Sorry Tony, you fail the Turing Test

It’s election time again, and that means its also incoherent-shouting-about-taxes time. Tony Abbott is quick off the block, claiming that “the carbon tax and the mining tax are anti Western Australian taxes.”

It’s almost too drearily, predictably inane a comment to warrant analysis. But one of Abbott’s skills, I now realise, is his soul-crushing dreariness, the effect of which is perhaps to make his opponents give up out of sheer mind-numbing boredom. He’s even worse when you actually listen to him — I can feel the long seconds of my life slipping away during the exaggerated “ah”s and “um”s that litter his speech, pointlessly punctuating a collection of words that are already drawn out and so devoid of substance that they may as well have been randomly generated. That is, by an “Ab-Bot”, if you will1.

Isn’t it a bit patronising to start calling the carbon tax “anti-WA”, when the fight has always been a national one? Presumably, had the AEC lost 1,375 ballot papers in Victoria instead, Abbott would now masterfully be describing the carbon tax as “anti-Victoria”.

Isn’t it a bit condescending to be attacking the carbon and mining taxes without even trying to offer an argument? He has in the past, of course, but since we’re still having this fight, are we fighting over ideas, or are we now just being assaulted by keywords intended to make us go crazy?

And I always think we let off politicians and commentators rather lightly for their liberal use of the “anti-” prefix. For something to be “anti-WA”, it should in principle constitute a direct existential threat to the state — an issue that brings into question the very survival of Western Australia. But while my last power bill included an estimated “carbon component” of $14.282, I can assure all concerned that I am not, in fact, teetering on the edge of oblivion. We’ve all faced down greater threats to our existence than that.

One of the threats we continue to face, it bears repeating ad nauseam, is climate change itself. The debate over the carbon tax, or rather carbon pricing generally, is lost if we forget why it was implemented in the first place. And no, it won’t instantly make climate change go away — it’s part of a very long term struggle to mitigate the damage we’re doing as a global civilisation. Nonetheless, seen in that light, a few dollars on your fossil fuel power bill, to encourage renewable energy, is not a great deal to ask. That’s the argument that needs to be made, because it’s the truth.

But it’s too risky a strategy, Abbott must think, to inject actual information or reasoning into anything he says. He’s not stupid himself, but he seems to think (or perhaps he knows) that treating us like idiots is his best chance.

  1. I can’t possibly be the first person to have made this terrible, terrible joke. But I am making it. []
  2. Higher for some, no doubt, but I would guess still very small compared to things like food and rental/mortgage payments. []

Climate Policy and Democracy in 2013-14

Tim Dunlop argues that Labor, having lost the election, should yield to Tony Abbott’s right “to govern as he sees fit”, and help him repeal the carbon tax. According to Dunlop, the “norms of democratic governance” are at stake. I find his reasoning a bit simplistic, but I’ll get back to this.

A range of new Senators will take their seats in July 2014. Beyond that point, Abbott will need to negotiate for the support of the Palmer United Party plus any three out of Democratic Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Family First, Nick Xenophon and the Motoring Enthusiasts. (The Coalition will have 33 Senators of its own, and needs 39 out of 76.)

It’s still possible (given Scott Ludlam’s appeal) that a Senate recount in WA may eventually go ahead, despite the AEC’s initial rejection, and deliver an alternate outcome: Palmer United losing one senate seat to the Sports Party1. Then Abbott’s options are slightly more complicated: he would need any six out of the DLP, LDP, FF, Xenophon, Motoring, Sports, and two PUP senators.

On the carbon tax, the various positions are as follows:

The odds seem to be in favour of Abbott getting the numbers, but there are scenarios in which he doesn’t. Any two of Muir, Dropulich and Lambie2 could combine with Xenophon, the Greens and Labor to block Abbott’s plans, and the likelihood of that depends on a lot of things we just don’t know at the moment.

You might think that single-issue parties like the Motoring Enthusiasts and the Sports Party are unlikely to put up a fight when it comes to non-core issues (things other than Motoring and Sports), particularly when the issue in question is the Prime Minister’s single most emphatic election promise. But then Xenophon himself previously ran on a “No Pokies” ticket, and isn’t shying away from the climate change policy debate. And Family First can’t reasonably claim that their policy is motivated by anything to do with families. The outcome probably depends more on the character of the new senators themselves than their respective party platforms.

But the outcome also depends on Abbott’s ability to negotiate with all these people simultaneously, including Clive Palmer. Even with enough Senators who want to repeal the carbon tax, how many of them will want to secure special deals beforehand? How much will they try to milk Abbott, before letting him have his victory? Clive Palmer in particular could…well, do anything. The carbon tax might remain in place by virtue of endless bickering over the precise terms of its repeal. Maybe. Who knows?

Well, the Labor Party itself could put an end to this speculation, if it wanted. And it could happen now, rather than in mid-2014. Where the ALP votes with the Coalition, all other parties and independents are irrelevant. This is what Tim Dunlop wants.

I’m sure some will disagree and say that the environment trumps everything, that addressing climate change is the most compelling issue we face, and that you can’t practice politics on a dead planet. Fair enough.

But I would say in response that politics is the only way we have of implementing planet-saving policies in the first-place. Every move we make that undermines the legitimacy of the process itself damages the main tool we have to bring about the change we want.

Dunlop’s argument would have some legitimacy if the fate of democracy really was in the balance, but he hasn’t made that case.

After all, why is it that the Labor Party has the power to keep the carbon tax in place in the first place (at least temporarily)? This power, even in opposition, is a product of Australia’s representative democracy, not an anathema to it. Our democratic system was designed this way for a reason. What is the point of the upper house if not to be a check on the lower house? The Senate is elected too, remember, and Abbott has not won the Senate. Not yet, anyway.

Dunlop appears to fear the idea of political deadlock, as exemplified in the US:

There, a rump of the Republican Party, in the form of its so-called Tea Party members, is currently destroying not just Congress itself but the nation’s faith in its ability to effectively govern itself.

The ramifications of that are huge, and we shouldn’t let it happen here.

But it can’t happen here. Australia has constitutional mechanisms to resolve such deadlocks if and when they occur. If the Senate repeatedly rejects government legislation, the government can call a double dissolution election. Abbott has been talking up this possibility for a long time. Also, should it ever be needed again, the Governor General has the power to sack the government, triggering an election. One way or another, these mechanisms will shift the balance of power by re-consulting the voters.

The US has an additional challenge in the form of low voter turnout, if voters become disillusioned. Compulsory voting in Australia largely solves this.

Dunlop also makes this point:

The system asks that both winners and losers of the democratic competition accept some level of humility. Compromise is built into the fabric of democratic governance and no-one gets all of what they want.

The problem with abstract discussions on compromise is that, while compromise is almost universally agreed to be essential, there simply aren’t any rules about when and how it happens, and who must compromise more. There can’t be any rules, because compromise is an inherently rule-breaking idea. The appropriate degree of compromise depends entirely on the situation at hand, not on any general principles. It’s circular reasoning to employ “compromise” as a reason for why one side should give in.

But say, even, that we are aiming for some arbitrary level of humility and compromise from both sides. If Labor voted to repeal the carbon tax, what “humility” and “compromise” has the Coalition had to endure?

Dunlop tries to eke out a somewhat nuanced position. He does acknowledge up-front that:

A party that claims “we won the election therefore we get to do whatever we want” is not citing any sort of constitutional truism: it is strategically deploying a rhetorical trope in order to get its own way.

But I have difficulty separating this “rhetorical trope” from Dunlop’s own argument. He has not immunised himself from it merely by explaining it. His only real premise is indeed that the Coalition won, and he does speak of the “rights”3 of said winner to do essentially whatever they like. This is a simplistic interpretation of representative democracy, and it is effectively repudiated by the constitution.

Although its power may not last, Labor has every reason to block the repeal of the carbon tax. Its ability to do this is not some murky result of arbitrary, incomprehensible parliamentary rules, but of basic democratic process. Tony Abbott will have the authority to repeal the carbon tax when he has the numbers to do it, not before.

  1. And also Labor (Louise Pratt) losing one seat to the Greens (Scott Ludlam), but that won’t change things as far as the carbon tax is concerned. []
  2. And/or others, of course, but those three seem the most likely. []
  3. I would have thought words obligations and privileges might be a better choice than rights. By being elected, you gain obligations, and certain privileges needed to carry them out. []

Denial in carbon politics

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Greg Hunt’s paradoxical lack of enthusiasm for discussing climate change policy. He’s very quiet on the Coalition’s “Direct Action” policy, and very loud on the Coalition’s promise to remove Labor’s carbon tax. (Highly suspicious, given that one is theoretically necessitated by the other.)

But will the Coalition even get the opportunity to fulfil that promise? If it wins the next federal election, the Greens are widely expected to hold onto the balance of power in the Senate. Labor and the Greens could, therefore, team up to block any Coalition attempt to scrap the carbon tax, and then a double dissolution election would be on the cards. Hunt magically extricates himself from this conundrum with the following rather optimistic reasoning:

We do not expect the Greens will ever honour a mandate given to the Coalition. However, if the ALP loses the election it is almost inconceivable that they would ignore such a clear mandate, especially given that they had no mandate to introduce the tax in the first place.

Hunt’s talk of mandates is pure fiction. The concept of one side having or not having a policy-specific mandate (e.g. to enact or repeal a carbon tax) is sustained by a narrative, usually self-serving and factually debatable, in which voters elect their representatives based on that one policy area only. It just doesn’t work like that, either in theory or in practice. Voters are never formally asked to approve specific policies, except during referendums, and there has never been a referendum on climate change policy. Elections by themselves are not referendums, and political promises are fundamentally unenforceable. (This latter fact will almost inevitably be the saving grace of Mr Hunt himself, as he must realise).

Constitutionally, the Senate is never under any obligation to toe the line of the Government. Even if the logic of mandates did apply, it must apply equally to both houses. Senators are no less democratically elected than MPs, so why on Earth should Labor or Greens Senators be obligated to do anything but adhere to their own policies and best judgment? The Coalition won’t own Labor’s eternal soul merely by beating it at the ballot box. Labor’s only moral obligation (as with everyone else in politics) is to exercise good judgment.

Despite this, Hunt expects (or claims to expect) the ALP to side with the Coalition. To slightly mangle Charles Babbage, I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such an expectation. Why, in the name of all that is good, would the ALP possibly want to (a) trash one of its own signature accomplishments, (b) replicate the very same policy back-flip that saw Kevin Rudd’s poll numbers crash, and (c) resist the opportunity, from the safety of opposition, to make a liar out of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in neat, vengeful symmetry with his side’s relentless labelling of Julia Gillard a liar over the same issue?

Hunt is virtually promising that his own political opponents will do his bidding. How much further divorced from reality can a politician be?

On symmetry, the repeal of the carbon tax is sometimes compared to Labor’s repeal of the Coalition’s Work Choices legislation. The Liberals, having lost the 2007 election, voted to repeal their own legislation, so — it is sometimes argued (though not specifically by Hunt this time) — Labor ought to do the same. This is a rather spectacular logical fallacy, because of course the two policies are totally unconnected. The Coalition backtracked on its own policy in earnest recognition of having gone too far, not because its election defeat lost it the right to have a policy. The only people arguing that Labor has gone too far are climate sceptics and political hacks.

The symmetry also breaks when you consider that the Coalition’s change of heart was motivated by strong public opposition to Work Choices — 59% opposed to 24% in favour, whereas there is now net support for the carbon tax — 46% in favour to 44% opposed. If both an election and a real referendum on the carbon tax were held simultaneously, right now, it is likely that both the Coalition and the carbon tax would win. Consider that when Hunt talks about Labor “acting in defiance of the express will of the Australian people”. It’s now more likely, on the balance of probabilities, that the Coalition would be defying the will of the Australian people, not Labor.

There is the threat of a double dissolution, of course, but Hunt must be making some rather extraordinary assumptions about the dynamics of popular opinion if he thinks he has that one sewn up. The Coalition-in-Government has potentially more to lose in an early election than the ALP-in-Opposition — the entire remainder of its policy agenda, for instance. The ALP would fight to get back into government, or at least recover some support. Even if the ALP gained no ground, there’s still no guarantee afterwards that the Coalition would have enough support in the Senate, or in a joint sitting, to scrap the carbon tax. And then what? Another double dissolution?

David Forman (in the article to which Greg Hunt is responding) goes on to suggest that the Coalition could technically scrap the carbon tax simply by bringing forward the full emissions trading scheme. After all, the carbon tax was only ever a temporary measure anyway, and Labor and the Greens would be far less likely to block their own ETS. This would be a compromise by the Coalition that really just serves to obfuscate a complete political surrender on the issue. Kevin Rudd’s proposed ETS was the menace that motivated the Coalition’s current policy — and Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership — in the first place.

The Coalition has been boxed-in by its anti-carbon pricing campaign. Given what Tony Abbott has said and promised, it’s difficult to envisage Greg Hunt having much flexibility in what he says and promises either. But there must be a price for politicians saying and promising the impossible. We may understand why they do it, and what political consequences await them if they don’t play the game, but even then we do not have to excuse it.

If not the carbon tax, then what?

Greg Hunt, the Opposition’s spokesperson on Climate Action, is trying very hard to convince anyone who will listen that the Coalition can and will repeal Labor’s carbon tax if it wins government. He responds to a well-considered piece by David Forman on the political difficulties of doing so.

I want to make two points about Hunt’s — and the Coalition’s — position. First, despite the Coalition’s furious pronouncements within the climate change policy area, it doesn’t appear to take that policy area very seriously. Second, Hunt displays brazenly wishful thinking in his estimation of his party’s ability to scrap the carbon tax if elected. I’ll address the latter in another post.

In his article, Hunt mainly just rehashes the cost effectiveness argument against the carbon tax; i.e. that it costs an awful lot and doesn’t substantially reduce carbon emissions. I don’t have the patience to sift through Hunt’s references to confirm his numbers, but his only purpose in citing them is to call the tax a “mammoth expenditure”. This is futile without some point of comparison (e.g. between Labor’s policy and the Coalition’s policy), which Hunt doesn’t provide.

The other part of the argument seeks to demonstrate that the carbon tax has very little effect. I don’t necessarily dispute this, as far as our specific implementation of the tax is concerned. Perhaps a lot more could be done much sooner. However, Hunt cites a think tank, rather misleadingly called the “Copenhagen Consensus”, which seems to argue against any sort of carbon tax or emissions trading scheme as a response to climate change. The think tank was led by Bjørn Lomborg and is now defunct.

Importantly, Hunt’s argument can’t really be understood without quietly adopting the notion that carbon pricing is purely an aspirational (or add-on) policy — something it would be nice to have, but only if it fits in with our principal goals of maximising year-to-year employment and GDP statistics. And that notion shapes our response to the policy’s success or failure. If it’s judged to be “not working”, then by implication it’s “not worth the expense” and so we can simply get rid of it and forget the whole issue. We tried it, and it didn’t work out. Oh well, let’s move on.

But not so fast. Any sensible debate over the carbon tax must maintain a connection with the consequences — economic, environmental and humanitarian — of the alternative. The Stern Review, for instance, is the most comprehensive assessment so far (as far as I know) of the economic effects of climate change. The summary of the conclusions says this:

Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.

In other words, however hideously expensive climate change mitigation policies (like carbon taxes) might be, they must be compared to the horrific economic ruin likely to arise from unmitigated climate change.

The summary later adds this:

Three elements of policy are required for an effective global response. The first is the pricing of carbon, implemented through tax, trading or regulation. The second is policy to support innovation and the deployment of low-carbon technologies. And the third is action to remove barriers to
energy efficiency, and to inform, educate and persuade individuals about what they can do to respond to climate change.

This rather underpins the government’s policy, at least in principle if not magnitude.

Of course, in the politics of climate change, we have a difficult time connecting policy to reality, because it is an unfathomably complex subject. Moreover, there is an army of ideological warriors ready to wage war upon any and all supporting evidence and analysis with an ever-growing arsenal of well-rehearsed factoids. But either you buy into the global conspiracy theory, or you don’t. There’s no half-way point that makes any sense. (Even if you were to discredit three quarters of the world’s climate research as fraudulent, what remains is still more than enough to support climate action.) So, let’s say your understanding of human nature is such that you don’t think countless thousands of nerdy, egotistical, hyper-competitive, human researchers are all working together to choreograph a super-villainous, comic-book-esque deception on a scale never before imagined. And let’s say you don’t quite grasp the logic of free-market libertarians who appear to believe that, since the free market cannot apparently solve the problem of climate change without government intervention, the problem therefore cannot possibly exist in the first place. (That last link actually deals with libertarian reactions to a hypothetical asteroid impact, but the principle is the same.)

There is real data and real analysis that paints an increasingly dark picture of the consequences of climate change. We have begun to contemplate a 4-6 degree temperature rise, far beyond the 2 degrees that international negotiations have targeted. Why? In part, future climate projections have relied on very optimistic assumptions about political action, which we have resoundingly failed to meet. These kinds of temperature increases are easily catastrophic, according to even the World Bank (of all institutions).

Even more importantly, this is not a case of “Oh well, our carbon tax didn’t work. Let’s forget about it and go home”. There is no “it’s already as bad as it can get, so let’s not worry”. The problem will simply keep getting worse and worse and worse until we fix it. Warming and sea-level rises will not stop in the year 2100, for instance (the oft-used time frame for climate projections). For temperature rises exceeding 7 degrees, parts of the world are likely to become uninhabitable — too hot and humid for humans to maintain our necessary body temperature, even with wind and water1. Given what is at stake, we can’t walk away from the table; we can’t get out of the game. Perhaps we’ve already failed on climate change, but there are many degrees of failure, so to speak, and even now we can make things so much worse than they already are. This is not an academic curiosity that would be a good idea to address if only it was a little more convenient to do so. Climate change will eventually, inevitably reshape our whole global civilisation.

So, it is important to debate whether (and to what extent) the carbon tax will succeed or fail. Perhaps it is failing. Perhaps there ought to be a subtly or radically different policy. It is entirely appropriate for Greg Hunt (and others) to point out the relative lack of effect the carbon tax will have on our domestic carbon emissions. These concerns and criticisms go to the heart of an immensely important issue.

However, Greg Hunt is more than a commentator. He represents the alternative government, and as such his talk of the carbon tax being an “environmental failure” must be matched by an alternative policy that is objectively, demonstrably more likely to succeed. Given his title, you would presume it is his job to co-ordinate and articulate such a policy. The Opposition does have a climate policy, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Hunt’s response. He doesn’t see fit to even mention it. Think about that. Even when going out of his way to respond to an article about his party’s position on climate action, the Shadow Minister for Climate Action declines to discuss his actual policy.

That policy, even taken at face value, is highly dubious. It is intended to match the government’s commitment to a 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (below levels in 2000). Yet, sequestering carbon in soil — a major part of the Coalition’s plan — is still essentially theoretical. Another policy component involves paying polluters to stop polluting, but according to various institutions including Treasury, this is hideously expensive, inefficient and ultimately unrealistic. In short, Greg Hunt’s policy suffers from much worse versions of the same problems he ascribes to the carbon tax. He even brazenly argues that other countries have said “no” to a carbon tax, but major parts of his own alternative approach are not even on the table internationally.

And there are reasons to doubt the Coalition’s commitment to even its own policy, even if it were feasible. Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership is the product of underlying climate scepticism within the Coalition, manifested for instance in Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce, and Abbott’s occasional “gaffes” make it hard to believe he understands the magnitude of the problem. Greg Hunt does not enhance the Coalition’s credibility through his lack of enthusiasm for his own policy. Malcolm Turnbull observes that the Coalition’s policy — presumably since it’s just a list of government expenditures (unlike a tax or trading scheme) — is designed to be easy to scrap even after implementation.

Whatever level of deceit you attribute to Gillard for making and breaking a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, and however ineffective you think that carbon tax might be, her opponents do not present us with any choice. From Greg Hunt, we need someone who can at least pretend to be interested in the subject matter — a matter of grave global importance — beyond merely promising to trash someone else’s attempt to solve the problem.

  1. In such extremes, air conditioning would be a matter of life and death for even the healthiest people. Power cuts would create major humanitarian disasters. []

Carbon tax lies

The word “lie” attracts a disproportionately emotive response compared to other forms of deception. Nevertheless, I will briefly point out that Tony Abbott has told a very succinct lie in the following statement, quoted by the ABC, in relation to electricity transmission costs:

The whole purpose of the carbon tax is to raise the price of power. If the price doesn’t go up, the carbon tax isn’t working.

The point of the carbon tax is not to raise the price of power. That’s a lie, and a much more clear-cut lie than anything I’m aware of Julia Gillard saying on the subject.

The point is to create a price differential between competing power generation technologies. The point (insofar as electricity is concerned) is to make non-polluting technologies cheaper than coal, oil and gas. All else being equal, we expect the overall price of electricity to rise — because to start with there will be very little renewable power generation — but that’s not the “purpose” of the tax. As the ABC article discusses, the overall price might actually go down for other reasons (network transmission efficiencies, in this case). If this happens, it would have no bearing on the functioning of the carbon tax at all, because the differential between fossil fuels and renewables would remain. All else being equal, when fossil fuel generation eventually ceases altogether, the price of electricity should return to its former level in real terms (edit: Okay, not really — this is technology-dependent).

This kind of statement from Abbott is not merely an opinion, not merely misdirection, not merely an unsustainable or misguided promise (as in the case of Gillard). It is blatantly, unambiguously, factually incorrect, and Abbott himself cannot plausibly claim ignorance of his errors1. By now, everyone in federal politics must have a reasonable working understanding of carbon pricing, given how long and hard we’ve been talking about it.

I don’t see, therefore, how Abbott’s remarks can escape even the narrowest definition of a lie.

  1. If Abbott — whose entire political raison d’être has been the prevention of carbon pricing — truly does not know how it works, this would be a revelation of staggering idiocy and denialism. []

Carbon parochialism

One of the most effective arguments against pricing carbon in Australia is that horrible rhetorical question: how much effect will it have in isolation? Carbon price opponents think they’re onto a winner here, and their success (I think) has largely been in framing it as a national rather than a global issue.

In reality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a challenge confronting the whole world, collectively. We always knew it was going to be a hard sell, not least because each nation’s contribution cannot really do anything by itself. There does need to be some sort of international agreement. Absent international agreement, and absent action from other countries, it’s very easy to make the argument that a carbon price will not achieve anything. It won’t.

But at this point in the discussion we’ve already come off the rails, thinking like helpless pessimists, rather than constructive realists. We cannot so easily entertain hypothetical international climate inaction, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads inevitably to the worst possible outcome. This is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If a nation acts in isolation, it may disadvantage itself economically, but if all nations fail to act for this reason, they will suffer far worst than if they had co-operated. We must focus on international co-operation, not on how to “win” the ensuing chaos if co-operation fails.

It’s not beyond us to figure this out. We must think beyond the immediate costs and benefits to our nation. Surely we are human beings before we are Australians. Thus, we must think of ourselves as global citizens, participating in a global debate on climate action and assessing the global costs and benefits thereof. Each investment in renewable energy or reduction in energy use benefits the whole world, not just the country in which it happens. The actual climatic effects of Australia’s carbon price will be dispersed over all seven continents and five oceans, while Australians ourselves will experience only a small part of it. Indeed, every country will experience only a small portion of the benefits of their own actions.

This is antithetical to the selfish, nationalist perspective, which would question why others should benefit from our efforts. But that’s the only way it can be – climate reality crushing the illusion of absolute national sovereignty. We cannot engineer a climate policy that is only in the national interest. We cannot employ a version of Maxwell’s Demon to stand at the border and stop the flow of greenhouse gas molecules back and forth. Climate policy can only serve the global interest, or none at all.

There are many possible analogies. Consider income tax – if each taxpayer were to measure the effect of their own tax contribution on healthcare, education, law enforcement, etc., it would be infinitesimal. Why then should anyone pay tax? Your own tax contribution in isolation hardly benefits society at all. However, there are many people to share the tax burden, and together their contribution is very noticeable. The benefits to everyone of government spending – the opportunity to live in a safe, healthy and educated society – far outweigh whatever personal benefits those few thousand tax dollars were going to have1.

If we convince ourselves that we matter more than society, or that Australia matters more that the rest of the world, we risk becoming obsessed not simply with helping ourselves, but with actively not helping others. It’s not our responsibility, we tell ourselves, forgetting in our stubbornness that we have a stake in it. Selfishness turns into angry defensiveness, which turns into isolationism, and ultimately self-betrayal. Far from being a burden, the greater good is actually in our own personal and national interest. Climate policy is not about altruistically helping others (though that is certainly no bad thing). It is about helping ourselves by helping everyone.

  1. Libertarians would insist otherwise, but I don’t think they have a great deal of evidence on their side. []

Question time psychosis

I read (via the ABC) that our new Greens MP Adam Bandt believes that the hallowed institution of Question Time is in danger of becoming a farce:

There is a real risk that we are about to lose one of the key opportunities that Parliament has to hold the executive accountable and to ask ministers to think on their feet.

What really is the fulcrum of Parliament, something the nation tunes in to every day and an opportunity to put ministers on the spot, runs the risk of descending into a scripted farce.

At the moment we have the length of Question Time being determined by what time Play School comes on television.

I can understand and sympathise with Bandt, but this strikes me as being a little naïve. Question Time has almost never been anything but a farce.

Each question from a Government MP is a blank cheque for the relevant minister to burble on about how great they are. Each question from the Opposition is just a rhetorical salvo designed to damage the government’s credibility. It’s been like that since the dawn of time, and our adversarial, two-party system almost guarantees it will stay that way. Independent MPs – including, presumably, Mr Bandt himself – are the only ones even remotely likely to use Question Time as a means of acquiring information and so informing the public. However, they get very few opportunities to do so, and such cool-headed rational discourse appears not to rate very highly in media coverage.

So, when Tony Abbott decides to disrupt Question Time with spurious censure motions over Gillard’s carbon tax, who really cares? Sure, he’s being a supercilious git, but it’s not as if he’s disrupting anything important. I shall elaborate by way of the following diagram:

If we can make Question Time not an unmitigated farce (or we can get rid of people likely to care about democracy), then we can worry about Abbott’s choreography.