10 May 2012

"Climate change has become the issue that dare not speak its name in Labor circles"

The Australian government has "given up on the art of public persuasion, most notably on the dangers of climate change" according to a former federal leader of the ALP.
If Labor won’t crusade on saving the planet from global warming, what will it crusade on?
Those are the words of former Labor federal opposition leader Mark Latham in today's Australian Financial Review, where he gives the Gillard government a lashing over its failure to go into bat for its climate change policy, saying it confirms Paul Keating’s critique of the ALP that:

it suffers from a paucity of crusaders; politicians willing to campaign relentlessly on their policy convictions. Driven by polls and media spin, the modern style is for Labor MPs to shield themselves from unpopular issues.
None of this is news to regular readers of this site, for much of our recent Bright-siding series was devoted to exactly this topic. And so, in more general terms, was  yesterday's post: Climate change is not a ‘message.’ It’s an objective reality and an urgent crisis. That’s why we must talk about it. But criticism this sharp from a former Labor leader is new.
     As Latham and many others have noted, in the budget speech this week the word "climate" did not pass Wayne Swan's lips:
In applying this (Keating's) analysis to Wayne Swan’s budget speech two days ago, I was struck by his reluctance to talk about climate change. The budget is the Treasurer’s night of nights, with a large and attentive national audience.
     This year it was a chance to explain the need for greenhouse gas abatement and to justify Labor’s carbon tax – in effect, providing after-sales service on the biggest issue in Australian politics.
     Yet Swan was largely mute on this subject, mentioning briefly “the price on carbon pollution” but failing to even utter the words “carbon tax” or “climate change”. This is not how a fighting political party handles the big picture.
This is consistent with the strategy behind the government new advertising campaign about its carbon legislation due to come into effect on 1 July, which will concentrate solely on the "compensation" (tax cuts) for householders and will do nothing to sell the case for action, the very reason for the legislation's existence. It seems that neither the words "climate" nor "carbon" will be mentioned.  And it a highly symbolic move, responsibility for the advertising campaign has been transferred from the Department of Climate Change to the Department of Families and Community Services.
     We predicted this approach last week, which is consistent with the approach both the prime minister and her deputy have taken to climate since 2008:
Both Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan are serial offenders in this area. In early 2010 they leant on Rudd to abandon carbon pricing, a backflip which cost Labor support and provided the pretext for the Gillard coup. They led Labor to the August 2010 election without a climate policy, backflipped again to do a deal with the Greens and independents, and are now publicly abandoning the hallmark issue of this parliamentary term.
     Through these twists and turns, Labor, since 2008, has been reluctant to act decisively, and at no stage has exhibited consistent leadership. It made no serious effort to drive public opinion on the issue with a story about the opportunity to build a safe and secure future for people and planet, as opposed to a world of increasing climate extremes and insecurity.
This strategic failure that has beset Labor’s climate communications is made all the more obvious by opposition leader Tony Abbott's approach. Latham writes:
Under Tony Abbott’s leadership, the opposition has swarmed over the carbon tax, running a cheap-jack scare campaign, with little rebuttal from the ALP. As the government has run from this debate, the community’s concern for global warming has fallen away.
      Climate change has become the issue that dare not speak its name in Labor circles, even in the Treasurer’s biggest speech of the year.
So the personal climate narrative about people and their immediate concerns – self, family, where and how they live and work, home, food and water in/security –  and the choice between climate harm and climate safety is one that Labor never told.
     And first amongst the offenders this year is climate minister Greg Combet. It's hard to disagree with much in Latham's commentary today:
Another example of the government’s surrender has been the performance of the Minister for Climate Change, Greg Combet. He has become the invisible man of the national debate.      Imagine Peter Costello taking a low profile during the implementation of the goods and services tax, or Keating going to ground on micro-economic reform. This is the equivalent of Combet’s capitulation.
     As the starting date for the carbon tax approaches, he should be barnstorming through Labor’s heartland, persuading sceptics of the need for action. He should be delivering speeches and convening town hall meetings in every Sydney electorate west of Grayndler.
     Yet in this part of the country, sightings of the mysterious Western Sydney Black Panther are more common than sightings of the Climate Change Minister. An examination of Combet’s ministerial website reveals the hopelessness of his efforts.
     This year he has given only one set speech in Australia, an address to the National Press Club on February 22, dealing with industry policy. Climate change was treated as a side issue.
     Even worse, the website lists just 12 media interviews this year, 10 with the ABC and two with Kieran Gilbert from Sky News.
     Instead of aggressively selling Labor’s message on commercial radio and free-to-air television, Combet has limited his media work to outlets in which he is likely to receive a soft run.
     In effect, he has been preaching to the converted, green inner-city lefties, while neglecting Labor’s key audience: outer-suburban working families who listen to 2GB and 3AW. According to his website, Combet has not appeared on commercial radio for more than six months, surely a record for a senior cabinet minister. 
     The minister is either too feeble to confront Labor’s critics or he has given up on explaining the science of global warming. Whatever the case, he is unfit to discharge his executive responsibilities. He has become irrelevant to the community debate.
In a commentary for Climate Spectator last Friday, I noted that:
If you avoid including an honest assessment of climate science and impacts in your narrative, it’s pretty difficult to give people a grasp of where the climate system is heading and what needs to be done to create safe conditions for living, rather than increasing and eventually catastrophic harm. But that’s how the Labor government and the big climate advocacy organisations have generally chosen to operate, and it represents a strategic failure to communicate.
Recognising and analysing that failure is the key to charting a new course in climate activism and advocacy.

David Spratt