Opinion

John Hewson
The power behind the drone

It has been said that the future is not a destination. It can and should be created.

Clearly, we can’t change the past; but we can learn from it. Surprisingly, our governments don’t seem to learn from experiences such as the pandemic and natural disasters. This is obvious in the fact that they are never better prepared for repeats of these experiences.

Federal elections should be accepted as an opportunity for change. They should be a contest of ideas or visions for our national future. An election is an opportunity to create that future.

Unfortunately, our politicians and those involved in the political process don’t think of it this way. What should be an opportunity for mature debate and to start to create that future gets so easily lost in what has become a very tribal, adversarial, slugging and slanging match, called “the campaign”. So much for free speech about what is at stake: those who dare to offer constructive comments and propose realistic pathways get so easily labelled as “woke” or “left wing”.

The latest and overused terms – “gaslighting” and “virtue signalling” – have become a mechanism for knocking out serious debate. People get “cancelled” rather than being responded to with mature, effective alternatives, or with some suggested sensible refinements to the proposal.

Indeed, this is as true of some sections of our media, who counterproductively have come to see themselves as “players” in the game, or, even worse, as “kingmakers”. Their priorities should be emphasising the facts and offering objective comments and assessments of the various alternatives being proposed and debated. Some sections of the media seem to have already joined a side and are running comprehensive campaigns and agendas that include failing to report on certain people and stories that don’t fit those agendas. Their leading lights froth at the mouth on certain issues and against certain people. Reporting becomes totally warped and the presentation of news entirely biased.

The offices held should always be respected. Prime minister and opposition leader should be referred to as such, respectfully, and not tagged with sleazy monikers that the presenters hope will define them in the public consciousness. This is an ugly legacy of the Trump era in the United States, one we certainly should not be importing.

What we need is something like a “Speaker” to monitor the behaviour of media commentators who thrive on sustaining this disrespect, under the guise of truth-telling and objective commentary. The disrespect for some women in our government over recent weeks has been breathtaking. Aren’t there regulations against this? If not, there should be. Key sections of our media are seriously failing our democracy.

As a consequence, the big issues and challenges are ignored and left to drift for so long that they become too big for our politicians to admit to or to accept responsibility for. Even with a succession of royal commissions into a number of the big issues, which has emphasised their magnitude and urgency, government has failed to implement recommendations and so has achieved nothing.

I am sure that Australians don’t want their democracy to continue to decline. The loss of trust and faith in our politicians and other institutions, including the media, is alarming. Voters feel seriously ignored and disenfranchised, with so many conspicuously left behind. Meanwhile the government gives priority to the interests of its mates and donors, with their spending priorities driven by perceived electoral advantage. None of the key politicians want to honestly state where we sit as a nation or to admit what the national priorities should be, preferring to be “small targets” in the slugging match.

The priority is simply winning. And it is not even about winning to lead, it is about getting the position and power but with little or no commitment to creating a meaningful future for our nation and its people. It is politics over people. The public is angry and frustrated with the overuse of words and phrases such as “freedom”, “security”, “good economic management”, “mateship” and “our egalitarianism”. There is little evidence to substantiate any of these terms.

Voters keep getting it shoved down their throats that we’re “leading the world”, that we are “successful”, when in fact we are not. We are falling further and further behind on so many fronts: foreign policy, domestic policy, climate policy, general wellbeing and so on. With such an alarming number of people living below the poverty line, and most struggling with the costs of living in such a wealthy economy, there is little to celebrate.

While democracy is genuinely “for the people, by the people”, strong and empathetic leadership is still a fundamental prerequisite. The Morrison government has failed to provide this essential leadership. It has been absent in preparing for and responding effectively to the pandemic, to a series of natural disasters, fires and floods, and on other big issues such as recognition of First Australians, climate change, aged care and cost of living – always with an edge to perceived political advantage.

A most telling comparison of leadership has been to watch some of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches that he has made recently to various parliaments around the world as his country faces the crisis of war. The honesty, substance and hope are a sharp contrast with the usual hubris and spin dished up as leadership here in Australia.

The issue of values is important in setting a future pathway for our nation. Many have hoped that with several senior ministers claiming to be “Christians”, the government might be able to draw on faith for basic moral values. However, this does not seem to be the case. Even the so-called Golden Rule is hard to find – that is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It has been more like “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

The Morrison government doesn’t want to recognise that it is possible to define an effective future, and pathways to it, by responding expeditiously to the climate challenge to create a low carbon, clean Australia over the next several decades, planning deliverable transition strategies for each of the key sectors. In the power sector, the need is to complete the transition to renewables and clean energy, which will be to the considerable benefit of households and business. In transport, the pathway is to electrification of the vehicle fleet and the development of green hydrogen as an alternative fuel source.

In agriculture, the challenge is to foster regenerative agriculture to dramatically improve the carbon content of our soils. Farmers gain as this process generates considerable carbon credits, which can be sold as another income stream. It will also improve the drought resistance of their soils, better preparing them for future droughts.

It is important to recognise that agriculture as a sector can be negative in net emissions, thereby contributing very significantly to the overall objective of net zero emissions by 2050, offsetting emissions from other sectors. In the building sector, the transition will involve low-emissions building codes and materials. Finally, the transition in heavy industries will be based on the development of green power, green hydrogen, green ammonia and green heat.

The overall transition to a low-carbon Australia is within our reach. In general, we mostly have the people with the necessary skills. We have the technologies, with scope for considerable improvement in some, for example measuring soil carbon and storage. The finance and insurance will be available. We only lack the political will to lead.

The government’s leadership role is to provide the overarching regulatory framework and encouragement and guidance for these sectoral transitions to occur. Importantly, it needs to stand ready to support individuals, businesses and communities through any disruptions caused by the transitions, with support for any necessary retraining and relocation, as well as community restructuring and financial support. It calls for a detailed plan for these transitions.

Clearly we all would have a role to play to create such a future for our nation. The election is the opportunity to begin that process. Probably the most effective way to co-ordinate this strategy would be for the government to establish a transition commission staffed by professionals with a high-powered, representative board to ensure good independent governance, which should include representatives of the federal opposition to work towards a degree of bipartisanship that will be essential to an effective transition. It will be fundamentally important to get the politics out of this process. Not that the election we are about to have will help with that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Power behind the drone".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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