I couldn’t write this yesterday because something subconsciously in me was scared I’d wake up and it wouldn’t be real. That what happened yesterday would all be a dream. But the sun rose this morning, I went for a walk along the cliffs above the ocean, and when I went to the newsagents and looked at the headlines the fact remained: Australia is putting a price on carbon pollution.
This hung Parliament is making it an exciting time to be alive in Australia.
Before last year’s election, it was politics as usual. Our pre-election expectations were bland. We had two options: Labor could win, and the climate movement would have a hard time pressing them to take action on climate change while they focused on other issues. Alternatively, the Liberal-Nationals would win, and we’d get a Government run by climate deniers who wouldn’t do anything to cut Australia’s pollution at all – except perhaps pay a lot of money to plant trees that would then inevitably die as climate change worsened.
Pundits expected the Greens to gain the balance of power in the Senate, but no one could have realistically predicted a power-sharing arrangement in the lower house. But Australian politics is far from predictable, and a few days after the election, votes were still being counted. Politicos — and even the normally disengaged public — started to realise something interesting was happening.
When the choice of who formed Government fell to one Green and four Independents (Oakeshott, Windsor, Wilkie and Katter) the nation waited with baited breath. For while, no one had won, and no one had lost. Finally, everyone except Katter decided to side with the Labor Party, citing action on climate change as one of their main reasons. Those of us who’d been campaigning on climate change for years breathed an enormous sigh of relief and excitement. For here was a chance we hadn’t been expecting: climate change was back on the agenda as the number one political issue in Australia.
And yesterday, we finally saw the fruits of what a power-sharing Government can deliver: policy that incorporates various perspectives and interest groups in a reasonably sensible way. It took several months to negotiate and reflects the various concerns of the stakeholders. It incorporates Labor’s focus on jobs, working families, and economic growth through tax cuts, household assistance and large investments in renewable energy. It incorporates the Green’s similar focus on more funding and better management of renewables, as well as their focus on biodiversity and environmental protection. Finally, the Independents negotiated hard to ensure that the package delivers benefits for rural and regional Australia (including Tasmania, represented by Wilkie).
The policy isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start from which to build. The target of only 5% reductions by 2020 is ridiculously low, but can be increased upon recommendation of the newly established Independent Climate Change Authority. The handouts to big polluters (especially the coal industry) are much, much more than what they need to transition to a low-carbon economy (especially given they’ve known about climate change since the mid-80s) but they can be reduced over time upon recommendation of the Productivity Commission.
More broadly, this decision, made by power-sharing Parliament, reflects a different way of doing politics that is deeply encouraging. Our political-media environment is becoming increasing Americanised — with debate sharply polarised and the level of vitriol, hate and poll-driven politics at an all-time high.
In this context, yesterday’s announcement that the Government, Greens and three Independents will all support the price on carbon pollution package shows that compromise and negotiation between diverse interests is possible, even in an environment of intense pressure and when the subject matter is a major reform to Australia’s economy.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) academic Otto Scharmer who designs and runs leadership and change programs for the United Nations and major multinational companies, has spent much of his life researching the importance of listening in exercising leadership and creating change.
Scharmer divides the way we can listen to each other into four types. He rightly points out that most listening in modern societies is done at a very superficial level, which he calls “downloading”. In this type of listening, a person only hears the elements that fit in to their existing reference framework. This type of listening serves just to confirm your personal perceptions. The second layer of listening is slightly deeper – it can be called “open mind” or “really listening”. This involves object-focused or fact-focused listening. By postponing your judgment and opening your mind, you focus on what is different from what you already know. You test what you already know against the new information, and consider whether you will adjust your view accordingly. The third layer is listening empathically, and begins when someone opens their heart as well as their mind, and attempts to feel what the other person is feeling. It’s where we practice empathy and remember what Atticus Finch told Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes”. It’s easy to imagine that the participants in the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change (MPCCC) were acutely aware of what it felt like to be in each others’ shoes: the regional Independents understanding the similar pressures their electorates were placing on them, the Greens and the Government understanding that this was a unique opportunity where both Parties had, because of various factors, little choice but to pass an effective climate policy. The final layer of listening is called generative listening, and involves opening up not only your mind and heart, but also your will. It’s hard to describe, but Scharmer says: “At the end of such a conversation, you no longer feel the same. The approach is no longer about subject and object, but about the mutual merger of subject and object into the future that has unfolded.”
I wasn’t inside the negotiations, so I’ll never know to which layer of listening the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change reached. But I do know that the participants went into the negotiations knowing that they needed each other in order to satisfy their common interest (and the world’s most urgent need) of action on climate change. To reach an agreement that reflected everyone’s concerns, they would have had to first listen to each other, and then compromise and negotiate based on that listening.
This is a type of politics that threatens Tony Abbott’s take-no-prisoners, black and white view of the world. Action on climate change threatens his world-view too, because he doesn’t accept the science, but perhaps there’s something about the process he’s railing against as well. Because when this policy passes, and Abbott’s allegations about the sky falling in and our economy collapsing don’t come true, people will see that a power sharing Parliament can work quite well after all.