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Mike Brown: Red lines in the sand and collaboration across the divide

How can we deal with the climate crisis when narrow-minded ideologues hamper well-intentioned politicians? Rather than trying to persuade party recalcitrants, perhaps a better solution is to work “across the aisle”. Might like-minded partners be found amongst political opponents to unite in defence of our national security and prosperity against the threats from the climate crisis? There are precedents.

It’s a childhood seaside holiday staple.

One evening you stroll with your parents to the end of the jetty. With angry jerks of his knife, a grizzled angler guts his meagre catch muttering wildly about worldwide injustices and the need to “make them pay”. Puzzled and a little scared, you are reassured that he is harmless, nothing more than a “colourful character”.

You soon all return home. Memories of the event quickly fade. You are left with hazy recollections of beaches, sunburn, and encounters with madness.

Then the horror: you wake to news that these “colourful characters” not only walk amongst us, they’re in parliament!

Recently interviewed on UK television, a prominent member of Australia’s government embarrassingly reprised Sir Les Paterson by describing a respected and qualified meteorologist as an “ignorant Pommy weather girl” for linking Australia’s recent bushfires to anthropogenic climate change.

The two interviewees – the other being a conservative commentator – dealt in evidence, appeals to reason and the mind. Our parliamentary representative felt it best to counter with anger and invective, employing his preferred thinking organs, his gut and spleen.

Though he subsequently apologised, what is alarming is that the outburst occurred at all. More alarming is that he was – and remains – so close to the heart of our national government.

Yet, he persists.

Perhaps responding to recent widespread student and parent demands for greater climate action, the member now considers students are “being indoctrinated by the left” in the “climate change hoax” and therefore supports the dissemination to schools in his electorate of ultra conservative climate denialist “information packages”.

What next? Will he seek to close the communist-sounding Bureau of Meteorology because its work relies on the same science that identified the hazards of climate change?

Maybe he’ll move to repeal the laws of thermodynamics and gravity on the grounds that a little-known worldwide cabal of unelected scientists defined them, and working Australians never voted for them anyway?

It appears this government’s famous “church” has become so broad that it now embraces fringe groups and ideas that, by rejecting evidence that departs from their narrow ideology, are closer to America’s far-right and the Taliban than Australia’s “sensible centre”, which is now viewed as being in thrall to a leftist climate cult to the extent that school libraries should be stocked with climate-claptrap-kits.

A belief is not rendered true by being strongly held. Evidence is not a matter of right versus political left. Evidence is just that –  evidence!

The core error in these examples – the displacement of evidence by belief, of reason by emotion – is the stuff of ISIS, but is now flourishing in our national capital!

A clear and present danger

Of the many problems this nonsense causes, two warrant closer examination.

Firstly, dragging out “debate” long after it has been settled stymies the urgent policy attention required to address climate change and its consequences. This was well illustrated by the fiascos attending and following the recent bushfire crisis.

Large parts of the planet including Australia are becoming uninsurable as a result of accelerating environmental degradation.

Increasingly, the business community is left to address climate change threats ignored by the government.

Rural decline has accelerated with little chance of recovery in some areas.

The second problem is that this nonsense deflects attention from the many other equally urgent problems we face (perhaps this deflection is intentional).

A stagnant economy, declining job certainty and decreasing housing affordability have produced “generation rent”: the first in Australia’s history likely to be worse off than their parents.

The “boomer bubble” will soon demand greater health care just as the cost burden falls on this next generation.

Indigenous disadvantage stubbornly persists.

Energy policy is a mess. Coal is already outstripped by renewables yet the systems to accommodate their growth and defend against worsening environmental threats still have not been upgraded.

We face a steadily widening gap between the need and provision of productive infrastructure, particularly in our cities (the usual focus of this author’s commentary).

All these problems were long predicted.

Policy action commensurate with the size of the issues requires national leadership, none of which we are getting.

Instead, we are regularly confronted by a lurid pageant of buffoons, wack-jobs and others careening about the globe slandering foreign climate experts; shaming the nation at climate conferences; scolding business to “stick to its knitting”; accusing us all of being in thrall to a “climate cult”; claiming volunteers just love fighting bushfires; planning barbeques for climate change deniers; hatching plots to mislead our schoolchildren; and suggesting that we are doomed to live in mud huts if we adopt a goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Alarmingly, all of this nonsense occurs with little demur from our political leaders!

Transposed into corporate terms, these behaviours resemble those of 1980’s asset strippers.

These days, any board that failed to address similar structural and existential threats – promising instead to deliver a profit (a budget surplus) through a few accounting tricks – would expect to be sacked and sued; or face a Royal Commission.

Rather than its traditional claim to be “the safe pair of hands” compared to rivals, the persistent failure to acknowledge let alone address these challenges reveals this government to be “a clear and present danger” to our ongoing security and prosperity.

Good government and our next generation are casualties

Yet again these events remind us of Donald Horne’s lament.  We are not the clever country; we’ve merely had good luck, which has persisted despite our second-rate leadership, but now finally looks set to run out.

The most insidious and damaging consequence of these conflicts is good governance. Its trashing will profoundly hobble any attempts by the next generation to address the mess we have left them.

They will be justifiably resentful victims.

How to develop leadership when facing existential threats

Threats to our prosperity and existence from climate change are urgent, akin to those from war, terrorism and recession – and require a similar calibre of leadership and policy to address successfully.

Sadly, the political toxicity of current debates limits solutions.

Fortunately, useful leadership perspectives can be found on the conservative side of politics.

The title image is the well-known photo of the British Conservative Prime Minister Chamberlain returning from a meeting with Hitler about a year before the outbreak of World War II, waving a treaty they co-signed, Chamberlain notoriously declared “peace for our time”.

Chamberlain’s efforts reflected broader desires to avoid repeating the agonies of the First World War.

Unfortunately, the appalling yet predicted events that followed entirely and permanently overshadowed his efforts. The image came to symbolise the follies of appeasement – of inadequate policy – in times of existential crisis.

It is in this light that the equally well known image of  Scott Morrison, now Australian Prime Minister, waving a lump of coal in Parliament, warrants comparison.

During debates on energy policy Morrison, then Treasurer, sought to make a point about its likely dominance as a fuel in the sector, at the same time disparaging both renewables and the utility of Australia curbing its relatively minor proportion of global green house gas emissions.

It is now increasingly taken to symbolise ideologically driven policy obduracy against all reliable evidence, in turn reflecting a broader persistent and sneering indifference to national security and prosperity.

It’s a Chamberlain image; not just for its uncanny visual similarity but also for the shared underlying themes.

Chamberlain’s tenure lasted one year into the subsequent war before he resigned. Britain, its parliament and Churchill, along with many other nations, successfully met the Nazi challenge, but only with determined effort that matched the magnitude of the threat.

We know that climate conditions will only get worse, regardless of our beliefs. The bushfire crisis and its still unfolding aftermath reveal the utter folly of climate “appeasement”.

How will we now proceed?

For conservatives, the choice is between persisting with a Chamberlain or finding a Churchill.

What should happen next?

To be fair, The Fifth Estate and other publications have congratulated recent government efforts to address some of these broad policy shortcomings. But are these efforts enough? Is the government still hobbled by internal party friction?

We would normally expect responsible governments to resign rather than yielding to dissenting voices that press policies harmful to national security and prosperity.

We describe and rightly condemn as authoritarian those nations that subordinate national interest to those of governing parties. Survival of the party at all costs just doesn’t wash.

Again, both Chamberlain and Churchill offer management lessons.

After the failure of Chamberlain’s appeasement Churchill led a war cabinet dominated by Conservatives, but which also included representatives from the Labour opposition and the military.

Turning to the present, how should a responsible leader react if his or her party’s political fringe regards Australia’s “sensible centre” as dangerously in thrall to the left?

Might true leadership – of all parties – be expressed by reaching “across the aisle” in order to confront these views through consensus?

Churchill also provided a lesson on how best to deal with recalcitrant actors.

Before the war, Nazi sympathisers existed in many western nations, including Britain and even one in its Royal family.

When during the war he was confronted with evidence of that royal’s persistent contact with the Nazis, Churchill ordered him to take up a Caribbean governorship well away from the conflict in Europe.

How might a strong leader apply this lesson in the present climate change crisis? A good start might be to draw some “red lines” beyond which policy inaction will not be tolerated.

A useful next step – one calculated to restore some faith in our political institutions – would be to identify those on the wrong side of those lines and frog-march them safely away from decision-making concerning the threats to our national security and prosperity from climate change.

Where might these evictees go?

Drawing on Churchill’s example, perhaps they could be sent to live out their days at the end of a remote jetty, angrily gutting our dwindling fish stocks and frightening the occasional child.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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