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News from the front desk: Issue No 294 – On Ken Henry, Andrew Petersen, a boring election campaign & why that’s so good

Andrew Petersen

According to Sustainable Business Australia chief executive Andrew Petersen it was hard to get the audience to leave the room after the annual Fiona Wain Oration on Friday in Sydney.

But then, up on stage was former Treasury chief Dr Ken Henry and now chair of NAB, with a galvanising speech on natural capital. Interviewing him was high profile political journalist and author George Megalogenis, so the deep interest was probably a given.

This is thinking on climate and sustainability going on outside the “choir” so it’s pretty important.

Henry focused on the inflection point between money and the environment, which we’re about to see a lot more of, in our opinion. His topic was the need to value natural capital. If Melbourne’s renowned water catchment becomes polluted, for instance, it would cost $1 billion to replace the natural filtration system Melburnians currently get for free. Central Park in New York was recently valued at US$500 billion.

There is a school of thought that says we should not place a dollar value on nature. In the same way we don’t put a dollar value on life. It’s a given that we want it and need it and it’s priceless. But Henry’s point goes further – that we often see nature as a cost instead of a highly valuable input to business, especially agribusiness, which is big business for NAB. But we need to value natural capital in our cities too, he said.

Petersen says the audience at the oration was rivetted. “No-one wanted to leave.”

But apart from the topic there was another connection point Henry had with the audience.

The feeling and feedback was that here was someone who had “been in government but was not of government”, and who had brought to business, to NAB, the deep thinking he would have employed to help steer the economy through its worst patches in recent history. Someone who could work with both sides of politics.

According to Petersen that latter point is one that particularly resonates at the moment. There is a frustration in business – and community we reckon– with adversarial politics, especially on climate.

Maybe that’s what’s behind this really strange election campaign.

distortion

Election

For most people this has been a long and boring campaign. Refreshingly boring, actually, especially after the nastiness of the past few cycles.

On one side we’ve got Malcolm Turnbull, recast, redacted and resigned to being disappointing.

On the other side is Bill Shorten, equally resigned to being bland, boring and only slightly more animated now that the polls are so close and he might actually come within cooee of winning.

More noticeable though than these unremarkable candidates is the absence of heat and fire especially on climate issues.

We asked Petersen for his take on this and he says it’s probably quite deliberate, a response to the noise the parties are picking up in the electorate generally and business in particular.  “It’s quite interesting that for the first time in seven years you get a sense that both political parties don’t want to talk about climate change” he says, but not for a bad reason. It’s because they are getting the bi-partisan message.

Petersen says business journalist Alan Kohler “called it” recently, when he pointed out that embedded in Greg Hunt’s direct action plan is a form of an emissions trading scheme, a view that Hunt strongly denied, (well versed in denial as he is.)

What that article revealed, in Petersen’s view, was that there is a slow quiet convergence of views between the parties. Neither side wants to talk about it because they both need to get through an election. More importantly no-one wants stir up memories of the past few years.,

In a side note, Petersen says another good sign is that budget forecasts are moving out from four years to 10, on both sides of politics and on issues from tax, to superannuation, education and health.

“That’s great, and exciting, because that’s what sustainability is.”

Global momentum

On climate there’s also global momentum. Petersen attended COP21 last year and said the sense of breakthrough was powerful.

What does he think now, six months later? Are we using it or losing it?

Petersen reckons the world is moving, but slowly, a bit like the “starter’s gun has gone off and we can see everyone start to move, but it’s like we’re looking through the lens of slow motion rather than real time.”

In Australia the election has also slowed momentum but overall it’s heartening, he says.

“It used to be one step forward and two steps backwards, now two steps forward and one step backwards.”

We would add that globally climate deniers seem to be a tad less noticeable and hopefully a little more ashamed to show their faces quite. The momentum from China, India, Europe is too great, they’d look stupid.

Besides what would they advocate? To stop the rollout of clean cheap solar energy and lower pollution levels? To go back to mass chemical pollution and more junk in our oceans?

It’s also clear the capital markets have spoken. And if there is anything this lot respects, it’s money.

The money leaders are dumping fossil fuel stocks and listening to people such as Tony Seba pronounce that there’s 15 years of life left in fossil fuels, if that. They’re seeing the price of solar plummet, so that negative government policies and rhetoric sounds like the whoosh whoosh of a wind farm and nothing more.

The policies

See our round up of the policies on climate and sustainability that are dribbling out of the two major parties and from the Greens. There is some attention to energy and renewables but a big winner is infrastructure and transport. Rail in particular, with roads still featuring in the Coalition policies and Labor flagging a “concrete bank” that would be similar to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for smart and sustainable infrastructure.

The states

Meanwhile the state governments are doing their own policy dribbles.

In Queensland they’ve allocated $12 million for resilience for coastal councils. Enough for… a few talk fests and policies..? More and more money will be needed on that front. Which is probably the true underlying driver for climate action – the disruption to households and property. Always property.

In Victoria we can see another clear indication of political drivers.

On Fishmans Bend, it’s pretty clear Premier Daniel Andrews is hearing the siren call of votes.

He’s gone bold and green here because this is a highly visible site and a chance for Vic to make amends for the massive own goal of its crop of new CBD ghettoes and Docklands/Wastelands (slowly, slowly the place will improve). You can see the thinking at Fishermans by the early designs released this week. It’s all about people, people, people, instead of buildings (“outcomes Jeeves, not process”) and active transport/ public transport.

On energy efficiency, though, the votes are harder to track.

We hear we were unfortunately right that Andrews still refuses to bring back the Greener Government Buildings program.

Maybe the VicPremier is counting on the invisibility of carbon and hoping that no-one will notice the emissions public buildings will continue to spew into the atmosphere. Clearly he thinks the taxpayer funds that he will be throwing in the compost will also go unseen.

In NSW, well what can we say?

It’s not good news for premier Mike Baird. They’re now demonstrating against issues that are all in our patch: housing, planning, trees and transport, WestConnex in particular.

 

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