Is there a way through the poisoned politics of climate?

Is there a way through the poisoned politics of climate?

Last week the Federal Government released the latest quarterly update on Australia’s greenhouse emissions. It is not pretty reading, for rather than breaking south and following a downward trend, our emissions are climbing, and have been ever since the Abbot government abolished the carbon pricing scheme and replaced it with its direct action approach.

Under the Paris agreement Australia has set itself the task of reducing our greenhouse emissions to 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. On current projections we will miss the target by around 700 mt CO2 -e (the area represented by the orange ‘triangle’ in the chart below).

The Prime Minister is confident we’ll get there “in a canter”. He points to the fact that the projected abatement task (the orange area in my diagram) has declined over time and argues that the Government has the policies to close the narrowing gap. This sees a number of policy initiatives that offer emissions abatements.

The biggest tool in the Government’s plan is to use Kyoto carry over credits. Before the Paris Agreement, which sets out emission reduction targets for 2021-2030, the Kyoto Protocol set out targets for the periods 2008-12 and 2013-2020. Australia negotiated very favourable targets for both periods. Consequently, we finished the first Kyoto period 128 mt CO2-e ahead of target and look like we’ll finish 240 mt CO2-e ahead for the second Kyoto period. Where most industrialised nations have said they will not count their Kyoto credits, the Australian Government has decided it will count the Kyoto “savings” as a credit against the 700 Mt CO2-e reduction required for 2021-2030. This halves the real world emission reductions we need to make from 2021-2030.

The remaining 330 mt CO2 emission reductions come from a grab bag of initiatives. Will they be successful? The only people who seem to think so are members of the Federal Coalition.

This however is not my chief concern. My concern is that the government’s policy is just another expression of the poisoned national debate around climate which in more than a decade has not been able to deliver a coherent and bipartisan approach, and a poisoned global climate politics in which nations agree that reducing emissions is vital to the future wellbeing of humankind and the planet, accept a target (such as to keep warming below 2 degrees) and then every nation seeks to do as little as they possibly can in meeting their targets.

Just last year a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that human activities had already raised global mean temperature by about 1°C above pre-industrial levels and that on current trends, 1.5 °C warming would be reached between 2030 and 2052. To have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 without overshoot (ie a scenario where we go above 1.5 for a while but then turn it around by taking carbon gases out of the atmosphere) the world needs to achieve a 45% reduction from 2010 levels by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050. To achieve the 2 degree goal we need 25% reduction on 2010 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero around 2070.

Getting to net zero is a massive task that will see the end of economies built on the formula of burning fossil fuels. We need to transform the ways we produce power, do agriculture, construct our buildings, transport ourselves, etc. Which is why we need our government do better than find the path of least resistance to our 2030 Paris target. We need a roadmap to net zero that lifts us above captivity to local and global politics and against which interim targets can be measured.

Under the Paris Agreement the Australian Government is due to report its long-term emissions reduction plan by 2025. Rather than this being yet another report of the Dept of Environment that will get buried in climate politics, we need something that will lift our sights to an incredible act of nation-building. Perhaps a multi year bipartisan commission that brings together climate scientists, economists, the business community, civil society and relevant experts to map the way to net zero, an agreement from all sides of politics to implement it, and that directs a nation-building project that Australians will enthusiastically get behind? One thing seems certain. Politics as usual will almost certainly fail us, the planet and the future.

Is there any hope for  progressive causes under a Scomo Coalition government?

Is there any hope for progressive causes under a Scomo Coalition government?

Over the course of the next three years (and perhaps beyond) Australia will be governed by the Liberal-National Coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. I suspect it will prove to be the most socially conservative government of the last fifty years. Will this mean the end of substantial progress on issues such as climate change, treatment of asylum seekers, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the aid budget, and social and affordable housing? I hope not.

Politics is not for the feint-hearted or thin-skinned. Election campaigns see arguments spun, opponents portrayed in the worst possible light, and appeals to fear. Once elected, politicians can rarely deliver the outcomes advocates seek. When forming policy politicians are constrained by the expectations of their constituency; the position of their party; their own perspectives and ambitions; the way the policies play politically, and the need to compromise to get legislation passed.

These messy processes of politics lead many Australians to regard politicians with contempt and cynicism, as untrustworthy people who pay lip service to the public good but cannot mask their compulsive obsession with their self-interest. I think this is unfair and inaccurate. Almost every politician I’ve met over a decade of advocacy entered politics out of a desire to serve the common good and make the world a better place. If you doubt this, read their maiden speeches. The purity of this desire may have diluted over time, but it remains a powerful driver for many. Indeed, the vast majority of politicians I engage with believe there are good and defensible reasons for the policies they support. Away from the cameras and the 24 hour news cycle, large numbers of politicians take up the interests of their constituents with decency, compassion, generosity and a willingness to serve.

Recognising these things leaves me hopeful that careful and constructive dialogue with the Morrison Government might reveal common ground upon which we can build. Dialogue of course means talking with each other, not simply at each other.

As I see it, progressive and conservative politics are marked by fundamentally different assumptions about power. Progressives tend to see our social, cultural, economic and political systems and institutions as serving the interests of the powerful and exploiting or marginalising those less powerful. At the heart of progressive politics is a quest for awareness of who is marginalised, exploited or oppressed and the effort to shape our social, cultural, economic and political systems so that they work in the interests of everyone.

Social Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to have a more benign view of power and our social, cultural, economic and political systems. While recognising that they are flawed, they nonetheless see these systems as serving the common good, and believe that the interests of those on the margins are best served through opportunities to participate in existing social, cultural, political and economic systems.

These are very broad brushstrokes. A comprehensive analysis would explore the nuances and acknowledge the diverse approaches within the wider conservative and progressive frames. But for my purposes broad brushstrokes are sufficient. Recognising the differing frames that social progressives and social conservatives employ helps me listen to those who differ from me. Social progressives do not have a monopoly on concern for the environment, refugees, asylum seekers, people living in poverty, LGBTIQ freedoms, etc. Conservatives have good grounds for concern over these areas too. But their approach will be different. For example, social conservatives are likely to favour approaches that offer incremental change, where Progressives often seek large-scale and rapid change. Social Conservatives will tend to place a high value on existing systems and institutions, where Social Progressives will often be prepared to undo them; Social Conservatives will frequently value voluntary action where Progressives are more willing to engineer change through mandated targets.

As I see it Social Progressives have two ways they might serve progressive causes over the next 3-6 years. Some will focus on articulating a Progressive case for change and seek to shape public opinion to elect a Progressive government in 2022. Others will enter into dialogue with the Morrison Government to find areas of common concern and ways forward that work on a conservative narrative. Maybe we need both approaches.

Why I Won’t Vote my Values

Why I Won’t Vote my Values

A repost of an article published in June 2016.

The day of the 2010 Federal Election I cast my vote then took my eight year old son to his soccer match. Lachlan’s team was made up of kids from the Christian school he attended, which meant the majority of the parents at his game that day were evangelical Christians. When conversation turned to the election I commented that I had voted for the Greens.

The response shocked me. Mouths dropped open and with exasperated voice a number of the parents asked how I could possibly have voted for the Greens. After all, they were in favour of same-sex marriage! I pointed out that they were also in favour of a strong international aid program at a time the major parties were reducing aid; that they were in favour of considerate treatment of refugees at a time when both major parties were playing some pretty ugly politics with refugees; and that on balance these things swung my vote. It didn’t help. In the eyes of some of these parents it was as though I had voted against God.

So, how should we vote? I see four patterns.

First, some vote purely out of tradition. Their parents voted Liberal and they vote Liberal. Always have, always will.

Second, some vote out of self-interest. Their vote will go to the party that they believe will put money in their pocket and public services at their disposal.

Third, some vote for their moral vision. Their vote will go to the party that they see representing their values.

Fourth, some vote for justice. Their vote will go to the party they believe will do most to promote a just society.

No prizes for guessing that I sit in category 4 and my critics that Saturday belonged in category 3.

I’m not here to spruik for the Greens, the ALP, the Coalition, Family First, or any other party. What I do want to do is open up a simple question: what should influence the way a Christian votes? I’d like to suggest that we need to bring together two things: a Christ-shaped vision for what our communities can be and a clear understanding of the role of government.

First, the gospel gives us a vision for what our societies can be. The message of the gospel is not that our soul can go to heaven when we die but that God is at work to redeem and renew the entire creation. That means renewing and redeeming individuals, communities, economic, social, cultural and political systems, and the planet itself.

Second, government has an important but very limited role to play in moving society toward this vision.

For most of western history we got this horribly wrong. From the conversion of the emperor Constantine until the peace of Westphalia we saw the church and state working in tandem to try and command a Christian society into being. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Cromwell’s England was painted like this

Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.

On Sunday most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.

During his time as head of government, he made it his task to ‘tame’ the Irish. He sent an army there and despite promising to treat well those who surrendered to him, he slaughtered the people of Wexford and Drogheda who did surrender to his forces. He used terror to ‘tame’ the Irish.

And so the very first call for freedom of religion recorded in the English language came from the founder of the Baptist Church, Tomas Helwys, when he wrote a tract calling on the king to protect the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.

Christendom gave way to pluralist liberal democracy. This severely limits what the government can and can’t do. To say a society is liberal means there are fundamental freedoms and rights that must always be respected. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience to name a few. To say it’s pluralist means we accept that we will not all think the same, believe the same or live the same way. In a society such as this the role of government is to ensure every individual and every group is able to share in he benefits of society while pursuing the lifestyle and the values they choose.

In other words, the role of government is to facilitate the common good, ensure public goods such as education, infrastructure and health systems are accessible to all, and to make sure every citizen and every group of citizens is treated justly.

So what does this mean for voting? For me it means I ask two questions

  1. Which party will ensure public goods for all citizens?
  2. Who is excluded, vulnerable or oppressed in our national/globalcommunity? Which party will secure justice and inclusion for them?

The question I won’t ask is which party will legislate my personal vision of morality. It is not the role of the government to force people to live by Christian ethics. It is the responsibility of Jesus followers and the church to live in such a way that people see the merits of following Christ and living his way. I will endeavour as best I can to live virtuously and I will vote for justice.

Spin v Promise. Are the Liberals Better Economic Managers?

Spin v Promise. Are the Liberals Better Economic Managers?

It’s the first day of campaigning for the Federal election and the Coalition has signalled the tone of its campaign. Given the internal division that has made it near impossible for the PM to set policy directions (and no this is not lefty over-reach. John Howard and Andrew Bolt have said much the same) it’s perhaps not surprising that they are announcing little in the way of policy, and a lot in the way of fear-mongering,. Just one day in and they have declared Bill Shorten and the ALP the enemy of our economy and of the tradies ute.

Surprisingly, the ALP is also following an unorthodox route, eschewing the classic “small target” approach and making significant policy announcements. On early indications then we’re in for a battle between fear and promise.

The Coalition may just pull it off, particularly if they can gain traction with their claim to be superior economic managers…except that this too is spin. Take a look at the charts below. These show the historical record on tax, spending and economic growth.

The first chart shows the average amount of tax collected by each government since Whitlam, with Coalition governments coloured blue and ALP governments red. The biggest taxers are the two most recent Coalition governments.

The second chart shows average annual Commonwealth Government spending per government as a proportion of GDP. Top of the pops was the Hawke-Keating government, followed by the current Coalition government.

The third chart shows average annual real GDP growth for each of the last four governments. Our strongest growth occurred under the Coalition government of John Howard and our weakest growth under the current Coalition government.

There’s not really enough in these charts to argue which government was the best manager of the economy, for each faced differing global economic circumstances. Hawke-Keating took Australia through very substantial economic reforms; the Howard government had the good fortune of being in power when global demand for our commodities went through the roof; the Rudd government had to deal with the global financial crisis.

What the charts do suggest is that there is not that much difference between the ALP and the Coalition when it comes to overall “economic management”. Australia has done very well under all governments in the last 30 years.

Where politics does matter is in how the benefits of growth are distributed and how we position ourselves in a world facing some serious challenges. On these matters it looks like a great chasm is opening up between the parties.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Who’s the Biggest Taxer of Them All?

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Who’s the Biggest Taxer of Them All?

As we gear up for a federal election I’m already hearing people characterise the Labor Party as big taxers and big spenders and the Coalition as the party of lower spending and lower taxes.


The chart below shows government receipts and payments as a proportion of GDP from 1975 until the present. The black line represents government payments, the coloured bar tracks tax receipts (red for years an ALP government delivered the budget and blue for the Coalition), and the gray bar non-tax revenues.

The highest taxing government in Australia’s history was the Howard-led Coalition, which had average annual tax revenues of 23.5% of GDP. The next highest taxing government is the current Abbott-Turbull-Morisson Coalition, which has collected an average of 22.2% of GDP in tax each year.

If we turn to spending, represented by the black line in the chart, the Hawke-Keating government was the biggest spender, reaching a high of 27.6% of GDP in 1984-85 and an average of 25.7% of GDP over the course of its period in power. The next highest taxing government was the current Abbott-Turbull-Morrison Coalition, which has spent an average of 25.1% of GDP each year. The spending of the Coalition led governments of Fraser and Howard and the Rudd-Gillard Labor government were almost identical: an average of 24.1% GDP for Fraser, 24.2% under Howard and 24.3% under Rudd-Gillard.

The Howard Government budget surpluses were not achieved on the back of rigorous cost-cutting or having superior economic management but by having the highest tax revenue in Australian history. China’s booming demand for Australia’s resources saw an increase in company profits and wages, which in turn meant the volume of taxes also increased. Tax revenue from company tax increased from 17.1% of government revenue in 2001/02 to 27.4% in 2007/08.

The arrival of the Global Financial Crisis brought this boom period to an end and had the double whammy effect of decreasing tax revenues while requiring the government to spend more to keep the economy stimulated.

So as we approach the next election let’s abandon the myth of a tax-and-spend Labor versus low-tax-low-spend Liberals. If we can get past the ideological rhetoric we can possibly have serious debate about what things we want to fund and the tax revenues we need to raise to fund them.

What the church needs more than freedom of religion

What the church needs more than freedom of religion

Freedom of religion, conscience and speech are at the heart of a free society. They protect us from an ideological totalitarianism which demands everyone believe, speak and act in the same way. The price of any of us enjoying these freedoms is that we respect the freedom of others to believe things we find unreasonable, to hold morals we find objectionable, and to say things we find offensive.

Religious conscience and behaviour extend beyond what happens during the rituals and liturgies that take place inside churches, mosques and temples. Religion goes to identity, belonging, and lifestyle. It is to belong to a community who seek to live out the values of their faith in all of life and encourage their fellow congregants to do the same. The faith to which I belong, Christianity, calls me to live all of life in response to the grace, wisdom and love of God.

When churches establish schools it is usually an extension of their understanding of themselves as communities of faith. Religious schools are not simply places where children learn mathematics, science and the humanities, but faith communities seeking to cultivate a particular way of life, faith and being. Parents send their children knowing this to be the case, and for many, because they want their children to be raised as members of their faith community. In this context, the right to hire teachers who cultivate the values and lifestyle of the school and to fire those that don’t may be harsh but it is part and parcel of the operation of the school as a conservative religious community, and should, in my opinion, be protected.

Yet having said this, we must remember that freedom can be abused, and it is here I believe Christian conservatives need to ask hard questions. We abuse our freedom when when we don’t extend the same freedom to others that we demand for ourselves. The vocal opposition of certain parts of the Christian church to the marriage equality legislation seemed to me a prime example of this, as is the continued campaign of hysteria, misinformation and fear around gender identity, as is the insistence that secular schools allow Christians to proselytise their students by teaching Scripture.

And freedom is abused when it becomes a cloak to injure and harm others. My more conservative Christian friends often tell me they seek to “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. They are good people who genuinely mean it. But they are failing spectacularly to implement.

Moral discipline is essential to any well-lived life. We insist a person must not use their phone while driving; that no matter how fiercely someone angers me I must not surrender to the desire to hit them; that a husband remain sexually faithful to his wife. Conservative expressions of Christianity likewise argue that those who are not in an opposite sex marriage are called to be celibate. The road for the unmarried believer who longs to be in a lifelong sexually and emotionally intimate relationship can be very difficult, but to ask someone to live this way is not a surrender of their personhood.

Yet conservative churches, schools and other religious parachurch organisations have not, on the whole, disentangled themselves from a long history that declared LGBTIQA+ people broken at the very core of their being, depraved in character, and an abomination to their God. LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches and religious schools are continuallyrejected, marginalised and alienated not because they have behaved in a way that violates Christian values but because their very existence is perceived as a threat. And so, LGBTIQA+ people who grow up in conservative churches commonly tell stories of being psychologically destroyed and socially isolated.

We must hear this. Harm is not the exception for LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches. It is the norm. Conservative churches and schools are very rarely places which affirm and celebrate diverse sexual orientation, while at the same time helping their LGBITQA+ members walk a path of sexual self-denial that conservative theology demands, find their worth in God and experience deep and meaningful community.

And when LGBTIQA+ people are suffering so awfully at the hands of churches it is abusive to ignore and/or glibly dismiss the challenge to conservative readings of Scripture that are coming thick and fast. As I noted in a previous blog, the theology of sexuality is now an intra-evangelical debate. Yet the reflex I observe in most conservative churches is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

So I say to my conservative brothers and sisters in Christ, yes you have a right to religious freedom and I’ll stand with you in asserting that, but in the absence of a deep sorrow and repentance over the damage your churches are doing to LGBTIQA+ people, your claims are hollow.  Silence in the face of ongoing marginalisation, rejection and abuse is not enough.  If pastors and church leaders are not willing to patiently, courageously and systematically challenge the awful weight of spoken and unspoken bigotry in their own congregations, they expose a church committed to its own narrow interests but not the interest of it’s most vulnerable.

The public defence of religious freedom without public repentance over the harm perpetrated against LGBTIQA+ people reveals a hypocrisy that is bleedingly obvious to those outside our churches but to which those inside conservative churches are blind. And the tragic irony is that it may well be our own unrepentant hearts that exhaust the patience of our society to the point that religious freedoms will be stripped away and we find ourselves inside an ideologically totalitarian secularism.

If ever there was a time to heed Christ’s call to remove the log from our own eyes that we might be able to remove a speck of dust from the eyes of another it is now. NOTE: On Nov 5 references in this article to “gay and lesbian” people were changed to a reference to LGBITQA+ in recognition of the broad range of sexualities that have been marginalised. A few minor changes have been made to other sentences for the purpose of clarity.

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