Doomed Planet

Gillard’s climate spin

A citizens (or rather citizens’) assembly

Julia Gillard’s response to climate change is to hold a citizens’ assembly. (In protest at the ungrammatical sign used at the election debate at the press club, which omitted the possessive apostrophe in ‘Leaders Debate’, and so made one assume ‘debate’ was a verb, I here make a plea that if this dumb idea ever goes ahead, at least let it be packaged grammatically.)

Now the initial response to this citizens’ assembly idea was for most people to have a good laugh. ‘Is that all you’ve got Julia? A gabfest of 150 people? How preposterous!’

But I think the Prime Minister’s plan or suggestion warrants closer scrutiny, for it tells us a lot about this government and this leader.

First off, notice that Labor has what in criminal law is known as ‘form’ when it comes to such ploys. Who can forget the 2020 Summit (which is a different question from who wants to forget it)? Remember how Labor brought together a collection of the self-styled great and good to help all the rest of us schmucks see the future?

What might be less memorable was how unbelievably one-sided that group of people was. It was the lawyers’ wing of the Labor party, writ large. So on the question of a republic, there was a higher percentage in favour than you’d find voting for Mr. Mugabe in Zimbabwe or indeed for any third world president-for-life. In fact it was one vote short of unanimity, which I hardly need point out doesn’t quite mirror the feelings of Australians at large.

The same ridiculous lop-sidedness applied to the bill of rights proposal. Nearly all the appointed attendees were in favour, whereas Australians at large have consistently – and rightly in my view – been opposed.

And if you put aside the 2020 Summit, what about the National Human Rights Consultation Committee that Labor constituted? This group, set-up to look into a bill of rights for Australia, incredibly and unbelievably, did not contain a single known sceptic or opponent of such instruments.

My point here is this and it’s a serious one. Who would get appointed to any Julia Gillard citizens’ assembly set-up to look at climate change? Odds are better than even that it would be an incredibly one-sided crowd whose views would be easy to predict going in. Would we see many appointees who are sceptical that global warming is taking place at all? No. Would we see many who admit warming is taking place, but that man is not (or not predominantly) responsible? No.

Likewise, would we see appointed to Julia’s gabfest many of those who want to take action but don’t like an emissions trading scheme, say those who favour a carbon tax (as many, many economists do) or direct action? No. And what of Bjorn Lomberg types; would we see many people appointed who say man-made global warming is happening, but the money needed to do something effective about it is better spent elsewhere, on clean water or eliminating malaria? No.

Julia Gillard made it clear in the leaders’ debate that her citizens’ assembly will be set-up to help bring the country with her, which less politely put means ‘to re-educate those who presently have different views into seeing the wisdom of the Great Leader, or at least of the proposals Labor would otherwise want to bring in’. It will be a grouping of cheerleaders for an ETS.

That’s precisely what elections and democracy do NOT produce, groupthink. They produce instead differences of opinion, where everyone thinks he or she has the best interests of society at heart. They simply differ on means.

The sort of thing Gillard is proposing is anything but that. It is premised on an incredibly elitist view of the world, where all we poor dumb bastards need educating and shepherding along by a 150 philosopher kings, or ETS queens. It’s a very patronising view.

No one for a minute thinks this citizens’ assembly will be set-up to indulge in vigorous differences of opinion, with stinging minority reports being written, and blasts issued in the direction of a Prime Minister Gillard. No, no, no. This will be stage managed theatre.

It will start with flattery. You flatter those whose views mimic yours by appointing them to this body and describing them in glowing terms. Maybe you can even find another Hollywood starlet to attend who will bring sufficient glamour to the event. Sure, a few may down the road come to regret attending, as no doubt one or two 2020 attendees now do. But in the short term you know this sort of flattery will work its expected magic.

Next you lay the groundwork for your re-education campaign, which will say to all the rest of us ‘here’s what these experts said and (sotto voce) you’re evil, wicked, an idiot or in need of re-education if you don’t agree’.  

Put differently, this is about spin and selling what you already want, it’s not about any honest exchange of opinions or thrashing out of ideas. And because of that it’s an incredibly cynical ploy.

Sure, we can all laugh at it. It deserves to be laughed at. But it also deserves scorn and contempt for being so obviously a manipulation and an exercise in cynical spin.  Give me elections and democracy any day.

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland

Leave a Reply