by Marilyn Lake,
Professor Marilyn Lake was elected Fellow of the Academy of Humanities of Australia in 1995; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia in 1999
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Scientists generally agree that the emission of carbon generated by industrialised economies, if left unchecked, will cause catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate leading to warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, failures in agriculture, prolonged droughts and an increasing incidence of extreme weather events, effects which are evident already. Many critics of the federal government’s plan to put a price on carbon, especially those who still profess to believe in the science of climate change, often resort to the argument that Australia should not go it alone, that we should wait until the rest of the world shows that it is prepared to act.

Thus, former prime minister John Howard, once an advocate for an emissions trading scheme that would be a model for other countries, now says it would be ‘crazy’ for Australia to be going out ahead of the world. A conservative chorus comprising politicians, business interests and media commentators adds to the strident cacophony. To legislate in advance of our trading partners, they say, poses an unacceptable risk to our economy. It is not in our national interest.

These arguments combine bad faith and poor information for, as Greg Combet and Julia Gillard, and, most recently, Malcolm Turnbull have pointed out, they wilfully ignore the fact that the 27 nations comprising the European Union, large American states like California, and countries as diverse as New Zealand and China already have embarked on emission trading schemes and/or other measures to cut emissions and promote clean energy. In 2007, EU leaders endorsed an integrated approach to climate and energy policy and committed to transforming Europe into an energy-efficient, low carbon economy, signing on to a unilateral commitment that Europe would cut its emissions by at least 20% of 1990 levels by 2020. In its most recent 5 year plan, China has announced a comprehensive plan of action, and is closing polluting power companies every week. South Korea has established a Green Growth Institute and Japan is pursuing bi-lateral offset mechanisms designed to transfer its clean technology to developing countries in exchange for the purchase of emission credits.

From the international perspective, it is Australia that is the laggard. From the historical perspective, the idea that Australia should only follow where others lead represents a radical departure from national tradition. Such a strategy flies in the face of our proud national record of international innovation that saw Australia hailed in its foundation years as a leader in political and progressive reform.
In the community of nations that emerged in the twentieth century, Australia forged a distinctive national identity as an advanced pioneering democracy, a laboratory for economic and social experiment that laid the basis of our national prosperity and served as a model for other countries. American newspapers regularly featured reports on economic and social progress down-under, advising their readers to ‘watch Australia’, a country in the vanguard of reform. Many visitors came to see for themselves; many wrote articles in US and UK papers.

In introducing manhood and womanhood suffrage, the 8 hour day, minimum wages and decent working conditions, free, compulsory and secular education, the secret ballot and compulsory voting, old age and invalid pensions and a maternity allowance for single mothers as well as married women, Australia proclaimed itself as a progressive, modern and egalitarian democracy, whose reforms would provide object lessons to the rest of the world.

It was a distinctive national tradition built on respect for education, scholarship schemes, scientific training and the establishment of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a tradition kept alive by both Liberal and Labor governments, by political leaders from Alfred Deakin to RG Menzies to Malcolm Fraser, from Andrew Fisher to EG Whitlam to Paul Keating and Bob Hawke. It also built on and strengthened a sense of international engagement and responsibility forged by leaders such as HV Evatt, Jessie Street, Elizabeth Reid, Mick Dodson and Michael Kirby among others.

There have been many times, of course, when Australia fell behind – for example in the outlawing of racial discrimination and the introduction of paid maternity leave – and it took strong leadership on the part of many people from different walks of life to overcome reactionary prejudice and ruthless self interest to forge a more noble and generous idea of Australia and its potential.

Now, once again, as the Australian government seeks to introduce a series of reforms to reduce carbon emissions and promote a sustainable economy and cleaner sources of energy, strong leadership is needed to counter the orchestrated campaign of conservative opposition, fuelled by bad faith and wilful misrepresentation, a campaign that appeals to parochial selfishness, populist fear and personal self interest.

We no longer lead the world, but as the Prime Minister says, we simply are striving to keep up. As the nation that produces more carbon per head than any other this surely is our international responsibility and basic to our self respect and sense of ourselves as a progressive people. And as a nation whose very name – the Commonwealth of Australia – reflects a vision of shared resources and a commitment to the common good it is appropriate that the carbon reduction proposal should incorporate compensation for our least well-off citizens and a greater impost on the wealthy. Indeed, the much complained about re-distributive effects of the government’s carbon pricing scheme also are in line with a long Australian tradition of collective provision through a progressive taxation system and welfare benefits paid out of general revenue. Australians have reaped the rewards of prosperity and it is only fair that we should now enact a reform that attempts to address its costs, which are borne not just by Australians, but by our near neighbours in the Pacific islands, South East Asia and the world beyond.

Citation: Marilyn Lake, Leading the World or Falling Behind? Australian Policy and History. August 2011.


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