On the Sunday programme yesterday (about 6 minutes in), Laurie Oakes asked Ross Garnaut whether it was politically possible to implement the radical reforms needed to reduce carbon emissions.
In his reply Garnaut drew an analogy with trade liberalisation – a reform in which he played a distinguished part during the Hawke government. Public opinion has been consistently protectionist, Garnaut noted, yet politicians successfully implemented Australia’s transition from a highly protected to a largely open economy. They did so without major electoral consequences.
Garnaut argues that, politically speaking, we are starting well ahead of where we were with trade reform, since large majorities accept the need for change. Garnaut acknowledges the difficulties in moving from this generalised support for action to specific measures, but thinks it can be done.
The two issue starting points are, contrary to what Garnaut suggests, quite similar. The basic goal of the economic reform process – essentially to restore Australia’s economic prosperity – was a point of near-consensus, just as the need to do something about climate change is now. It was the means of getting there that generated controversy. Protection was a means, not an end, and we should not compare opinion on that with views on the goal of slowing or stopping climate change. In each reform case, we have a popular aim, but no easy way of getting there.
My series of posts on the real greenhouse denialists showed how people can accept greenhouse theory but reject the practical consequences of their beliefs. They reject those practical consequences even in response to hypothetical poll questions, despite all the pressure to give consistent and socially acceptable answers that surveys create. What will happen when we all start having to pay significantly more for energy and energy-intensive goods?
The case for saying that climate change is a harder political issue than economic reform rests on the balance of winners and losers. For all the complaints we’ve heard over the last 25 years, the winners from economic reform greatly outnumbered the losers – producers in inefficient or fading industries. As consumers, the vast majority of people benefited from the changes. By putting a price on emissions, everyone will lose as consumers, and many people will also lose as producers in high emissions industries. As with economic reform, there will be winners in new industries, but with the cause and effect often far from obvious.
The case for saying that climate change will be an easier issue than economic reform rests on the a belief that people will set aside their self-interest. With climate change, there will be a feelgood ‘save the planet’ element that there wasn’t for the economic reform process. And perhaps the sense that we are all in this together will avoid the feelings of unfairness surrounding economic reform, in which the pain was unevenly spread. Certainly, in the surveys I have cited there are large numbers of people saying that they are willing to pay more for energy, though in the more detailed polling it is only small amounts extra.
In each case, the political class did/will put the issue in the TINA (there is no alternative) category, and press ahead with reform regardless of what the polls say. Economic reform does create a precedent for major change being successfully managed. Whether Rudd and Wong will be able to pull off what Hawke, Keating, and to a lesser extent Howard did, I am not sure.