In 1972 the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam campaigned with the inspirational slogan “It’s Time”. The coalition was stuck for a reply; finally the best they could come up with to justify another prolongation of their 23 years in power was the risibly negative “Not Yet,” and of course they lost.

But a generation later the lesson has still no sunk in. “Not Yet” remains the basis of Liberal-National policy on the most important issue of our time, climate change.

Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb and their spokesmen in the Murdoch press (or should that be the other way round?) now claim to accept the science and reject the flat-earther denialism which was the coalition’s position under John Howard. But they still manage to find excuse after excuse to postpone taking any action whatsoever, as they have for the whole of the year.

Well over twelve months ago Kevin Rudd came up with a coherent timetable: an inquiry headed by Ross Garnaut, to be followed by a green paper outlining his general plan, then the release of Treasury modelling, then a detailed white paper, and finally legislation presaging the implementation of emissions trading in 2010. By Canberra standards this was fast tracking, but it needed to be: Howard had already wasted a decade and the predictions of the scientists (well, all but the three sceptics constantly quoted by The Australian) were becoming ever more dire.

Right from the start it was much too speedy for the coalition. Brendan Nelson’s view was that we should wait for the rest of the world before even taking an in-principle decision to act. Turnbull was a little more lively, but wanted to postpone action until at least 2011. And he wasn’t going to commit to anything on the strength of the Garnaut report, or the green paper. We should wait for the Treasury modelling.

Well, now we’ve got it, so it’s time — to procrastinate yet again. The modelling is encouraging. Overall it says that the costs to industry of prompt action will be minimal, in spite of all the cries of doom and destruction from the lobbyists and rent-seekers. Moreover, the costs to the overall economy will be easily borne; indeed, they will amount to no more than a whisker, as Wayne Swan put it. But of course, the longer we delay, the higher the economic cost will become, without even considering the environmental impact.

This was obviously not what Turnbull wanted to hear, so he didn’t; he simply reacted. The modelling, he suggested, was outdated and irrelevant because it didn’t take into account the sub-prime mortgage melt down and the ensuing financial crisis. Well, no, it didn’t. The modelling covered nearly a century. Between now and 2100 there will no doubt be many crises of one kind and another. But they will make no difference either to the fact of climate change nor to the cost of ignoring it. Turnbull, like Howard, seems incapable of facing the reality: this is not a political problem which can be handled with spin and rhetoric but a phenomenon in the real world.

Other loiterers have questioned the basis of the modelling: Treasury relied on certain assumptions about the future which may turn out to be wrong. Well yes, they may, but you have to start somewhere. Treasury chose to assume that confronted with a crisis people will choose to act more or less rationally. They did not factor in deliberate perversity of the kind shown by their critics. Certainly modelling which involves human reactions will never be foolproof, but it’s all we’ve got.

The alternative proposed by the sceptics is a blind guess based on ignorance, prejudice and populism — or, in the case of the industries which will be most affected, n-ked self-interest. These obviously include coal production, power generation, aluminium refining and cement manufacturing, all of which have resolutely failed to reform their wasteful and polluting ways in spite of a decade of warnings. They refuse to accept Treasury’s assurance of survival under an emissions trading scheme and continue to threaten to move off shore, to Asia where there certainly won’t be any such thing in 2010.

It is a measure of the gullibility of the populace that some people actually believe them. Colliers are going to cart the coal mines off to China, power generators will run their cables from the Philippines, aluminium refiners will desert their plants and supply sources and emigrate to India and the cement manufacturers will relocate their quarries and factories to Vietnam.

The opposition and Murdoch press are actually offering credulity and support to this fantasy as evidence of the need to do nothing for as long as possible. It is time they got fair dinkum. Either they believe in climate change or they don’t. If they don’t, then let them say so: it will identify them as pig-ignorant knuckle-draggers whose views can be dismissed henceforth, but at least we’ll know where we stand. However, if they want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, then let’s get on with it. It may already be too late to avoid some serious consequences; it certainly will be unless we acknowledge the situation is urgent and becoming more so.

The frog is well and truly in the pot and the water is getting steadily hotter. If we want to stop it from coming to the boil we have to act now. It’s Time.


The report that lame duck President George Bush asked Kevin Rudd to explain to him what the G20 is has been called a diplomatic scandal, but it could have been much worse. To count up to G20, Dubya only needed to remove his shoes and socks. If it had been the G21 he would have had to take off his trousers as well. Now that really would have been an embarrassment.

Peter Fray

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