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We need a national summit on the environment and the economy

By Michael Shoebridge

Strategic challenges come in different guises - the rise of an assertive Chinese state is one, and the challenge of national bushfires and drought now and in coming years is another.

By March 2020, this year's bushfire season will probably have exhausted national firefighting teams, both the people and the machines. It started early and will probably finish late. The intensity, concurrency and tempo of fires will have drained the volunteers who provide Australia's bushfire protection.

The public mood about the fires' impact on daily life will probably keep souring against a backdrop of entrenched positions on related issues. We'll hear that Australia's the world's driest continent and always subject to fire, so current events can be discounted by this historical perspective. We'll also hear the opposite - that the last decade is the hottest in recorded history and the start of the cascading, climate related events that scientists have been warning us of with increasing urgency for decades.

We'll hear that we must immediately end the production of fossil fuels, notably coal; and, simultaneously, that coal exports are essential to Australia's prosperity and our relatively clean coal is best for the Indo-Pacific's coal-driven future. We may even hear that there's a bright economic future for Australia as an energy producer and exporter beyond coal, through the rise of new exports from a hydrogen industry based on renewables.

What won't happen on current tracks, though, is any merging of the various entrenched, discordant positions into a coherent national plan that unites corporate Australia - the miners, the energy producers, capital markets, superannuation funds, the insurance industry and actuaries - with the environmental interests, and the firefighters. Nor are we likely to see any collective approach able to advance Australia's prosperity, protect our communities and put us in a position to work with the grain of international economics and global politics as climate change effects emerge.

By March, the fires and what's to be done as a result of them will be the kind of "barbecue stopper" that John Howard so cannily saw as key to his government's policy positions and political future. They may already be that, with Christmas gatherings having just taken place.

The government may not just be dealing then with the voices of retired fire chiefs, but with the vocal views of current, exhausted and angry, volunteers who do not believe it's viable to approach next year's fire season as we have this year's. These well-informed current firefighters will be powerful voices that will connect with other parts of society.

They may be joined by other novel voices in the climate, mining and energy debates - like tourism operators who see the damage to Australia's international brand (and economy) from Sydney presenting like Beijing before the 2008 Olympics or Delhi or Manila on a bad day.

One response from governments - federal and state - is to invest in additional firefighting capacity, and show that national resources will be expanded, volunteers will be supported, and new forecasting, early response and mitigation capabilities will be created. This will require Commonwealth-state co-operation at a level and with a spirit of goodwill and absence of finger-pointing not on display in other areas of combined responsibility and effort. The Murray-Darling Basin is an obvious example.

The goal would be to respond to the immediacy of the problem that the 5.2 million people living in Sydney and other chunks of our country have experienced, to reassure them that the quality of life they expect - with clean air, blue skies, open roads and public spaces - will be returned. How much of this increased capability can be created rapidly enough to help in 2020 and 2021 is hard to know.

Such measures are needed by late March, but they could well land like band-aids after a car crash: helpful, but by no means sufficient.

What might be done in the situation Australia and its governments will likely find themselves in by autumn 2020? One past example may provide a model, another a warning.

The last time Australia was at a similar national impasse, with angry voices seized of their own rightness and with contempt and deaf ears for other perspectives, was at the end of years of industrial dispute and paralysis that ran from the mid-1970s to the election of the Hawke government in 1983.

Those entrenched views were maybe less complex than today - Australian business demanded economic reform to free up a highly regulated labour market and improve productivity, while organised labour demanded better conditions and job certainty so that workers could live well and contribute to their employer because of confidence in their jobs. Both sides were hypercritical of the ideas, motives and views of the other. No bridging of their differences had been seen as possible for almost a decade. And there was no obvious common ground.

The wider public, though, had tired of the parading of fixed and angry positions. and looked to the federal government to "do something". Bob Hawke used this circumstance to come to power. His new approach was not to rely on a party platform for solutions, or look just to the public service to help work up policy ideas in isolation that could be debated in Parliament and communicated with the public.

His answer was not to be the man with the plan who needed to convince disparate interests of its rightness. Instead, he ran a national summit that brought together the angry, discordant and diverse voices from across industry and society, leavened by subject-matter experts, to focus on the one thing they had in common - a will to resolve a national crisis through collaborative effort and negotiation, driven by a combined sense of crisis and frustration.

This resulted in a national plan and the Prices and Incomes Accord that gave effect to it. Creating a focused national conversation for a clear purpose set the foundations for the economic reforms delivered by Hawke and Keating, which were later advanced by the adept political and economic management of the Howard years.

Most "quiet Australians" do not want to hear more of the entrenched positions about climate change - whether it's happening or not, human-caused or natural, whether what Australia does matters and whether our future is all coal or no coal. After the decade of this, and on the back of the disastrous fire season, they want a coherent direction that gives them confidence in their future prosperity and quality of life.

The circumstances our prime minister and state premiers will face in the second quarter of next year are similar enough to 1983 for the summit model to be the best way forward. Calling business leaders, the financial heavyweights, the miners, energy companies (traditional and renewable), tourism companies, labour representatives, farmers, state governments, regional and urban representatives, water management and environmental experts, economists, firefighters and meteorological experts together for a common purpose might give the Prime Minister what he needs to create a path out of the national paralysis.

That will require careful preparation and crafting - as it did in 1983. It has to avoid the 2020 Summit approach of Kevin Rudd after his thumping election win in 2007. That failed because there was no national crisis to drive it, and because Rudd was unable to work with anyone but himself. No agenda or implementation plan emerged.

For the Hawke model to work, a starting thought would be five focusing questions.

What immediate measures will reduce the severity of the next fire season? What will reduce the prospects of repeated severe fire seasons?

Beyond the immediate crisis, where are the overlaps between broader government, corporate and societal measures that will grow the economy and jobs and steward our air, water and land quality in ways that protect Australians' quality of life?

What can governments, business, labour and environment groups do together to lay the foundations for future prosperity and mitigate the effects of climate change?

What opportunities in the global economy can Australia take advantage of, including by using our abundant natural resources - renewable and non-renewable?

What opportunities for Australia are being driven by global and other nations' policy and market responses to rising perceptions of the immediacy and importance of climate change action?

The words "coal industry" and "climate change" must be in this conversation.

Those wanting an immediate exit from coal will need to recognise that structural transitions domestically and globally mean that this is not credible - and not desirable to many Australians, not just special interests. Those disputing whether climate change is real will need to recognise that protecting Australians' quality of life while advancing our prosperity overrides any intellectual debates, regardless of positions on the science of climate change.

Australian prime ministers at times of major national challenge have routinely risen to meet those challenges. Curtin did so during World War II. Menzies led Australians through the difficult time that ended our primary partnership with the UK, built the US alliance and set the course in the formative years of the Cold War. More recently, both Hawke and Howard led Australia out of economic and industrial stagnation through a long period of economic reform and prosperity. John Howard's prime ministership will also be remembered for his unique leadership on gun law reform against a backdrop of national anger and discord.

So, Scott Morrison's time in leadership can be one where he uses the power of the office of prime minister creatively - to design and run a national summit focused on growing the economy and jobs in ways that protect Australians' environment and quality of life.

He can operate above the discordant voices and focus on bringing the "Australian family" together. He can be the voice of the quiet Australians who want to see movement beyond the stilted, angry, set-piece claims of the last decade. And he can insist that the groups at a summit work together in the national interest to create a coherent and collective plan, which he and the assembled interests will then be empowered (and obligated) to deliver.

While by March his government and some state governments may well be in a public policy and perceptions crisis, he can use that crisis to his and Australia's lasting advantage.

Originally published by: Canberra Times on 31 Dec 2019