Friday, May 20, 2011

PM's selective hearing

Following his appearance on theABC's Lateline on Wednesday, Malcolm Thrnbull rejoins Marius Kloppers and Ross Garnaut in Julia Gillard's pantheon of supporters of a price on carbon dioxide.

Turnbull came out attacking his party's ''direct action'' policies on climate change.  Yesterday, as to be expected, Finance Minister Penny Wong and Climate Change Minister Greg Combet praised Turnbull fur his analysis and for his honesty.

As satisfying as it might be for Turnbull or Kloppers or Gornaut to believe the government is listening to

Them and valuing their advice, the reality is quite different.

Politicians listen to other politicians, business people and academics when, and only when, it suits them.  Penny Wong endorses Malcolm Turnbull's opinions on climate change, while at the same time the government has ignored Turnbull's criticisms -- in the very same Lateline interview -- of the national broadband network.

It was on Ten's Meet the Press in September last year, just after the federal election, that the Prime Minister gave her explanation for reneging on her ''there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead'' promise.

She gave two reasons.  The first was that ''circumstances have changed''.  By this she meant that she led a minority government;  therefore it was impossible for her to ''just go to the House of Representatives and say here is the government's position and five minutes later it's passed by the House''.

What the PM didn't explain was why the lack of a majority in the lower house was relevant to whether she kept her promise or not.  In effect, Gillard said her promise held if the ALP was in a majority in the House of Representatives and a minority in the Senate, but not if it was in a minority in both houses.

Any ''government position'' on anything that was to be turned into legislation was always going to be the subject of negotiation with the minor parties in the Senate.

The second reason the Prime Minister offered for pursuing a carbon tax was that ''significantly too, we've seen the head of BHP, Marius Kloppers, make a very important speech on arrangements for carbon pricing and the view of a business like BHP about the need for certainty''.

(Kloppers had a few days earlier called on Australia to act on climate change ahead of the rest of the world.)

Contemplate that comment for a moment, and the likely public reaction if John Howard as prime minister had said he was deregulating industrial relations because Marins Kloppers (or any other CEO, for that matter) had called for it.  ''Howard in the pocket of big business'' would have been the cry.

Yet when Gillard follows the line of the world's largest mining company, she's applauded for listening to industry.

Last year, the Prime Minister was happy enough to quote BHP's support for a carbon tax as a reason for her change of heart.  It suited her purposes.  But now that BHP has changed its carbon tax tune somewhat, will the PM likewise follow?  Of course not.

A few weeks ago, Kloppers' boss, BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser, said he favoured a ''go-slow approach'' to emissions reduction that provided different treatment of industry sectors.  He also said Australia should investigate nuclear power.  Will the Prime Minister take up either of these suggestions?  No, she won't -- because it doesn't suit her purposes.

The voices politicians hear are the ones they want to hear.  The Prime Minister said she listened to Marius Kloppers on the carbon tax, but she obviously doesn't listen to Andrew Forrest on the mining tax.

Too many business leaders have an elevated sense of their self-importance.  Ministers would no more take no more advice from a CEO on how to write a press release than a CEO would take advice from a minister on how to dig an open-cut mine.  The number of politicians who have become successful corporate bosses, and vice versa, is small, and there's a reason for that.

Most ministers are not stupid.  They understand that company bosses are just as self-interested as they are themselves.

No company boss drawing a salary from their shareholders is going to advocate a policy that would reduce their company's profits.

It's no coincidence that the bosses of the companies that are both large carbon emitters and support a carbon tax are also urging that their specific industry sector get special treatment.

Those bosses are picking and choosing which policies they support in exactly the same way as politicians do.


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