Doomed Planet

Rudd servants or public servants?

The Statistician’s Environment Survey and the Role of the Public Service

My Online Opinion article of June 22 reported my letter to the Statistician of 18 June questioning the ABS’s first survey of environmental views and behaviour. That letter argued the importance of properly assessing present attitudes on the environment given (particularly) the forthcoming Senate debate on legislation to establish an emissions trading scheme (ETS) and the December international meeting in Copenhagen on the mooted global scheme to reduce CO2 emissions.

My principal worries were that the survey questions seemed to have obvious answers and provided unwarranted potential for using the ABS’s authority to argue that general support exists for policies to reduce emissions. The basic survey question – “Are you concerned or not concerned about climate change, water shortage and accumulation of waste” – was the only one asked relevant to those issues.

The Statistician’s reply of 25 June (the full text, and my letter, are here) acknowledged that the ABS “typically focuses on practices and behaviour as these are more objective,” but added “we also recognise the value of environmental views to provide information on society’s perspective on issues.” Perhaps so – but do society’s perspectives on the environment have priority over those on, say, the economic crisis or terrorism? And is it the role of the Statistician or the Government to obtain them?

The timing and framing of this first survey is not inconsistent with the apparently increasing tendency of the public service to serve the interests of the government rather than the wider national interest. The Statistician’s claim that the survey questions were “carefully designed to minimise ambiguity, maximise balance, not be leading, and to provide meaningful statistics” might appear to deny this.  But “meaningful statistics” scarcely include the publication of beliefs in motherhood. And, as noted in my letter to Mr Pink, it was hardly surprising that “concern” was expressed by nine out of ten about water shortages, around three quarters about climate change and nearly 70 per cent about the accumulation of waste.

With any survey of climate change, there is surely a need to identify main aspects of concern. Are, for example, people concerned that it is likely to get hotter or cooler and, if so, likely damaging to human activity or not? And do people believe any temperature change as likely due to natural or human causes and, if so, to what extent? 

Also, while one can deduce from the Statistician’s survey that there is greater concern in Australia about water shortages than climate change, this is not specifically identified (as it is in the Gallup poll in the United States). That “concern” may well increase (at least in Victoria) given the June 26 approval by the Essential Services Commission of a 51-64 per cent rise in Victorian household water bills over the next four years. That these increases, reported as helping fund the controversial North-South pipeline and the Desalination Plant, were not announced by the Minister for Water suggests more ministerial buck-passing. Of course, such expensive “investments”, involving total outlays of $4.1 billion, are needed because the government has consistently refused to defy the Greens and build new dams (the last was built in 1983).

Another example of the Greens’ influence emerged at a seminar I attended on 24 June on the role played by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and associated animal “rights” organisations. Like the Greens, the ultimate aim of these well-funded groups is to change society radically by making it "meatless" and "petless". The use of animals by humans, and their killing, is portrayed as necessarily involving cruelty of some kind and the swallowing of this story has persuaded “compassionate” governments to introduce regulatory but unnecessary measures. PETA has, for example, portrayed mulesing of lambs as cruel, leading (inter alia) to threatened boycotts overseas of Australian wool and requiring farmers to incur additional costs. It was encouraging that attendees at the seminar recognised the need to present a more coherent picture of the extremist attitudes of such organisations.

Also (moderately) encouraging was the publicity given to Senator Fielding’s refusal to accept Climate Change Minister Wong’s answers to his three questions viz the failure over the past decade of temperatures to increase despite increased emissions of CO2; the past history of warmings greater than in the last century; and the apparent major faults in IPCC models used to project temperature increases. The recognition that Fielding is being supported by four expert scientists highlights the failure of the government to provide any independent assessment of the science behind claims of such emissions as the predominant cause of global warming. However, these four experts have made a highly damaging initial brief critique of the answers prepared by the Government’s Chief Scientist and an ANU expert. When their more exhaustive paper is released, it will surely destroy any basis for policy action to reduce emissions. If Treasury had been performing the independent role it once played, an exposition of the enormous uncertainties would already have been published. 

The appropriate Treasury role has also emerged in the dispute over the allegation that the Prime Minister and Treasurer have been giving special help to certain car dealers seeking financial assistance under the OzCar scheme. If a senior Treasury officer has been providing advice/information to the Opposition, this may indicate a concern within the department about the role Treasury now seems expected to play in “managing” the Government’s policies. Should it, for example, be the role of Treasury to provide (in effect) a financial advisory service to car dealers? This and other questions, such as why the Treasurer and Treasury head did not appear at the Senate committee hearing into the OzCar arrangements, have yet to be explored. 

Des Moore, formerly Deputy Secretary, Treasury is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise

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