the Conversation. Published: August 19, 2022 6.06am AEST
Will climate action undermine Australia’s democracy? This question might not be as outlandish as it seems.
A recent investigation details a campaign by the car industry to have its (low) voluntary standards on fuel efficiency legislated into national standards. This campaign fits into a broader pattern of lobbying by the fossil fuel industry to hinder effective climate action and highlights the importance of democratic integrity in addressing the climate crisis as well as the urgent need for robust regulation of lobbying.
The fossil fuel lobby and climate inaction
University of Melbourne professor Ross Garnaut has observedthat “(e)missions-intensive industries have invested heavily to influence climate change policy since the early days of discussion of these issues”.
We see the influence of these investments in various ways:
- the resources industry is by far the biggest donor in Australian politics
- the $22 million advertising campaign by mining companies against the Rudd government’s resource super profits tax was such a success that it’s now become routine for industry groups to threaten a “mining tax style campaign” every time they don’t get their way with government
- fossil fuel industry employees and lobbyists have included former Liberal Party, National Party and ALP ministers.
Rise of the ‘greenhouse mafia’
Marian Wilkinson’s book The Carbon Club provides a compelling account of how a network of climate-science sceptics, politicians and business leaders brought about decades of climate inaction in Australia.
Under the Howard government, climate change policy was determined by fossil fuel lobbyists who likened themselves to organised crime through a self-styled label — the greenhouse mafia.
The group has contributed to the outsized role the fossil fuels industry has in steering government policy. Perhaps most importantly, fossil fuel companies have played an instrumental role in ousting two out of the six prime ministers Australia has had since 2007; Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.
The term, “policy capture” is described by the OECD to mean when public decisions over policies are consistently directed away from the public interest towards a specific interest, leading to inequalities and undermining democratic values, economic growth, and trust in government. The use of the phrase in this context has a certain validity.
The lobbying risks of climate action
Paradoxically, the risks associated with fossil fuel lobbying increase with higher levels of climate action.
Effective climate action will mean increased regulation of fossil fuel industries, such as more stringent emission standards for the largest greenhouse emitters under the ALP’s Powering Australiaplan. Under the plan, substantial amounts of public funds will go towards climate action.
As a result, the fossil fuel industries and other sections of the community will naturally seek to influence government climate decisions. That in itself is not undemocratic – fossil fuel industries have a legitimate role in influencing government policy.
However, what is undemocratic is their disproportionate influence and how it is often wielded behind closed doors.
Regulatory failures of federal lobbying system
The secrecy and lack of integrity around fossil fuel lobbying stems directly from the shortcomings of federal lobbying regulation. This lack of transparency also includes:
- lobbying coverage that has been confined to commercial lobbyists, who only comprise 20% of the lobbyist population, excluding other “repeat players” such as in-house lobbyists
- Dismal disclosure obligations that require only the name and contact details of the lobbyist and the client they are representing. There is a vacuum of knowledge about when lobbyists are contacting government officials and over what issues.
Enforcing violations is also a huge concern. In 2018, the Commonwealth Auditor-General found the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which oversaw the federal lobbyist register, did not take any action against lobbyists despite identifying at least 11 possible breaches.
The way forward
Three essential reforms will make federal lobbying regulation more effective, while also assisting with effective climate action.
First, coverage under federal lobbying regulation should extend to both commercial lobbyists and in-house lobbyists. Following the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption’s (ICAC) Operation Eclipse, the NSW government will implementlobbying laws that will regulate these two classes of lobbyists (as is done in Canada and the United States).
Second, there should be greater transparency of lobbying activity by requiring:
- lobbyists to disclose every lobbying contact (such as in Queensland, Canada and Scotland)
- ministers, senior ministerial advisers and senior public servants to provide monthly disclosures of who has contacted them and why. Currently, Queensland discloses ministerial diaries, while NSW will disclose diaries of ministers and MPs
- the establishment of an independent regulator or commissioner to regularly monitor and take action in these matters if needed, such as the NSW government has committed to do.
Safeguarding democracy is imperative in the climate crisis and to the functioning of government overall. Robust lobbying regulation is an essential measure to ensure that all are protected.
The Climate Crisis & Democracy: From Democratic Debilitation to Innovation
Joo-Cheong Tham, ‘The Climate Crisis & Democracy: From Democratic Debilitation to Innovation’ (Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne, Policy Brief No 14, 12 August 2021)
14 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2021
Date Written: August 12, 2021
Has democracy failed in the climate crisis? There is certainly reason to believe so. Countries across the world, the majority of which are democracies, have failed – and are continuing to fail – to prevent dangerous climate change, as underlined by the latest report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued 9 August 2021. This failure constitutes a fundamental breach of a key obligation of legitimate government: to ensure the safety and survival of the people to whom democracies owe their allegiance.
Worse, these failures are being attributed to congenital defects of democracy. Democracy is damned as a fair-weather regime unable to navigate crises – particularly existential crises such as climate change. For some, ‘(d)emocracy is the planet’s biggest enemy’.
The climate crisis is also a crisis for democracy.
A crisis, however, is a turning point, a moment of truth, with extreme danger, and also a significant opportunity. What is then called for is not pessimism, lest fatalism, about democracy but rather the deepening of the democratic impulse, specifically a grounded affirmation of the strengths of democratic institutions framed within a clear-eyed view of the enormity and complexity of the challenges posed by the climate crisis. All the more so as this is clearly not a short-term crisis, the climate crisis will be a defining – perhaps the defining – challenge to democracy for decades to come. As Figueres and Rivett-Carnac argued, ‘(i)f democracy is to survive and thrive into the twenty-first century, climate change is the one big test that it cannot fail’.
With these sentiments in mind, this Policy Brief explores how democracy can effectively address the climate crisis. It begins by mapping the key circumstances said to impede democracies in dealing with climate change. It follows with an account of how these circumstances of democratic debilitation can be transformed into democratic innovation.