The centrist and left-leaning commentariat have unanimously condemned Julia Gillard’s (non) stance on climate change policy, an exercise in groupthink that would be stunning if it wasn’t so predictable. Ben Cubby, Peter Hartcher, Lenore Taylor and Shaun Carney all think Gillard’s “people’s summit” non-policy is a pathetic cop-out and that she (or alternatively Rudd before her) should have had the guts to push a carbon tax/ETS agenda much harder.
Carney at least concedes that the real villain of the piece was Rudd’s earlier failure to convince the public of the need for an ETS so that Labor is now a sitting duck for a renewed Tony Abbott “great big new tax” scare campaign if it dares to beef up its climate change stance in any meaningful way before the election. However, Carney’s implicit assumption (and presumably that of his groupthink colleagues) is that it is actually possible in the short term for Rudd or Gillard to achieve a sufficient community consensus for a significant carbon price so that adopting such a policy would be anything other than a political suicide note.
The blogosphere’s political expert Possum recently analysed the public’s climate change responses in the Lowy Foundation’s annual poll, persuasively concluding:
A full 20% of the those that believed in the need for immediate action that carries with it significant costs weren’t actually prepared to shoulder any of those significant costs themselves via increased electricity prices. In fact, only 29% of the people that believed in action involving significant costs were willing to pay significant costs themselves in terms of paying $21 or more a month for their electricity.
This is like those standard polling results that show a large majority wanting more government services, and the same sized majority wanting lower taxes. Climate change, like so many other areas of public policy in Australia, is an exercise in rank public hypocrisy – oh yes, we all want X,Y and Z, but someone else can pay for it.
Moreover, this rank public hypocrisy on climate change isn’t a recent phenomenon. Troppo readers will recall that even at the height of seeming public concern about climate change in the lead-up to the 2007 election, the same people who professed a desire for greenhouse action were also demanding lower petrol prices, resulting in Kevin 07’s farcical “Fuelwatch” promise.
While there seemed momentarily to be some chance, while Turnbull was Coalition leader, of a political climate sufficiently conducive to delivery of a meaningful carbon price regime over time, the accession of Tony Abbott closed the door decisively on any such possibility in the short term. Neither mainstream party will ever willingly allow itself to be led by a courageous martyr who guides them lemming-like off a policy precipice.
The only sensible approach in the short term is the one Gillard has adopted: acknowledging that climate change is a real and serious problem that will require a carbon price as part of any workable long-term strategy, and pledging to implement a process whereby public understanding and consensus are achieved over time. In a western liberal democracy it could hardly be any other way.
Whether Gillard’s “People’s Summit” proposal is likely to prove an effective way to build either community understanding or consensus on the issues, however, is much more dubious. It’s certainly true that exercises in deliberative democracy such as deliberative polling can result in the knowledge levels and therefore substantive opinions of forum participants being altered by the process, sometimes quite dramatically. However, there is little or no evidence that such exercises feed into greater understanding or changes in opinion on the part of the broader public not actively engaged in the deliberative exercise. The 1999 Deliberative Poll on the Republic referendum, in which I participated as a delegate, was a classic example. The opinions of delegates shifted decisively in favour of a republic, but that had no evident effect on the subsequent equally decisive defeat of the referendum.
The idea that most people will even have the faintest idea who the delegates to Gillard’s People’s Summit actually are, let alone regard their opinions on climate change as having any persuasive recommendatory force, is utterly implausible.
Robert Talisse summarised some powerful arguments against deliberative democracy:
Richard Posner (2002; 2003; 2004) and Ilya Somin (2004; 1998) have recently championed an objection to deliberative democracy according to which citizens are demonstrably lacking in the cognitive abilities requisite for rational deliberation. In a searching review of the research concerning public ignorance, Somin (1998, 417) finds that ignorance of even the most basic political facts is so pervasive that “voters not only cannot choose between specific competing policy programs, but also cannot accurately assign credit and blame for highly visible policy outcomes to the right office-holders.” Noting that deliberative democracy “imposes a substantial . . . knowledge burden” (1998, 440) upon citizens, Somin laments that “deliberative democrats have generally overlooked the widespread ignorance that prevents most voters from achieving even . . . modest levels of political knowledge” (1998, 440-441). Hence Somin concludes that deliberative democracy is naïve.
Posner (2003, 151-152) agrees with Somin on the fact of public ignorance, and contends that the extent of such ignorance renders deliberative democracy a “pipe dream hardly worth the attention of a serious person” (Posner 2003, 163).
Even accepting that this pervasive public ignorance is curable by mechanisms like deliberative polling at least for the participants, no-one has yet devised any plausible mechanism whereby the insights achieved by participants in deliberative exercises could feasibly be generalised to the broader community.
Moreover, with an issue like climate change, where any credible policy prescription involves measures that will hit the public’s hip pocket nerve in significant ways, psychic phenomena like confirmation bias are heavily engaged making it child’s play for dishonest skeptic tools of vested corporate interests to sow fear, confusion and loathing even if some sort of community debate is kick-started by a government-sponsored deliberative process.
If Julia Gillard was actually serious about shifting the community in favour of serious action on climate change, she would adopt a more elitist-pluralist or neo-corporatist model for consensus building, as the Hawke/Keating government did with their 1985 Tax Summit, which to a significant extent facilitated the major economic reforms of those years. Gillard should convene a summit comprising peak business, trade union and other interest group leaders (e.g. green groups) and put some specific policy prescription options on the table. One might even include tax incentives for renewable and zero emissions energy technologies, instead of a direct carbon price whether achieved by an ETS or a new tax. A much lower company tax rate for zero emissions energy profits; 200% depreciation for renewable/zero emissions R & D; and provision for long-term profit retention within such companies to fund development and commercialisation of these technologies; are just a few possible ideas. Driving change by offering carrots rather than sticks might well prove more politically saleable, or at least persuade business interests that a mix of carrots and sticks is the preferred solution.