Wednesday, November 20, 2013

First World Problem

Whilst debate rages in the Australian Parliament over the Abbott Government’s misguided bill to repeal the ‘Carbon Tax’ Australia is becoming a climate pariah on the world stage at the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw.
Delegates at the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw
Photo courtesy of Brookings Institute 
 Let’s face it; the entire point of introducing an emissions trading scheme preceded by a fixed price on carbon emissions, is to slow down and then reduce Australia’s carbon pollution output.  That this needed a market-based, arguably punitive scheme is self-evident.  Businesses, however, will constantly base their objections to the ETS on the spurious justification that it will hurt local business in a trade-based economy.  Well, yes it possibly will in the short term, but this approach will induce business innovation and, ultimately, will have the required effect on the outrageous carbon emissions result that Australia currently boasts – along with Canada we are ‘the worst performing industrial country in the world’ (Giles Parkinson, Crikey 19 Nov 13).

And here’s the thing: a great deal of the clamour coming from those opposed to an ETS/a price on carbon/climate action is on a purely economic basis.  Because Australia is an economy primarily based on commodity sales, it is argued that to make the production and sale of these commodities more difficult and expensive will wreak havoc on our economy.  Well, here’s a news flash, China (arguably our most important commodity market) has recently ‘shut down nearly 500 inefficient coal-fired power plants and plans to scale down coal use’ (Ross Gittins The Age 20 Nov 13).  Surely this news alone would lead (and is leading) businesses to invest in R&D in the renewables sector. 

Early Start to 2013 Bushfire Season
Photo courtesy of Frontiergap
Business motivation being what it is in a capitalist society we are never going to reduce carbon emissions through the fanciful approach embodied in the direct action policy propagated by the Abbott Government.  Businesses will not be motivated to change through good will and will continue to press their competitive advantage to maximise profits regardless of the negative environmental outcomes.  Clean and green, except where (even the illusion) of these ideals increases profits, will never form the motivation for businesses without a concurrent penalty for failing to be so.  In the same article quoted above (Ross Gittins The Age 20 Nov 13), Ross Gittins reminds us that the cost of producing renewable energy has also fallen.  Businesses are not stupid.  They will follow the money and, particularly if compelled to do so through market-based conditions, they will apply their expertise to the development of profit-creating strategies; ergo clean and green energy production.  Without the market-based compunction?  Not so much.

Executive secretary of UNFCCC Christiana Figueres.
Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive director Christiana Figueres has told the coal industry that it needed to “look past next quarter’s bottom line and see the next generation’s bottom line”.

Climate change, and more specifically, anthropogenic climate change, is a quintessential ‘first world problem’.  Australia needs to step up and reclaim its former position as a constructive and engaged participant in international climate change action.  Before it is too late and we simply abrogate our responsibilities to future generations we need to stop our slide into irrelevance in this debate. 

In a stunning example of politically-motivated grandstanding for domestic consumption, Tony Abbott has made the ‘unprecedented step of dissenting on the final communique at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, joining with Canada in refusing support for the UN-sponsored green climate fund, which he dubbed the “green capital fund”’ (Ross Gittins The Age 20 Nov 13).  He has refused to commit Australia to a fund that will assist developing nations in the Commonwealth combat anthropogenic climate change.  But this is exactly what we, in concert with other developed nations, should be doing.

‘Without more funding, poorer countries won’t be able to get on a path to low-carbon development. Nor will they be able to deal with the huge issues of adapting to the temperature increases, extreme weather, ecosystem collapse and sea level rise that will result from climate change.’ (Ian Macgregor – The Conversation 20 Nov 13).

Typhoon Haiyan Survivor
Photo courtesy of Reuters
That Australia (accompanied by Canada, Japan and Russia) is now retreating with haste from its international obligation to combat climate change is remarkable.  Situated as we are on the Pacific Rim; surrounded by many nations who critically feel the effects of climate change every day and whose very existence depends on international action on climate change, it is both morally and strategically imperative that we return to our former position as world leaders in this space. 

There is another week of negotiations and talks to be held in Warsaw but there seems to be little hope that Australia will reclaim the progress that has been made, put aside the short-sighted economic arguments and redouble our efforts to counteract the growing perception that we are, indeed, the environmental pariah at the table.  Far from crab-walking away from our obligations as a developed and wealthy country, we need to take up this first world problem and act decisively, sensibly and expeditiously.  Nothing else is good enough.  And our planet and it’s future generations (our children) depend on it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Labor Leadership and the Fire in the Belly of New Labor

Albo and Bill - Parliament House Canberra
Photo courtesy of
My ballot papers arrived yesterday in time for me to make my decision on the Labor Leadership next week.  Albo or Bill?

My wife and I collected the mail from the box as we were on the way out for a walk with the dog.  On confirming that it was, indeed, the ballot papers, my wife asked me who I was going to vote for: “Albo, no Bill, no Albo. I don’t know” was my decisive reply.  My wife’s response was to suggest paper, scissors, rock as a means of determining my voting intention.  She may have a point.

What does this really say about the leadership options for the party and, more importantly, with such a lack of clear distinction between the candidates, where does this leave Labor in Opposition?

Perhaps surprisingly, I actually see this as a rather encouraging situation.  Let me explain. 

Both Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten are widely considered (not least by each other) as outstanding candidates for the Labor leadership.  Notwithstanding the perception of “baggage” that both bring to the contest from the recent past, they both do stand for Chifley’s “light on the hill” values that Labor fundamentally holds dear.  Both are advocates for the underdog; champions of the workers; and guardians of the Labor cause.  Apart from some ”fiddling around the edges”, there’s not a great deal of differentiation.  On that basis, either will be excellent.

But a choice has to be made, so on what criterion should this decision be based?

Anthony Albanese
Photo courtesy of

Let me offer some thoughts: 

Labor has just entered perhaps one of the most crucial rebuilding phases of its long, proud existence.  Leadership during this period will require strong governance; team building skills of a high order; a captain who can encourage debate while weathering the inevitable storms of internal criticism; and steer the Labor ship towards common goals and ideals based on our traditional values. 

The new Labor leader must be able to do this while keeping an eye on new communications strategies and while developing the internal structures necessary for a modern Labor party that can be an effective and constructive opposition for the next three years.  And they must be able to do this in a manner that continues to engage and involve the broader membership – as Bill has so eloquently put it “the era of the messiah is over”.

Do our candidates have these attributes?  Well, yes, they probably do.

Bill Shorten
Photo courtesy of
There is a school of thought that the next Labor leader may only be leader for the rebuilding of the party and will not lead the party to the next election and, with luck, back to power in 2016.  Historically, there is some substance to this theory, but, were it to happen, it raises a particular challenge for Labor in switching to the new leader post the re-building phase. 

A rebuilding leader would need to recognize (perhaps without admitting as much to the electorate) that they would have to voluntarily relinquish the leadership of the party after many months of sweat and toil to rebuild it and at a time that would give the new leader sufficient time to step in, establish themselves and take the party to the election.  To be ousted, as has been emphatically proven in the last 3 years, spells disaster.  So voluntarily it would have to be; and the broader party would again need to be involved in the election (assuming, of course, that there was more than one candidate) - immensely problematic but not impossible.

So do either of our candidates have these attributes?  Again, yes, they probably do, but would either of them sign up to the idea that they are not there for the long term and probably won’t be the next Labor Prime Minister?  I don’t imagine so, at least not publicly.

So, realistically, the choice we have is between two very well credentialed candidates with the best interests of the party at heart – couldn’t be simpler.

Paper, scissors, rock anyone?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Horizontal Collectivism and the Fire in the Belly of New Labor

PM Rudd press conference on Syria during the 2013 campaign

When I first raised the term ‘horizontal collectivism’ with my wife there was a profound blankness in her expression.  This was not due to any lack of intellectual rigor that she applied to understanding the term; it was merely an acute demonstration of the need to address your target audience in the appropriate way – in other words, to speak in the language that your audience understands.

Communications professionals in the Labor movement since the 2007 election of Kevin Rudd, have largely ignored this message.

But, as Sean Kelly has advised in his Sydney Morning Herald article of 9 September 2013 regarding the legacy of the Rudd-Gillard era, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Let’s ‘unpack’ this term to see if there isn’t something there that might begin to stoke the fires of revival that the party now so poignantly needs:

So, a definition to start with: ‘horizontal’ – well, in itself, entirely self-explanatory – on the same plane; flat; parallel.  Ok, that was easy. 

What about ‘collectivism’ – this one’s more problematic and brings up nods towards communism; Marxism; Leninism; even Stalinism; and, infers, at least for my purposes, a notion of ownership or management by the people for the people. 

Together ‘horizontal collectivism’ denotes, at least for my purposes, a common and equal ownership and management of commonly held ideals and values where the individual has equal ownership and responsibility for the ideals and values of the collective whole.

So how does this tie into the current position of the Labor party in its struggle to become relevant again to the political discourse in this country?

Quite simply, whilst ‘horizontal collectivism’ might, by definition, form the very heart of Australian Labor’s philosophical foundation it is a meaningless and entirely pretentious term that will completely fail to ignite the fire in the belly of the coming Labor generations until it is applied through conviction and belief to the entire organisation.

Somewhere between fervent hope and utter conviction lies my belief that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era of Australian political history will ultimately be regarded with respect, congratulation and more than a grudging acknowledgement.  That immense achievements were made during this brief history – achievements that were the equal if not superior to Medicare; superannuation; the floating of the Australian dollar; and the economic, structural and social reforms of previous Labor governments from Whitlam to Keating – is clear on any dispassionate inspection. 

PM Gillard announcing regional
development assistance  in Bendigo
Labor’s problem is that we neither owned nor communicated these achievements as the commonly held ideals that they were and, until we do so, we are condemned to the Tory view of recent history that would depict us as bickering, chaotic; dysfunctional and, most seriously, divided.  The result?  The only story was the interminable and, frankly, ‘Game-of-Thrones’-esque series of plots and counterplots of the last 3 years that, last Saturday, delivered Labor opposition.

So how do we ‘own’ these achievements?  How do we make known to what will undoubtedly become an electorate increasingly disappointed and frustrated by the direction that the Abbott government will take us?  As entrĂ©e, witness the completely indefensible appointment of only one woman to cabinet in the just-announced Abbott ministry; only 6 women in a front bench of 42; and, the total disregard for the importance of science by the non-appointment of a minister for that portfolio (of either gender).

During the course of the Gillard-Rudd government, those of us fortunate enough to be more closely involved, witnessed the utter conviction of a number of portfolio ministers who were not always in the political limelight.  Jenny Macklin immediately comes to mind but others including Jan McLucas and Kate Lundy could not pass without mention.  Their selflessness and tireless activity bettering the future of many Australians, particularly those to whom fate has dealt a bitter hand, was exemplary and did not beg headlines or particular reward.  These Labor stalwarts executed their portfolio duties with grace, efficiency and tireless commitment because they believed in what they were doing and understood how this indicated the Labor way.  Labor’s failure to properly recognize and own the efforts of these individuals as depicting fundamental Labor values and ideals speaks more about the shortsighted pursuit of power – ‘Whatever it Takes’ - thanks Richo for imposing that legacy – than it does the promotion of fundamental Labor values.

PM Rudd announces plans to move
Garden Island Naval Base to QLD
Strategically, Labor’s communications gurus need to constantly connect and re-connect with these values – we need to steer the political debate away from power for the sake of it and back to values.

It would be far too simplistic – although enormously tempting – to say that the Murdochracy is responsible for the dilution of the Labor message over the last three years.  Tempting because it was undeniably a huge factor, simplistic because our strategic communication failed to counter this bias.  An undiluted and consistent message based on fundamental Labor values would have cut through – it is what people wanted to hear and were unable to because of our own self-generated background noise.  That Murdoch (and the coalition for that matter) ‘turned the knob to 11’ merely served to amplify our self-inflicted dilemmas rather than provide amplification of any particular policy deficiencies.  We did good things but who knew?

During his commentary on QandA on Monday 16 September, former Labor leader Mark Latham proposed that Labor must get its leadership and structure right before dealing with policy and ideals – I disagree wholeheartedly.  Labor must first return to what it believes and values; it must learn to communicate those ideals and values to a policy-starved and disengaged electorate that did not vote in droves for the major parties at this election but voted against them – witness the 5.8% swing towards “others”.  Then, and only then, should it spend time and energy debating the structure and internal governance that will lead it into the next election.  As noted Australian playwright David Williamson mentioned on the same QandA program; “the people didn’t vote Tony in; they voted Labor out.”

The grass-roots participation in the selection of the next Labor leader is a good start – this might be an example of horizontal collectivism in action.  But we need to go further:

PM Gillard at the signing up
of the NT to DisabilityCare Australia
Communications professionals – the much maligned (although often deservedly so) spin doctors of the political process - are both the villains and, potentially, the heroes of this piece.  Villains because of our complete failure to adequately sell the significant and, frankly, life changing reforms of the Labor government from 2007 to 2013; and potential heroes because we can regroup and address our deficiencies; we can develop strategies to defy an ostensibly biased media and we can counter the destructive conservatism of the incoming government. 

And how do we do this?  We return to the light on the hill; we return to the core values and ideals that brought the Labor movement in Australia together and, through these ideals, we reignite the Labor cause in a country that I have no doubt will crave a return to these values in the next three years of conservative rule.

Through horizontal collectivism – being harnessed together as equals striving towards shared ideals and values – the fire in the belly of Keating’s true believers can be reignited and we can and will prevail in three years time.  

We have much work to do.