On Monday the 16th November, as Senate sittings commenced for the last time this year, 35 volunteers from the Australian Conservation Foundation and GetUp came together to talk to Members of Parliament about the woefully inadequate CPRS targets, the lack of Australian leadership on climate change and the huge amount of taxpayer dollars going to big polluters in the form of free permits to pollute.

My name is Georgia Lowe and as a fresh HSC graduate from Newcastle, I was invited by GetUp to give MPs from NSW some insight into youth sentiments on climate change.

In my experience, the questions young people have raised are largely uniform. They know about the science and they understand the urgency and broad implications of this issue. But the one question I am always thrown is: Why isn’t anyone in Australia doing anything to stop this?

I had one girl quietly point out that I must have made a mistake on my Youth Decide posters when I quoted Rudd’s current “ambitious target of 5% reductions in carbon dioxide parts per million by 2020”. She politely informed me that I had probably missed a three or four in front of that number.

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So I went to Canberra and asked where the leadership is on this issue.

I asked why we are dedicating more money to free permits for polluters than to action on climate change, given that corporate welfare for Australia’s biggest polluting companies has blown out to $16.4 billion under the revamped emissions trading legislation and yet the Budget allocates the “total investment in climate change related initiatives and programs to over $15 billion”.

I asked why the government plans to water down already abysmally low targets in negotiations with the coalition, and what it would take for a worthwhile CPRS with a 30% to 40% target to be achieved.

The answer: politics.

While every Liberal and Labor MP I spoke to (bar Malcolm Turnbull’s hostile adviser) understood or at least acknowledged the implications and immediacy of this unprecedented issue, they all said that they must “follow community sentiment” in their electorates, and they simply cannot act strongly on climate change without their electorates showing strong support.

One Labor MP said: “It’s my job to get re-elected and to get my party re-elected. We can’t upset our electorates by taking strong action in the CPRS. I have to do what my electorate is asking me to do because I am supposed to represent them and I haven’t seen a wave of people demanding this from me.”

Although I am certain that the feelings of the electorates haven’t been taken into account in the past with GST, for one example, but one thing is clear: not only do MPs understand that the CPRS is weak, but also that their job is not primarily to serve in the best interest of the people, but to get themselves — and their party — re-elected.

This nervous self-interest was evident in all of my discussions with Labor, Liberals and Independents, with Nick Xenophon being the single exception within those three groups.

The prevailing attitude in the Labor and Liberal parties reminds me of a story I once heard of a French leader who sees his people running by and says to his adviser: “Find out where my people are going so that I may lead them.”

However, in 20 years’ time, no one will thank the government for following fluctuating community sentiment and therefore taking a conservative approach to this unparalleled issue. Climate change is certainly the principal issue that young people care about and probably the issue that they will vote on in the coming federal election. Support for 40% reduction targets by 2020 will only continue to increase, as Australians witness more climate-related disasters such as the Victorian bushfires and dust-storms, unprecedented heat waves and increasingly unreliable agricultural seasons. There is no political future in weak action on climate-change.

But even with the release of a Galaxy poll last week, which showed that 54% of people support at least an unconditional 25% reduction in emissions by 2020, politicians are acting on climate change at a glacial pace — though given the increasingly rapid movement of glaciers in the real world, I should say, “at a pre-industrial era glacial pace”.

Apart from self-interest and the consequential inertia, the only other barrier to strong action appears to be the Senate. Labor MPs explained the following options:

  1. Negotiate with the Liberals. Make more compromises in the current CPRS, including another $6 billion in free permits to polluters
  2. Negotiate with the Greens and develop a CPRS with 40% as the new minimum target.

Due to the limited timeframe, negotiating with the Liberals shouldn’t be an option because it would guarantee failure on an issue in which we cannot afford to fail. The Liberals I met on Monday told me they were still negotiating within their own party. There is little chance that this rushed CPRS legislation will be met successfully by a tense and divided Liberal party.

To pass a strong CPRS, the Labor government requires all of the Greens’ votes plus the two Independents, and given Senator Fielding’s persistent denialism, the outlook’s not so good.

So, assuming no Liberals have the moral backbone to cross the floor on climate change, a double-dissolution election would occur.

Labor MPs said this was highly undesirable, and one admitted why. A double dissolution means that it takes half as many votes to elect a candidate and that would translate to a lot more Greens being voted in, as well as perhaps a couple of radically conservative Independents. The outcome may then be that the Senate would not pass Labor’s weak CPRS and it would hopefully be back to the drawing board with some worthwhile legislation that utilises this closing window of opportunity humans have to decide wether or not climate change will be catastrophic.

In short, the government is planning to fail on this paradigm-shifting issue because of self-interest and, ironically, a fear of failure. This is a sad feature of party politics today, but we citizens are partly to blame. It is up to us to educate ourselves so that we truly understand the dire economic impacts of inaction and it is up to us to demand that our elected representatives protect our lives and livelihoods by making 25% the minimum target in the CPRS.

I can tell you from my first-hand experience, if you stopped traffic for a day in Sydney’s CBD or if you sat outside your local MP’s office with enough people, these politicians will follow you. We are the leaders.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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