06 October 2009

Sticks and stones may break my bones but climate change will kill me

In criticising Malcolm Turnbull for proposing to do anything at all about climate change, Mitch Fifield realised he was out of his depth when he went into a defensive crouch, trying to pre-empt being called names for publicly emphasising Coalition disunity over this issue.

Never mind being a rebel, a dissenter or an outrider, Mitch. How about 'pinhead'? You think you're being careful and principled but you're just being a pinhead, and here's why.

In December 2009 (no it can't be put off until after the election) there will be a major international conference on climate change in Copenhagen. It's likely that this conference will come up with an agreement for regulating industrial and other human activity that affects this planet's climate, and it is almost certain that Australia will go along with whatever is decided. The Australian government has to go there with a starting position. That position has to be a sensible one, it has to reflect what will and what won't fly in Australian politics and it must guide the government in its negotiations. Politically, the government can and should be held to account for the degree to which the eventual outcome of Copenhagen represents Australian interests.

It's true that Australia emits a tiny proportion of the world's carbon emissions. It's also true that Australia plays a major role in international forums like Copenhagen. What you'll be deciding in November is the form that role takes. If you do nothing - the pinhead option - you don't leave Rudd with nothing to offer. You leave Rudd with no guidance as to what's the best interests of Australia over the long term (which may be different to what's in the longterm interest of the US, Europe or elsewhere). You also leave the Liberal Party unable to make the case it needs to make in order to win government: that it is capable of articulating and representing Australia's best interests.

If you don't give the government guidance as to what will and won't work for Australia, Rudd will just go and do whatever the hell he likes - like Billy Hughes at Versailles in 1919, like crazy Herb Evatt and rorty Frank Forde at the founding of the UN in San Francisco in 1945, Rudd and Wong will make it up as they go along and will come up with a policy that gives Labor the political initiative. the difference with those other examples of major international conferences like those is that Copenhagen will give them a walk-up start at every federal election for a generation.

It's entirely possible that you decide one thing in November, and have to decide something else next February in response to Copenhagen. This might see terribly confusing if you're new to politics but when you've been around politics as long as I have, Mitch, you know that Parliament post-dates the impact of its pronouncements. It doesn't just vote on an issue and lo, it becomes so. People won't look at what comes out of Canberra in November, start gearing up for that, and then get blindsided by Copenhagen, the US Congress, and whatever else to the point where they become discombobulated. The vote in November is crucial in framing the debate, in Copenhagen and afterward, at the election.

The trouble with the learned helplessness of waiting for Copenhagen, for the US legislation and for whatever other excuse you might come up with for dithering (what about after the Victorian fire season, Mitch? Not too soon after because it would be "too early to tell", then the election will be upon you and you won't make a decision then either, etc.), is that you can't go to the people of Australia and represent yourselves as being able to handle the big issues. Making a decision in November doesn't put Australia out in front of everyone else - as Ross Garnaut said, there is no way Australia can get out in front of everyone else. For the Liberals to be part of that decision puts the Liberals into serious contention for government in a way that it isn't, and can't be, with the dithering pinhead option.

So much for the politics of dithering: there is hope in action, Mitch, only in action; dithering will only get you screwed.

Wilson Tuckey knows that he has become a national punchline with his outbursts on this issue, and the others who have spoken out against Turnbull - Alby Schultz, Dennis Jensen et al. - are people with no future. Mitch is shadow parly sec for something or other and should be punted, with a polite request to Victorian Liberal Senate preselectors to please adopt a Swans-like 'no pinheads' policy and trade Mitch to Family First or something (if they up the ante, throw in Julian McGauran). Was there any sort of political calculus as to the course of action most conducive to increasing the Liberal vote? Did Mitch do anything similar in terms of maximising his own credibility? Politicians might love getting their fat heads on the telly but Mitch did himself, nor the Liberal Party as a whole, no favours. Fancy being set up by Wilson Tuckey! What a pinhead.

He needed to come up with a course of action other than dithering, a course of action both popular and sound in policy terms, if he were to speak out. In other words, Mitch Fifield should only have spoken out if he were capable of more than Mitch Fifield is capable. He's played a high-stakes game against a man who played such games with Kerry Packer and Margaret Thatcher before he was as old as Mitch Fifield is now. See, I told you he was a pinhead.

Even reporting on Fifield and taking him seriously makes you look like a pinhead: how long has Michelle Grattan been in Canberra? Insignficant backbencher speaks out shock could scarcely be any less significant. It simply is not news. The fact that Labor has gone to ground so that Liberal divisions become the issue is no excuse for not remembering that they are the government and it is they who are to account for the actions of government. It is lazy journalism to accept Labor's unavailability and to go on about the Liberals because their scent - of fear, mainly - is more pungent right now.

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