23 July 2010

We already have a Citizens’ Assembly

The Prime Minister’s announcement today concerning climate change is beyond disappointing.

After telling us here that the price of inaction is too high a price for our country to afford, she goes on to announce two pieces of inaction:

-  the creation of  “an independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice – a Climate Change Commission – to explain the science of climate change and to report on progress in international action”.

-  the establishment of “a Citizens’ Assembly – to examine over 12 months the evidence on climate change, the case for action and the possible consequences of introducing a market-based approach to limiting and reducing carbon emissions”. This is because she wants us to have “a real debate involving many real Australians”.

It is hard to know where to begin in commenting on this limp bit of decision avoidance, but here are some observations:

(1)    We already have a community consensus on climate change, established in the 2007 Federal Election. Both major parties promised us in 2007 that if elected they would introduce an emissions trading scheme, and of course the Greens were in favour. If ever there was a mandate for a government to actually do something, this was it.

To the extent that the mandate proved “fragile” it was because the Government, having joined the Garnaut inquiry process while in opposition, shredded the consensus established by Professor Garnaut’s widespread consultation by consulting everyone all over again and in the process initiating a rent-seeker’s picnic. It is hard to escape the impression that Kevin Rudd thought that the Garnaut Inquiry, initiated as it was by Labor State Premiers, was a wonderful idea for wedging John Howard but not one he wished to act upon when he found himself in office – he was motivated by politics not, as he claimed, by evidence-based policy.

(2)    We already have a Citizens’ Assembly – it is called the Federal Parliament. We elect its members through a regular, open democratic process and delegate to them the power to make decisions on our behalf. 

Why is it an improvement to have a couple of hundred of our fellow citizens selected by some mysterious process to decide on our behalf whether and when we are all ready to “move forward” on climate change? I am ready now.

And what is this reference to “real” Australians?  I was born in this country, as were my parents, grandparents and a string of ancestors before them going back to 1822, so I think I am entitled to think of myself as a “real” Australian, but I suspect that having a couple of university degrees and senior level policy experience disqualifies me from being considered “real “ in this context. An odd position for a Prime Minister who proclaims the virtues of education to take.

(3)    Why do we need a new “independent” body to “report on progress in international action”? Why can’t it be done by our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with its network of embassies in every country that matters on this issue, plus the Department of Climate Change?

(4)    Why do we need an “independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice” to explain the science of climate change?  To the extent that we need to explain this issue to the public (and we do), isn’t that the job of the Minister for Climate Change and her Department – perhaps with a few tens of millions of dollars worth of government advertising thrown in?

(5)   To the extent that we need an “independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice”, what about the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee, led by the Chief Scientist of Australia, the very able Professor Penny Sackett? What about the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), one of the most trusted public institutions in Australia?

(6)   Why is it that every time we want to consider a new issue (not that this one is new), we have to set up a gaggle of new bodies that have to start from scratch – recruiting staff, finding a place to sit, printing business cards, designing their letterhead etc.?

(7)    We already know everything we need to know about this issue – about the science, the timescale within which we need to act, the various policy choices for pricing carbon. What we need now is a government that is prepared to take some decisions – to get on with the responsibilities of government.

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