It’s all about double standards and fashions. When Tom Schieffer, the former US ambassador to Australia, interfered in the domestic debate by criticising Labor’s Mark Latham in 2003, he was rebuked by some commentators for undiplomatic behaviour. Fair enough.
Last week Baroness Valerie Amos, who recently became Britain’s high commissioner, also intervened in Australian politics. She expressed surprise that there was a debate in Australia about whether humans are the principal cause of climate change and added: “In the UK there is a degree of political consensus about what in broad terms needs to be done … You would certainly not see on a daily basis … the kind of negative reporting that you have here.”
Amos evoked a modern cliche and suggested that it was time, on this matter, that Australia “moved on”. Put simply, Amos wants there to be no debate whatsoever about human-induced climate change and, to the extent to which this takes place, she wants the media to refrain from reporting it. It seems that platitudes are handed down in the British high commission in Canberra.
Helen Liddell, Amos’s immediate predecessor, delivered a similar lecture at the National Press Club in April 2007 – not long before the Federal election of that year in which climate change was a matter of contention.
How come, then, that Schieffer’s comments on Australian politics caused offence whereas those by Liddell and Amos passed virtually without criticism? Well, Schieffer is not only a conservative but a friend of George Bush who supported American policy in Iraq. Liddell was a Labour MP from 1994 to 2005 and became a minister in Tony Blair’s government. And Amos was appointed to the House of Lords by Blair in 1997 becoming a minister and, later, leader of the House of Lords. Moreover, both Liddell and Amos believe in the most fashionable cause of the modern age – namely that human behaviour is responsible for global warming.
So it seems that there is one rule for conservative Americans Down Under who want to talk publicly about Iraq. And quite another rule for social democratic Brits who want to talk publicly about climate change. Last September, shortly before she left Australia, Liddell appeared on the ABC1’s Q&A program and used the occasion to lecture the audience about emission trading schemes. It is most unlikely that the Australian high commissioner in London would appear on the BBC Question Time program and lecture the British on, say, how to run an economy.
The British high commission’s lecture-at-large to the Australian population invariably overlooks two central facts. First, British carbon emissions are low because, when Margaret Thatcher was conservative prime minister in the 1980s, the coalmines were allowed to close down. This policy was not continued when John Major succeeded Thatcher.
This was done in the face of opposition from British Labour, the radical leftist National Union of Mineworkers and assorted Guardian-New Statesman reading inner-city luvvies. Had this lot had their way, the British taxpayer would have been forced to subsidise dirty British coal and Australians would have been spared the subsequent moralising of such former Labour parliamentarians as Liddell and Amos. At the meeting of the United Kingdom-Australia Leadership Forum in Canberra in 2006, John Howard mentioned that on his first flight to Britain as prime minister he had watched the film Brassed Off, which depicted the anger at the wind-up of the British coal industry, and joked that he had been impressed by the impassioned speeches delivered by Thatcher’s opponents at the time. Tony Blair joined in the humour, declaring that he might have delivered one of these orations himself. By then, of course, Blair was more interested in the reduction of carbon pollution.
The second reason why Britain has relatively low carbon emissions turns on the fact that it has a nuclear power industry. As its Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, announced recently, Gordon Brown’s Government intends to begin the construction of up to 10 nuclear power stations.
It is true that there is little debate in the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in Britain about the cause of climate change. Perhaps this explains why it is not as high profile an issue as in Australia. Meanwhile the Americans seemed subsumed in the debates on health insurance and the war in Afghanistan. That’s why – contrary to many predictions – President Barack Obama will not take a firm carbon pollution reduction proposal to the Copenhagen conference early next month. Within the OECD, the Australian economy most resembles that of the US and Canada. The US did not ratify the Kyoto Agreement – not even when Al Gore was vice-president in Bill Clinton’s administration. Canada signed up to Kyoto – but never got close to meeting its targets. Australia did not ratify Kyoto under Howard, but met its targets.
Quite a few members of the European Union have not met their Kyoto targets. Perhaps the likes of Liddell and Amos might have more effect by taking their climate change diplomatic advocacy to Ottawa or Brussels.
The Rudd Government is attempting to get a carbon pollution reduction scheme through the Senate before Copenhagen. If he does, well and good. If he doesn’t, Australia’s situation will be no different from that of the US. In his surprisingly strident speech to the Lowy Institute on November 6, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had found that it was “90 per cent probable” that humans were responsible for climate change. While there is a 10 per cent doubt, it is unlikely that this debate will be silenced in Australia – irrespective of the views of British diplomats in the Antipodes.