theguardian.com, Sunday 12 October 2014.
In August 2014, the Australian parliament voted to repeal a scheme that placed a price on carbon emissions. The carbon price was working as intended: reducing carbon emissions while supporting continued economic growth. Australia was once a leader in dealing with climate change; seven years after ratifying the Kyoto protocol, it is now something approaching an international pariah.
This is how the New York Times responded to the scrapping of the carbon price scheme:
At a time when President Obama is seeking emissions limits on new and existing power plants, and when many scientists are arguing for major reductions in fossil-fuel use by 2050 to keep global warming within manageable limits, Australia – among the world’s highest emitters per capita of carbon dioxide – has chosen to become an outlier.
Slate went further, condemning the “rapacious policies of the current government”. In an article headed The Saudi Arabia of the South Pacific, it told its readers how Australia became the dirtiest polluter in the developed world. Strictly speaking, both publications are wrong. Australia is not alone; it constitutes one half of the Canada-Australia axis of carbon.
Not too put too fine a point on it, since the election of the Abbott government in September 2013, Australian politics has become fruitier than a tarte tatin. Nuttier than a pecan pie. It feels as if the Enlightenment never reached these shores. And climate policy is but one victim of the malaise.
An explanation to the world, if not an apology, is warranted.
According to Credit Suisse, Australia is the wealthiest country in the world. It has enjoyed a stellar run of 23 consecutive years of economic growth. It ducked the great recession thanks to a textbook Keynesian stimulus response combined with the momentum of an unprecedented mining boom.
Yet to live in the frequently irate bubble that is contemporary Australia is to be subjected to persistent and shrill cries of “crisis” or “catastrophe” over productivity, red tape, security, debt and deficit, emergency low interest rates, sovereign risk and border protection.
Take the latter, formerly known as immigration policy. For the last 15 years, Australia has struggled with a modest proportion of the world’s 54m asylum seekers arriving on its shores by boat. To punish the new arrivals and deter others fleeing from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Syria, government policy has sought to replicate the misery that prompted them to flee their home countries. A multitude of measures have been tested along the way. Of them all, two have endured: outsourcing and human rights abuses.
Money has not been an impediment. Australia has bought off neighbouring Pacific island states, including Nauru and Papua New Guinea, to induce them to incarcerate refugees – men, women and children – until some of them end up physically and mentally broken. Many self-harm. Some die. Others have been sent home to be tortured or even killed. One asylum seeker detained on PNG’s Manus Island recentlydied from complications arising from a cut on his foot.
Last week, Australia forged a new deal with impoverished, corruption-ridden Cambodia under which five refugees whose will have been broken on Nauru will “voluntarily” be resettled there. Officials from both countries celebrated with champagne at a ceremony in Phnomh Penh. There were no speeches, and journalists were not permitted to ask questions.
Immigration policy in Australia also proves once and for all that religion can be invoked by its adherents to rationalise almost anything. While former PM Kevin Rudd briefly flirted with the “biblical injunction to welcome strangers”, his conservative nemesis and current prime minister Tony Abbott asked: “What would Jesus do?” The answer was obvious, at least to him: “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it is not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”.
If Australia mistreated refugees to deter others, is repealing a price on damaging carbon emissions so hard to understand? Prime minister Abbott once famously described climate science as “crap”; he typifies a discernible demographic trend in his country. For white men aged 50 and over, climate change skepticism seems to be our new national sport, perhaps even more popular than golf.
But it’s not just climate science that has been shunned. For the first time in 70 years, Australia is without a science minister. Why? The government refused to appoint one. Why? Because it can.
Instead, the government appointed a gaggle of older, right wing businessmen and lobbyists to key advisory roles. They include David Murray, Maurice Newman, Tony Shepherd, Dick Warburton.
Cardinal George Pell, while not appointed to a government role, enjoys a close relationship with the prime minister and has been described as a spiritual adviser of his. In the face of thousands of cases of child sexual assault by Catholic clergy in recent decades, Pell has been effective: the Church’s assets and wealth remain intact. With such business acumen, Pell is well-credentialled to offer a view on climate science and climate change. He doesn’t buy it, and doesn’t trust the scientific consensus.
Maurice Newman, appointed chairman of the prime minister’s Business Advisory Council, recently argued that Australia needs to get match fit to tackle the scourge of “climate cooling”. Newman is right that Australia is completely unprepared for this scourge. So, it seems, is its climate. So unprepared that 2013 was the hottest year on record.
Newman has now turned his campaign against the employees of the Bureau of Meteorology, demanding a judicial inquiry into their methods.
In the last year, Australians have endured an unsteady procession of fringe politics straight from the Republic of The Giant Tin Foil Hat. Outlandish pronouncements from a crusade of conservative politicians have covered the big issues. Sex. Science. Animals. Abortion. Burqas. More Sex. Breasts. Muslims. Cars.
This is a land where, according to treasurer Joe Hockey, “poor people don’t drive cars”. And if they did, they may be exposed to the “utterly offensive” sight of wind turbines, “a blight on the landscape”. Hockey has declared war on “the age of entitlement”, and the accompanying belief that “one person has a right to a good or service that someone else will pay for.” Like roads, hospitals and schools.
As it happens, spending on welfare has been decreasing as a proportion of GDP for years. As has health spending. Shortly after scrapping the carbon pricing scheme and making it cheaper to emit carbon, the Abbott government sought to introduce a tax on going to the doctor to send a “price signal” to deter unnecessary visits.
The horse hockey doesn’t stop there. The nation’s top law officer, attorney general George Brandis, mounted a spirited, if unsuccessful, campaign in favour of the fundamental human freedom: the “right to be a bigot” and incite racial hatred. When that failed, Brandis turned his hand to foreign affairs, unilaterally declaring that East Jerusalem was no longer an “occupied territory” but instead was a “disputed territory”.
Even the Israeli government was nonplussed.
Minister for workplace relations Eric Abetz recently invoked that well-known link between women who undergo an abortion and a heightened risk of breast cancer. That was the link discredited by medical science 50 years ago.
Australia’s answer to the Tea party is senator Cory Bernardi. In response to Abbott’s belated urging for all Australians to unite against Islamic terrorism and join “Team Australia”, Bernardi launched a campaign to ban the burqa.
On 1 October, the Australian parliament duly proclaimed that visitors sporting burqas would be required to sit behind a glass petition in a space usually preserved for young children. That there has never been a visitor to the Australian parliament dressed in a burqa is a mere technicality.
Bernardi is a tireless activist against legalising gay marriage, arguing that it is but one step away from legalising bestiality. Bernardi’s stance has earned him widespread condemnation, including from the British conservative party.
Why has the Australian body politic removed its head and replaced it with a pumpkin? A simple answer to this question is elusive. Like a strange new virus, it’s easier to describe the symptoms than to isolate the cause.
However one rationalises the slide into irrationality, what is happening in Australia is not unique. In 2012, Will Hutton argued that the political right across the west was “giving up on the Enlightenment” and in doing so rejecting “tolerance, reason, democratic argument, progress and the drive for social betterment as cornerstones of society.” The US, UK, South Africa and parts of Europe have not been immune.
Now, it’s the turn of Team Australia and the end result is there for all to see: Australians are rich, angry and easily frightened – and we’re not gonna take it anymore.