Dinner with Malcolm, and how the Libs can regroup
Last July I had dinner with Malcolm Fraser and a small group in the Karagheusian Room in University House at the University of Melbourne. The dinner was in honour of my brother in law Gerry Simpson, who had just delivered his Inaugural Professorial Lecture, entitled “War Crimes Trials, Solemnity and the Problem of Evil”.
The evening displayed symbols of ancient, privileged University traditions that clash with contemporary political life. Waiters served us pre-Master Chef dishes on good china, surrounded by walnut antique furniture from Paris and a Brueghel III oil painting peered down on us through the centuries. Mr Fraser was relaxed and comfortable.
Our conversations turned to climate change, of course. I said I thought the legal profession should do more to litigate against polluters and regulators. I understand that there is no climate law under which to run cases, but if the planet is burning, that is enough of a smoking gun for this bush lawyer.
Mr Fraser has considered opinions on climate change and at one point asked, rhetorically, why the environmental movement leadership is so close to the Federal Government, despite its weak climate policies. (This was back when PM Kevin Rudd still stood by his ETS).
Mr Fraser pointed to the feebleness of one particular environment group, but his point was really a general one; you cannot expect to push a government to make major reforms if you keep endorsing its compromises. Everyone nodded in agreement, but I felt it was a sentiment as out of step with these weak, Twittery times as the seventeenth century Flemish painting above the dining table.
After the Commonwealth car had collected Mr Fraser there was the debrief. His health seemed well, it was said. His driver is a good man. But why oh why is Malcolm Fraser still in the Liberal Party?
The Opposition’s recent Budget disarray spoke volumes in answer to this question. The light weight budget reply speech by Mr Abbott, the evasive National Press Club address by Mr Hockey and the half-answers by Mr Robb were not merely a string of misjudgements and mishaps.
There is no bigger mark of the intellectual failure of modern liberals and conservatives that their weak, pointless point-scoring against climate science. They could be writing a new vision of their values, which relates to reality of the contemporary world, but they are waging a losing war against science. Since science does not agree with political convenience, they want science to change! This is conservative in the stupidest sense of the word.
The Liberals have so little intellectual credibility left, with the departure of Mr Fraser, that they should admit defeat and re-invent. Ecology offers them a profound, dynamic starting point for articulating an alternative.
The contemporary ALP has no particular affinity with ecology, which means the Coalition can define an economic approach to “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, although not without a formidable challenger. As Ross Gittins writes, “The most thought-provoking comment I’ve seen on the budget came from Senator Christine Milne of the Greens.”. There is no reason that the conservative parties could not define a liberal-conservative version of ecologically rational economics, in opposition to the left-progressive version of the Greens.
Here are the 3 obvious policy opportunities for the Opposition:
Energy Efficiency is the most economically rational way to cut emissions. The harvesting of wasted energy is actually so efficient in economic terms that these ‘nega-watts’ are a profitable new resource worth trillions of dollars over the next decade. This probably sounds to many in the Liberal and National parties like a deep green fantasy but it is the basis of the emerging scenario for Business As Usual.
Giles Parkinson writes that the global energy sector is ‘dull, regulated, protected and predictable’ and that it deserves to be crushed by the firms with EE ambitions. Who are these radical companies that threaten to bury old outfits like Victoria’s antediluvian Hazelwood power station? GE, Google & Intel.
Clean energy is profitable business in 2010, not a cottage industry funded by those scary inner city Latte-lovers. Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance said recently: “We stick to our forecast that 2010 will see record overall new investment in clean energy.” Not much of this investment will be made in Australia while the Government-in-waiting refuses to grow out of its quarry mentality.
Carbon costs are going up globally, independently of the Copenhagen UNFCCC fiasco. Part of this rise comes from carbon prices imposed by Governments and the rest comes from a diverse range of commercial and civic factors that impose de facto prices on greenhouse pollution: technical standards, ExIm policies, consumer preferences, CleanTech competition, brand-bashing campaigns, climate litigation and ‘Acts of God’, such as the BP oil spill. It is no wonder that Joe Hockey admits Australia will put a price on carbon eventually.
Just over the horizon of mainstream economic commentary is ecological scarcity, which scares Tony Abbott so profoundly. Peak Oil is happening now [http://www.grist.org/article/2010-05-19-peak-oil-production-coming-much-sooner-than-expected/ ]and Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman blames the GFC on it. The US’s current Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) puts Peak Oil and climate change firmly within the strategic planning framework for the army, air force and navy.
A strong Liberal thinker would have the courage to face Peak Coal, also. I do not have great confidence that there is anyone with the strength, confidence and backing in the party that would be required. But I think that anyone who did want to bring the Liberals into the new Millennium might find some value looking back to the past for inspiration. I wonder if Mr Fraser might be happy to provide some useful advice?
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