Last week, somewhat overshadowed by the events in Washington, the Democrats took control of the US Senate. The Democrats now hold a small majority in both the House and the Senate until 2022, giving President-elect Joe Biden a better chance of getting climate actions through Congress.
Biden’s key nominees to environment and climate positions in his administration must be approved by the Senate, and the Democrat majority provides a clearer path for this.
Now we have a better picture of the climate-engaged Biden administration, the question for Australia is how the changes will affect our domestic climate politics.
An aggressive US climate policy rollout could provide a much needed dose of reality to the climate discourse in Canberra. It may also prompt Australia’s major parties to acknowledge the inevitability of a transition to a zero carbon economy.
The nominees for Biden’s climate team are both well qualified and set new benchmarks for diversity. The initial response to the picks has been positive, both from the US climate activist community and more mainstream Democrats.
Congressional representative Deb Haaland will become the first Native American to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Michael Regan, currently head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will be the first African American to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Biden also tapped several Obama alumni for key climate roles. The most notable is perhaps former EPA head Gina McCarthy, who will fill a newly created role as White House national climate advisor.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is nominated as Secretary of Energy, and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg will lead the Department of Transport. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment as US Presidential Special Envoy on Climate was announced in late November.
The team will be charged with delivering Biden’s ambitious climate platform, which includes:
Beyond simply rejoining Paris, one suspects Biden will want Kerry to reclaim the US’ leadership role in the global quest for zero carbon. This will create a challenge for Australia.
Our Paris targets are modest at best. However in recent years, Trump’s antagonistic position on climate action meant the US absorbed the bulk of international criticism. The Biden win means Australia’s perceived lack of climate ambition will come under greater international scrutiny.
One suspects Morrison and other Liberal leaders understand key parts of their base object to Australia being viewed as a climate laggard. That much was made clear by the ousting of Liberal MP Tony Abbott in the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah at the last election. It follows that these Liberals privately recognise their net-zero timetable needs greater precision than the current “sometime in the second half of the century” approach.
Not all in the Coalition, especially in the National Party, share this view. Some will point to electorates most vulnerable to economic harm from reduced fossil fuel extraction, reformed land-use practices and lower agriculture emissions.
But politicians need to be adaptable. For Morrison to succeed in a post-Trump world, he must shift policies in a way that satisfies wealthy Liberal voters without driving regional voters to One Nation.
The Australian Labor Party will no doubt welcome the Coalition’s international climate discomfort. But should they regain power at the next election, they will face broadly similar issues. And the Greens will push Labor for aggressive targets hard to sell in key regional electorates.
Australia’s journey to decarbonisation has more in common with the US than most other developed nations, such as those in Europe. Challenges and opportunities we share with the US include:
the need to deal with emissions from land-use (such as tree clearing) and agriculture emissions
an historic reliance on coal and coal mining
domestic natural gas extraction
high quality wind and solar resources (and hence possible future hydrogen production)
good potential to capture and store carbon dioxide underground
pumped hydro options
disproportionate political power among regional populations. `
So a credible Biden pathway for both carbon-free electricity by 2035, and a net carbon-free society by 2050, will translate reasonably well into an Australian context. Once the US shows how decarbonisation can be done, Australia’s major parties will hopefully admit the transition is unavoidable.
One hopes this acknowledgement would be reflected in domestic policies to phase out domestic coal use – perhaps adopting US systems that financially reward storage and provision of backup power. Australia must also follow Biden’s lead and plan for electric vehicles with greater urgency.
More detail and less rhetoric on climate policy would be a welcome change across Australia’s political spectrum, including specifics on how affected communities will be helped through the transition.
The Biden win is good news for climate action globally. But it will bring into sharper focus the breadth of change needed to achieve zero-carbon. And a more honest and open discussion about decarbonisation will deliver inconvenient truths for all players.
This, of course, assumes Biden delivers a credible and coherent climate plan. With Republicans in a weakened congressional position for the next two years, the biggest obstacle to progress will be internal fights between moderate and progressive Democrats, particularly in the Senate.
Political leaders in Australia, and elsewhere, will be watching closely to see how Biden’s team rises to the challenge, and what their path to success looks like.
Through recent natural disasters, global upheavals and a pandemic, Australia’s political centre has largely held.
Australians may have disagreed at times, but they have also kept faith with governmental norms, eschewing the false allure of populism beguiling voters elsewhere.
Our federal and state governments enjoy broad public confidence and draw their core legitimacy from the middle ground, whether it be centre-left or centre-right.
But if Australians followed the 2020 presidential race in the United States with greater-than-usual interest, it was because when boiled down, it presaged a plausible descent for Australia’s politics, too.
Last November’s poll offered a choice between two fundamentally different futures for the US.
On the one hand, there was an assumption that free and fair elections, the rule of law and concepts such as pluralism and civility are central to government and society.
On the other, there was an angry, polarising disintegration, in which rules can be broken, facts undermined, critics abused and the usual accountability mechanisms silenced.
As a partner democracy with deep cultural, economic, and strategic ties with the US, Australians lapped up the theatre of the Trump versus Biden contest. But many also worried the verdict of America’s 150 million-plus voters would have material implications down under.
Strategically, these implications included a continuation of the US global retreat, which had already seen China moving to fill the leadership void.
Domestically, it might involve the insidious adoption of Trumpist methodology within Australia’s political right.
Manifestations of the latter are already advanced in sections of our news media, and the willingness of political leaders to bluster through mistakes and exposed wrongdoings, refusing to apologise, explain or resign.
This is a key take-out of the Trump approach: notions of honour and tradition, long relied upon to protect probity and avoid conflicts of interest, can be ignored. Those seeking transparency or who uncover maladministration can be depicted as political opponents or extremists, motivated by hatred and prejudice.
For the Westminster tradition, where confidence rests on protections only ever partly codified, the dangers are existential.
Evidence of this deterioration can be seen in the marked tendency of governments to stare down calls for resignation, ignore significant public disquiet, and press on.
In 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian admitted an intimate association dating back years with a disgraced former MP who, it turned out, had been arranging property deals for commission, even as a backbencher.
Berejiklian’s defence amounted to a blunt “I’ve done nothing wrong”.
The origin of forged documents, released by federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor to defame the Sydney City Council, has never been properly explained.
Explosive revelations of political interference in a A$100 million federal sports grants program have never been conceded (although, Berejiklian recently admitted “political” allocation is standard practice when forced to explain similar outrages in a state program).
There is also the A$30 million Leppington Triangle land purchase which benefited a political donor, but brought no resignation. And the Robodebt debacle, which caused massive community suffering and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but cost nobody their job.
Contrast this with the response in The Netherlands where the entire cabinet, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, resigned on Friday. This was over a scandal involving child welfare payments, which had led to parents erroneously being labelled fraudsters.
As Rutte explained,
We are of one mind that if the whole system has failed, we all must take responsibility, and that has led to the conclusion that I have just offered the king, the resignation of the entire cabinet.
The two scandals are remarkably similar in nature, and in the scale of the taxpayer-funded recompense, but could scarcely be more different in the level of political responsibility taken.
Previously, ministers have resigned over comparatively technical breaches. This includes the unwitting importation of a Paddington teddy bear in the 1984 case of Labor’s Mick Young – the bear, which would have attracted an import duty measured in cents, was actually in his wife’s luggage.
A Berejiklian predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, quit in 2014 after advising the Independent Commission Against Corruption he had no recollection of receiving a single – albeit valuable – bottle of wine. Announcing his resignation, he said,
I do accept there is a thank you note signed by me, and as someone who believes in accountability, in responsibility, I accept the consequences of my action.
The army minister Andrew Peacock offered to resign in 1970 after his wife appeared in an advertisement for Sheridan sheets. A few years later, two Fraser government ministers fell on their swords over a colour TV carried into the country but declared as black-and-white on a customs form.
The mere appearance of wrongdoing used to be enough to raise public confidence problems and thus end a ministerial career. Now, even the substance of dishonesty, non-disclosure or incompetence avoids meaningful sanction.
The right-wing extremism that informs Trump’s base has become all pervasive. It has certainly captured the Republican party – only ten of whose House members voted to impeach the outgoing President – despite the president’s sworn commitment to:
support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The facts show President Trump entreated supporters to storm the Congress, in an attempt to stop the lawful certification of his replacement.
It was a mark of Trumpian reach into Australian political culture that neither that outrage, nor his wilful mishandling of the coronavirus, has brought clear condemnation from the Morrison government.
Another trait of Trumpism is the tacit legitimisation of an extreme right-wing discourse of grievance, white supremacy, and anti-establishment conspiracy theory.
Despite clear mainstream costs, senior Morrison ministers have pointedly refused to contradict or discipline their own MPs (Craig Kelly and George Chrsistensen) spreading incorrect and potentially dangerous Trumpist dogma surrounding US electoral fraud, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 treatments, and claims of left-wing agent provocateurs in the Capitol insurrection.
Drawing a typically Trumpist equivalence, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack referenced last year’s Black Lives Matter rallies – which he derisively termed “race riots” — to play down the Capitol siege while also trotting out offensive lines such as “all lives matter”.
Faced with a backlash, McCormack decried those “confecting outrage” as “bleeding hearts”.
It suggests the calculation already being made by ministers is that nourishing an extremist culture of resentment and anger is more useful to a centre-right government than courting the political middle ground.
America has already been down this path, and we know where it leads.
Health workers are at higher risk of COVID infection and illness. They can also act as extremely efficient transmitters of viruses to others in medical and aged care facilities.
That’s why health workers have been prioritised to get a COVID vaccine when it becomes available in Australia.
But just because health workers are among those first in line to receive a COVID vaccine, it doesn’t necessarily mean they all will.
Our health systems represent a microcosm of the community. Just like in the broader community, there will be health workers highly motivated to get the COVID-19 vaccine, driven by concern about risk to themselves, their family, and their patients. There will also be those who have medical conditions, those that may not be able to get vaccinated, and staff who are hesitant.
There will also be health workers with questions about the vaccine, who perhaps need further support to help them decide.
Reports from the US track vaccine hesitancy among health workers at around 29%. However, it’s important to note different groups have different reasons for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy; rates and reasons can vary across and within countries.
Protecting health workers is critical. Achieving high COVID-19 vaccine uptake among health workers will not only protect these critical staff members, it will also support high levels of uptake among the general public.
Personal health workers are the most trusted source of information on the COVID-19 vaccine.
Decision-making around vaccination can be a complex mix of psychosocial, cultural, political and other factors.
Health workers, just like the broader public, may perceive they are at low risk of acquiring a vaccine-preventable disease. They may have concerns about the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine and/or may find it challenging to get vaccinated.
While most health workers understand how vaccines work generally, they may not necessarily be experts across all vaccine types. If we want to ensure they feel comfortable to receive it and advocate for it, then we must address any misunderstanding and concerns health workers may have. This may be focused on the vaccine itself (how it was developed, effectiveness and so on), or the necessity of vaccination.
One strategy that may assist will be to work with middle managers, as they are influential, trusted and can act as vaccine advocates and agents of change. They may also play a role addressing questions or concerns where they arise. If a COVID vaccine becomes an occupational requirement for health workers, hospitals and other organisations need to include middle managers in the development and roll-out of programs. They can then help ensure staff members understand the rationale for the mandate, which staff members are targeted and why.
Investing in the staff responsible for delivering vaccines in the workplace, as well as other potential vaccine allies such as managers, can help reduce COVID vaccine hesitancy among health workers. That will benefit all of us.
Rhetoric plays an important role in tax debate and therefore tax policy. If your side manages to gain traction in the public imagination with labels such as “death tax” or “dementia tax”, you have gone a long way to normalising the labels and winning support.
Some truth underpins these particular labels — an estate tax is triggered by a person’s death, and the United Kingdom’s abandoned levy for end-of-life care would have been particularly relevant for dementia sufferers.
Nevertheless, these tags are essentially political messages and we should expect unbiased media to use neutral terminology. Fair reportage would not, for example, repeat the extreme libertarian claim that “tax is theft” — a baseless slogan incompatible with the rule of law.
However, both reputable media and politicians of every stripe invariably use the phrase “taxpayer money” to describe government funds, despite the phrase having no constitutional or legal basis.
This article argues that truth-based media should avoid the phrase, and progressive politicians should recognise they fall into a conservative trap when they repeat it.
Richard Murphy, one of the founders of the UK’s Tax Justice Network and author of The Joy of Tax, explains that “taxpayers’ money” is the money left in our pockets after we have paid taxes that are legally due. Money payable through taxes is the government’s property.
This is quite easy to prove — try not paying your income tax and see if the courts will enforce government property rights in that money.
Murphy also observes that “taxpayer” is typically understood as “income tax payer”, thereby implicitly preferring high income earners while excluding beneficiaries. But a goods and services tax (GST) ensures everyone is a taxpayer, and indirect taxes disproportionately affect the poor.
Similarly, at a local level, “ratepayer” has become synonymous with the propertied voice to which councils should pay heed, even though renters (rather than the registered ratepayer for a leased property) bear the effective burden of local rates.
If the government is the legal owner of its funds, then, does it hold tax revenue in trust for taxpayers? Not at all. Subject to the rule of law, governments can do what they choose with their money.
Self-appointed watchdogs such as the Taxpayers’ Union claim to bring government waste to public notice. Rightly so — as citizens, we should demand proper stewardship of government funds.
But our actionable right as electors is to vote a wasteful government out of office. The electorate as a whole, rather than an ideological interest group, determines the size of government we should have.
Unlike trust beneficiaries, we do not have an equitable interest in the government’s money. If it were otherwise, groups of taxpayers might have some claim on the government to spend or not spend its money in particular ways.
For example, paying taxes to fund belligerent activities is problematic for pacifists, notably certain religious groups. A Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act, which has been regularly introduced to the United States Congress, would permit dissenting taxpayers to assign the defence portion of their taxes to supporting peace work and social services.
Proponents of the legislation have not sought to pay less tax than their fellow citizens but to direct how their tax contribution is spent. These attempts have failed, as they must do. Democratic political communities permit dissent, but nonconformism does not extend to directing how taxes should be spent.
In The Variorum Civil Disobedience (1849), a reflection on his imprisonment for failing to pay a highway tax, Henry David Thoreau recognised that an individual citizen can protest against government by refusing to pay tax (and accept the consequences), but they cannot treat the government’s choices in its expenditure as if it were a cafeteria. He wrote:
It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.
Liberal democracies are based on some form of metaphorical social contract, most obviously manifest in the constitution. Under this arrangement, parliamentarians are elected representatives, not agents for particular groups.
Like any government that fails to comply with the basic values of society, groups that seek to control government expenditure outside the electoral process can be seen as bending, if not breaching, the social contract.
A progressive government should reject the suggestion that its funds are not its own to use as it sees fit for the betterment of society — as always, in accordance with New Zealand’s two fundamental constitutional principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.
Kowtowing to a myth of “taxpayer money” may act as a handbrake on decisive action. We are taxed in accordance with statutory law. If Inland Revenue seeks to collect more from us than is due, we have access to various tribunals and courts.
These legal rules and processes determine what is mine and what belongs to the government. Broadly, we are free to deal with our own property as we see fit — and the government is too.
Media and progressive politicians should stop perpetuating the untruth that taxpayers retain some residual property interest in the taxes they pay. Taxpayer money is nothing more than their after-tax property and the government’s money is its own.
Jonathan Barrett, Senior Lecturer in Taxation, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington
What can we make of Clive Palmer?
This week, he announced his United Australia Party (UAP) would not contest the upcoming West Australian state election on March 13.
After a dismal showing in the October 2019 Queensland poll, where does this leave his political prospects?
American-style populism does not resonate with large numbers of Australians. Australian political traditions are quite different to those of America especially in terms of welfare and health provision. Those who seek to take the populist route find it a hard road.
In the 2019 election One Nation and United Australia combined only managed to win 7.76% of the Senate vote.
Given the small base on which the likes of Palmer and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson have to work, one wonders what they now hope to achieve.
The current situation with COVID-19 might provide a clue as to why they have failed to spark a populist surge in Australia.
Palmer’s major contribution to the COVID world was his unsuccessful High Court challenge to force Western Australia to open its borders.
The last 12 months has demonstrated the significance of “quarantine culture” in Australia, a term first coined by cultural historian John Williams in the 1990s.
The natural instinct of Australians is to close borders against outside threats, be they national or state. The only partial exception to this rule at the moment is New South Wales — the one part of Australia that had a vigorous free trade (or internationalist) political culture in the 19th century.
In late 19th century and early 20th century Australia, writers such as WG Spence and magazines like The Bulletin talked about a desire to “protect” Australia against a harsh outside world and, if possible, limit the operation of international finance. The ideal was an Australia not dependent on the rest of the world.
In this regard, it is also worth recalling that one of the arguments often given for restricting Chinese immigration at the time was they were seen as carrying diseases into Australia.
This was a form of populism — but one quite different to the American version. It sought to protect Australia and Australians from the outside world, not to assert their right to liberty.
The COVID pandemic seems to have reignited this desire to protect Australians from an outside threat. The most remarkable aspect of this development has been the way in which this desire for protection has devolved to the state level.
Moves to close borders and institute quite draconian measures to halt the spread of the virus have been generally popular. Australians, it would seem, are more interested in being protected than they are in asserting their rights to do as they please.
This makes life quite difficult for someone such as Palmer, who has pushed for freedoms and border openings.
No wonder he has decided not to contest the WA state election. He is not in tune with the popular mood, which has strongly backed Labor Premier Mark McGowan’s hard border approach. It is not the time for libertarian populism.
It is difficult to know how long this protectionist attitude will last. One suspects the current situation with China has also fed into it. The mood is one of a threatening world.
From here, two comments are worth making.
The first is political. Prime Minister Scott Morrison will need to cultivate this threatening mood if he is to succeed at the next federal election, which could be held as early as August. He will need to convince Australians he is the leader who will protect them most effectively. This means going slowly, slowly on things such as opening the international border.
The second is economic. Even in the 1890s, the Australian economy depended on international trade through the sale of wool. The idea Australia could operate independently of other countries was a fantasy.
The same is true today. The borders will need to re-open and students and tourists let in.
Morrison will have to perform a juggling act. He must appear to be providing protection even as he appreciates protection can only go so far.
In the meantime, the prospects look grim for populists such as Palmer and Hanson.
The prime minister and his coalition have the opportunity to steal many of their supporters. The pandemic shows that to be successful in Australian politics, leaders needs to pose as the protector of the people, not promise more freedom and more openness.
I suspect Morrison understands this very well.