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Values, Climate Change and the Suspension of Rationality

When I came into Federal Parliament I brought with me a commitment to justice and to fairness, and a commitment to achieving change in Australian society. I think that Australia can be made a fairer place. We have a great starting point, which is a shared understanding in the Australian community that fairness is worth striving for. I’m happily part of a party that is deeply committed to fairness. It’s something I’ve worked on from day one, and continue to work on after ten years in parliament.

There’s a sense of achievement attached to having been part of a government that planned for and introduced needs-based funding, and then have the logic of the argument accepted and become firmly established in Australia.

Fairness, to me, means equality of opportunity. It means that no matter what sort of home you grew up in, who your parents were, or how much money you have, you should have an opportunity to succeed in Australian life. By that measure – opportunity to succeed, opportunity to enjoy a good life – Australia is performing much better than any other English speaking democracy. It’s easier, for instance, to advance in Australia than in the United States or the United Kingdom; by any measure of social mobility, we have more.

You can feel it and you can see it when Australians emerge from poverty and a seeming lack of opportunity to do very well. In part, you can organise society in a way that makes that more or less possible. I’m interested in making it more possible, not less, and first and foremost that means a focus on education; that we should properly fund education at all levels. I had the good fortune of going to university at a time when it was free. People under the age of forty in Australia may not realise, but for a brief period we had fully free tertiary education. It’s possible that I might not have gone to university quite so easily, or quite so quickly, had it not been for the fact that it was free. We’ve moved away from fully subsidised tertiary education for reasons that are well understood. In 1974, around 10% of the Australian population was tertiary educated, whereas today that number is around 35%. That’s a very good thing, but it raises issues of affordability and therefore we need to set the right level of subsidisation. Either way, at the Commonwealth level we invest very large amounts of money in education, and so we should.

I’ve always enjoyed being in the bush and looking after the landscape, looking after country. I’ve always had that sense but it was reinforced by working in the Northern Territory.

However, education in Australia remains an incomplete project. After three years of resistance from the new government (the 2014 budget took $40b out of education funding!), in 2017 the Liberal Government embraced needs-based funding for schools. It continues to be an incomplete project because it is not yet fully implemented … but it has been a huge step forward. There’s a sense of achievement attached to having been part of a government that planned for and introduced needs-based funding, and then have the logic of the argument accepted and become firmly established in Australia on both sides of politics. We have a continuing argument about how best to implement it, but the principle is now accepted and that’s a pretty good feeling.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have an environmental conscience. I’ve worked hard on environmental issues for a very long time and I came into Parliament committed to take action on climate change. My first job after university was in the Northern Territory doing land rights work for Aboriginal Australians in remote parts of the country. I was employed by the Northern Land Council in Darwin as a Field Officer and my job was to go out and talk to traditional owners across the Top End about land claims, mining projects and new developments of their land. I’ve always enjoyed being in the bush and looking after the landscape, looking after country. I’ve always had that sense but it was reinforced by working in the Northern Territory. I wasn’t there long, just a couple of years, but I learned a great deal from the Aboriginal people that I met and worked with; about being on country, caring for country and looking at the land in a different way. It’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my life.

In 2010, I had the good fortune to be named Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, working with Greg Combet as Minister for Climate Change, in the Gillard Government. This enabled me to work directly on climate change issues. When you go into politics thinking you can get something done, to be in the executive and to get an opportunity to do just that is very satisfying. It continues to be satisfying in opposition even though I sometimes look on in horror at the way in which the right of politics has made climate change, of all things, an issue of contention, an issue over which to gain political advantage whereas it should be seen as much more important than that. They should have picked another topic. I wish they had picked another topic. We’ve had to endure, in Australia, a plunge from a position of world leadership, as a developed country taking action on climate change, to being at the back of the pack, simply because it suited a right-wing leader of the opposition, who became Prime Minister for two years and who campaigned hard and told lies on this issue.

I sometimes look on in horror at the way in which the right of politics has made climate change … an issue over which to gain political advantage whereas it should be seen as much more important than that.

I write with direct knowledge of this, having attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as Australia’s representative, either by myself as the ministerial representative for Australia, or assisting Greg Combet, who was the senior minister. The reaction at those talks from countries from around the world will stay with me forever. Ambassadors and ministers from developing nations would approach me and thank me, thank Australia, for the position we had taken which they saw as providing leadership to the world; a shining example to other developed countries as to what could be done!

Having received those thanks directly, I’ve found it very difficult to watch the destruction of a carefully worked through scheme to tackle climate change. Well beyond just putting a price on carbon, the scheme incorporated a range of other government measures and the setting up of agencies to take a whole-of-economy approach to reducing Australia’s emissions. It was very difficult to watch deliberate attempts by an incoming government to wreck a world-leading framework.

…recently we have painfully inched back toward something approaching real action on climate change, but we’re not there yet. We’ve done so because the government that was elected in Sept 2013 hasn’t actually been able to dismantle every element of the scheme.

More recently we have painfully inched back toward something approaching real action on climate change, but we’re not there yet. We’ve done so because the government that was elected in Sept 2013 hasn’t actually been able to dismantle every element of the scheme. It has not been able to dismantle the Renewable Energy Target (RET). It has not been able to abolish the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). It hasn’t been able to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and is now inching toward a clean energy target of its own.

I think anybody seriously participating in the science and politics of climate change anywhere in the world – and it is a global issue – has found it difficult to grapple with the counter arguments that have been put forward. It’s as though we’re having to endure a suspension of rationality; a suspension of the rules that we would ordinarily apply in political debate. I went into politics for some quite distinct policy reasons. One was to work hard on education and another was to do something about climate change. It’s extraordinary to me that many people are rejecting an ordinary understanding of scientific principle when it comes to the earth’s climate. People do not challenge the science of the electric light, nor do they challenge the science of the internal combustion engine. They happily get in their car, turn on the ignition and drive away, not thinking to query the science that underlies it. I don’t myself claim to be particularly scientifically literate, but equally I know to accept the advice that’s given. I know to accept the scientific process and to accept any proposition that’s put to me based on established physics or chemistry and to accept the peer review process for scientific research. With climate change, we have quite a sizable portion of the population that have suspended that approach to science, which they apply in all other aspects of their lives, and have decided they are going to deny the very existence of climate change. It’s an absurdity, but that’s what’s happened. We’ve got a challenge to science that’s being funded by fossil fuel companies across the world, supported, regrettably, by the right of politics, in not all but many developed countries. Unfortunately, some of our politics ‘drifts across’ to us from one of those countries, the United States.

With climate change, we have quite a sizable portion of the population that have suspended that approach to science, which they apply in all other aspects of their lives, and have decided they are going to deny the very existence of climate change.

Despite the resistance, climate change remains permanently an issue for me and for everybody alive in every country on earth, and probably their children too. It may be that in generations to come, we solve the problem, but we’re not even close to solving the problem now. Unless we can reduce global carbon emissions, we are going to alter the climate in which we exist and that’s why we must do something about it. One of the reasons climate change is so engaging is because there are not many issues that impact the whole of humanity, but this is such an issue. (Peace, perhaps, but that is a bit too amorphous.) Taking real action on climate change is an issue that engages all aspects of government, everywhere in the world!

When considering a policy issue, I start out by framing a view of my own. I will argue that view in caucus, in shadow cabinet and often with cross benchers in the Senate. The only people who are going to have a sustainable career in politics are those who are motivated by a sense of their own values, values they want to argue for and that inform the policy decisions they make, because voters in a democracy can sense it. They will know. If you are just putting a line out there because you think it will be popular, or because the latest polling has told you that it is likely to be popular, you will be found out. If you stick to the values that you have, you’re likely to produce consistency over time. By only reciting the talking points of the day, you will be judged harshly. You’ll be seen as inauthentic and that’s death in politics. I think it’s vitally important to convey something of yourself; that you convey what your thoughts are, what you care about and what your values are. It’s important because that’s what makes people want to participate in politics. It’s what engages people. People do not generally get engaged by dry facts or technical policy arguments. They get engaged by an issue that speaks to something inside them.

Marriage equality is one of the issues that engages people. To me it has made sense for a very long time as I frame it as a question of equal rights. I know that people who are not in favour of marriage equality don’t approach it that way but I do, and once you frame it as an issue of equal rights, it leads you to a ‘Yes’ position. My values of fairness and equality tell me that we should, as far as possible, prevent discrimination. I have a deep sense of justice, of recognising injustice and wanting to correct it. I cannot say where it comes from and in fact I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve always felt it keenly.

…these challenges, whether on education, climate change or community issues, requires action from government. Being committed to fairness and equality means that you are therefore committed to government action. I do not assume that either market forces or some other magical process in society will produce the necessary outcomes.

Achieving greater equality in Australia motivates me to want to get back into government, because there’s only a limited amount you can do from opposition. One outcome that I feel a sense of achievement about, from opposition, is the resistance that I helped the Community Legal Centres to mount against funding cuts that were announced in the 2014 budget where effectively one third of their funding was to be slashed. Community Legal Centres are an important part of the legal assistance sector in Australia, along with Legal Aid Commissions. I assisted in campaigning against the cuts and in 2015 the government announced that they would be paused. In the end they were reversed in the 2017 budget, with funding held at the level that I had increased it to as Attorney General in 2013.

Each of these challenges, whether on education, climate change or community issues, requires action from government. Being committed to fairness and equality means that you are therefore committed to government action. I do not assume that either market forces or some other magical process in society will produce the necessary outcomes. We have governments because we collectively decide, as a community, that we should do things together. I don’t accept that it’s possible to achieve all the outcomes that government can achieve by any other form of community organisation. Voluntary clubs and community groups, however well organised, will necessarily be a subset of the community. Government is how we organise as an entire community. We have government to provide an increasingly complex set of services. We raise vastly more in taxation than in previous generations and we spend vastly more, coupled with the expectation, and it’s a good expectation, that governments will spend wisely.

I find small government propositions strange because they don’t recognise the very important role that government plays in everybody’s lives in the 21st century. Only government can provide many of the services that are currently provided, despite the views of the market-crazed Friedmanites on the right wing of Australian politics. I don’t suspect, for example, that we’re about to privatise the sewerage system. I think it is most unlikely that we will move toward further privatisation of our transport system. Even Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) are backed by government. It’s wrong to look at the big toll roads just as private projects. They are not. They are PPP’s with heavy government involvement. I don’t go for small government rhetoric and I don’t go for small government in practice. That does not mean that government has to do everything and it doesn’t mean that the private sector can’t produce good outcomes. It clearly can. But I look to government to do a whole range of things including setting regulatory frameworks which only it can do.

One example of the need for regulation is the internet, which most citizens use every day. We need to look at how the internet has taken the form that it has and why we’re encountering such problems coming to grips with the leviathan corporations that dominate it. Governments around the world, and communities around the world, are in an arm wrestle with these big corporations about how they should behave; how they should act commercially, how they should manage privacy, how they should behave in relation to the ownership of data and how they should behave in relation to criminal law enforcement and national security matters. In all those areas, we are retrofitting. We’ve let the internet grow in a way that reflects the fantastic mythology that surrounded its early years, that it should be free…that it should be an unregulated space, that it didn’t require regulation. In contrast, we accept regulation in a whole range of other areas of life. No-one thinks that our roads or electricity system should be unregulated. They are both heavily regulated requiring users to comply with a whole lot of rules just to plug in or to drive.

Somehow the internet grew up without effective regulation and it’s a good example of why government matters, because less and less people now believe that these large companies will look after themselves.

Somehow the internet grew up without effective regulation and it’s a good example of why government matters, because less and less people now believe that these large companies will look after themselves and self-regulate to the level that the community is looking for. We have trade practices legislation and consumer protections which control lots of different behaviour in the commercial world, because the commercial world is not entirely capable of coming up with proper behaviour on its own. If it was, we wouldn’t need to regulate it. If, over time, as a community, and in common with other communities around the world, we decide that we want different behaviour from technology companies, then we’re going to regulate.

Personally, I’m happy about that. I’m not happy that we have to regulate, but happy with the notion that if that’s what it takes we should regulate because that’s what governments do. Governments provide services and governments regulate, and we need both. I don’t think we need big government in every area of life, but there are going to be areas where we need government intervention to ensure fairness. We always have and, for the foreseeable future at least, we always will.