering public legitimacy through huge media coverage. Abbott met Monckton and later parroted some of his views. Rudd was nowhere to be seen and never publicly attacked Monckton’s rubbish. Instead he looked at an abatement plan suspiciously similar to Abbott’s direct action and just as useless in meeting targets. This “Abbott lite” plan gave him an excuse to indefinitely delay the CPRS. The decision was leaked to the media in April and Rudd publicly admitted it was pushed back to 2013 unless there was “credible action” in China, India and the US. The moral challenge was not so great after all.

The impact was disastrous and immediate. The Coalition had their first lead in the polls in four years and Rudd’s personal approval rating dropped 15 points. The disaffection spread to the party room tired of a command and control leadership style with no substance. Incredibly by 24 June, he vacated the leadership without a fight. Rudd saw the numbers were against him. Julia Gillard took the reins without a vote and without explaining the darkness at the heart of government that caused the change. The outcome left Rudd to successfully play the martyr for the next three years.

Gillard’s immediate poll numbers were encouraging but it was a short honeymoon. On climate change Gillard pushed to restore consensus with a citizens’ assembly. The idea was ridiculed as “a giant focus group” and an excuse for inaction. Gillard struck deals on the mining tax and immigration to fend off the right and climate change did not feature much in the 2010 election. Abbott reiterated his doubt of climate science while Gillard publicly ruled out a carbon tax. The campaign was a disaster for Labor as well-timed Rudd leaks undermined any momentum. With the electorate still suspicious of Abbott, the election produced a hung parliament and a tug of war for the balance of power.

Labor quickly signed a formal alliance with the Greens which was widely derided. Gillard felt it would provide momentum for negotiations with the other independents and have constitutional weight with the governor-general. The decision sparked outright war by the Murdoch media stable which hated the Greens. They waged war against the government and did not cease until the 2013 election. Andrew Wilkie also signed up with Labor while Bob Katter sided with the Coalition leaving the decision of government with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. The former Nationals cared deeply about climate change and consulted with Garnaut and Nicholas Stern to work out their position. They agreed to go with Gillard demanding a re-examination of the carbon price, an updated Garnaut Review and a productivity commission study of international action on emissions reduction schemes.

Gillard appointed a Multi-Party Climate Change Commission (MPCCC) which Abbott would not support. The MPCCC made good progress and within six month came up with the framework for the Clean Energy Future package. In February 2011 The Australian revealed Gillard would introduce a carbon tax in 2012 and an ETS in 2015. Gillard and Bob Brown formally announced a fixed carbon price would begin on 1 July 2012. Gillard said Australia had to put a price on carbon early to manage inevitable change. Abbott called the carbon price a tax and said he would campaign constantly against it. That night Gillard went on ABC’s 7.30 where she could have described the new fixed price as a charge on the country’s biggest polluters. Instead she admitted she was happy to call her “market-based mechanism to price carbon” a tax. The damage was done, Gillard lost the next election there and then.

The Opposition immediately called Gillard a liar. Gillard was stuck in a losing battle of semantics reflected in abysmal polls that never recovered. The Opposition colluded in a public campaign of intimidation bordering on violence. It legitimised scepticism in a scare campaign with five parts: unimaginable price rises, huge power bills, the destruction of coal, steel, cement, aluminium and motor industries, thousands of job losses, and the death of regional towns.

The media constantly called out the negative impacts of the carbon price. When Cate Blanchett advertised support of carbon pricing, she was lampooned in the press for a week as a “pampered star” and “Carbon Cate”. Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the government said nothing. Gillard was making the same mistake as Rudd: ignoring the voters while the details were going through the sausage factory. Gillard’s silence was deliberate, she didn’t want to antagonise MPCCC support but the effect was public disdain. Her approval rating plunged to 17%, equal with the worst rating of Paul Keating.

The government took heart in the electorate’s continued suspicions over the relentless negativity of Tony Abbott. What Labor could not deal with was the return of Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s backers asserted they could still win the next election with him at the helm. The Government introduced the Clean Energy Fund in June 2011 and Gillard successfully marshalled it through parliament. The carbon tax would be introduced a year later at the European price of $23 a tonne giving the electorate 12 months of “lived experience” of carbon pricing before the election. Labor also gave $10 billion over five years to a new Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a green investment bank idea borrowed from the UK.

Finally the government gave thought to the communication strategy. Its research said they should avoid explaining climate change or justifying carbon pricing. Instead they would immunise the public by paying them off. But when it came to the “lived experience” people could not easily determine if the effects were good or bad. Abbott’s claim the world would fall in was ludicrous but dissatisfaction remained at rising costs, with massive electricity price spikes due to rising network charges. Gillard’s hope for “clear air” to explain the package ran into a renewed Rudd leadership challenge.

The leaks and briefings escalated in 2013 and by June the destabilisation had made Gillard’s leadership untenable. But the collateral damage was intense and Rudd and Labor were swept from office in September 2013. The summer of 2012-2013 was the hottest on record but that was of no interest to the new government. Abbott moved quickly to axe the Climate Commission, abolish the Climate Change ministry and appoint a climate sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target. The victory of the sceptics, however temporary, has left the “wicked problem” of climate change as far from a solution as ever. Hopes for a consensus remain poor as long as the Abbott clique remains in power. As Chubb writes, Australia could long rue its power failures between 2008 and 2013.