Senate debates

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Governor-General's Speech


1:33 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I listened to the Governor-General give the Prime Minister's speech, and there were many things in the speech I could comment on but the thing I was struck by most was the lip-service given to what has been described as 'the great moral challenge of this generation'. That, of course, is the challenge of climate change. How is it that—despite the evidence of catastrophic global warming growing stronger day by day, and despite the pleas of the scientific community around the world begging for action on climate change—we have a government that is now on track to repeal some of the most ambitious and important climate change legislation anywhere in the world? What is going on here? How is it that seemingly rational people can behave so irrationally?

I started thinking a bit about this and I started thinking about the mechanism known as denial. As a medical practitioner I was really struck by how often people used denial as a way of coping with very uncomfortable truths. It is like the drinker who is on their way to liver failure but denies they have a drinking problem. It is like the pokies addict who has lost their home and their relationships but denies they have a problem on the punt.

There is one case in particular that stands out to me. There was a middle-aged woman who I treated for palliative care because she had end-stage breast cancer. This lady had developed a lump. The lump grew and grew; it ulcerated; it became infected; it started to smell—she still did not see a doctor. It was only when the smell got so bad that her husband said, 'You've got to go and check this thing out,' that she did so. She had hidden it from her husband, her partner, and from her family. How is it that somebody in a situation like that can wait until their husband can no longer tolerate the smell from a fungating breast cancer that they finally see a doctor? Well, it is because of denial.

Denial is a very, very powerful defence mechanism. It is a primitive defence mechanism. It is one of those things that is characteristic of adolescent development. And it is functional: it helps us to avoid an uncomfortable truth—a crushing reality. It is very, very functional. It exists with good reason.

So what we have here is a government that refuses to accept the science of climate change because at the very heart of this government is denial. It is why we have a government that gets itself into contortions over its direct action policy. On the one hand you have Tony Abbott calling carbon dioxide 'a colourless, odourless gas'. On the other hand, you have him coming up with a policy that stinks, a policy that is friendless—there is not an economist worth their salt willing to back it up.

You see, we have a lot of members—not all of them, but many members—of this government that are climate change deniers, and a few in the opposition. You have to ask yourself why. What is it about climate change that represents such an uncomfortable reality to those people? I think that it is an issue that comes up hard against their conservative world view and in fact requires a fundamental reassessment of that conservative world view. It is a world view that says man has dominion over the earth and says that there is only one model for progress, for growth, for consumption, only one model that works. It is a model that says that environmentalism is the new communism—that environmentalism threatens human freedoms in the same way communism did.

It is interesting. Yesterday Tony Abbott alluded to climate change, a carbon tax and socialism in the same sentence. It reminded me of my first encounter with the new Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop. We were at a function. There were a few senators and members at the function. Bronwyn Bishop, the new Speaker of the House, came along to introduce herself. I had never met Bronwyn before. It was my one and only encounter with the new Speaker. I introduced myself as the Greens senator for Victoria, and Mrs Bishop's response was: 'Oh, the Greens! You're worse than the communists.' What an interesting little window into the world of the conservatives that was. What an interesting little window we had into the world view of the economists.

Most of this is absolute nonsense—the irony of having the party of the market propose a policy to hand out cash to the polluters while denying a market mechanism! My economics teaching made it very, very clear that, if you want to maximise freedom, you put a price on externalities, you internalise them and you give individuals the opportunity to make choices. But not this government: 'We'll write out the big cheques to the polluters.'

You could ask about the freedoms that the people of Kiribati are currently experiencing while their homes sink under rising sea levels. Tell me about their freedoms—or the freedoms of the people in the Philippines now who have lost their homes and their families. What about their freedoms? Of course, we will be told that linking extreme weather events to climate change is opportunism. It is easy sport, picking on the Greens. I have not heard anybody pick on the representatives of the Philippines, currently at the climate change talks in Warsaw, who made exactly the same point. Where were the editorials from News Limited? Where was Simon Birmingham's criticism of the Philippines delegation? Of course there was not one, because they are gutless.


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