Book Review: “Power Failure” #Australia #climate #policy debacle

This post is not about Manchester. It’s about a government that made bold promises about its climate action, then delivered a sorta reasonable policy, but totally failed to implement it or defend it from the forces of apathy and darkness.  This is obviously totally foreign to our fair city…

Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics under Rudd and Gillard
Power-FailurePhilip Chubb
2014 Black Inc 284 pages + endnotes and index

Laws are like sausages; it doesn’t pay to look too closely at how they are made.

However, if you want to rubber-neck at the catastrophe that was Australian climate “policy-making” between 2007 (when Labor came to power touting climate as “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”) and 2013 when it was booted out, after a year of not even mentioning the subject, then this fine book is for you. Just wear a helmet, so when you (repeatedly) bang your head against a wall in frustration, you’re still able to turn the pages.

The author, Philip Chubb, is a respected and experienced print and TV journalist, and it shows. Inspired to write the book because of his experiences during the “Black Saturday” bushfires of 2009, he interviewed 75 key figures (including senior bureaucrats and ministerial aides – of the politicians only Labor; he either couldn’t or didn’t bother interviewing the Liberals and Nationals).

He tells the tale well, chronologically. Nobody emerges unscathed, but his most withering assessments are reserved for Kevin Rudd, who centralised policy-making to such an extent that a) nobody could check the schemes for plausibility or “land-mines” and b) nobody felt ‘ownership’ or was able to explain/defend the first, aborted, scheme. (Chubb uses the work on political leadership styles of fellow Monash University academic James Walter to good effect.) Rudd also seems to have believed the hype preceding the 2009 Copenhagen conference, and cast himself as Saviour of the World. That didn’t, of course, end prettily.

The second half of the book covers Julia Gillard’s tenure, from 2010 to 2013, during which time the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was painfully, bloodily, created and passed (the new Australian Prime Minister, Tony “Climate change is crap” Abbott, is about to introduce legislation to repeal this). Chubb clearly has more sympathy for Gillard, whom he paints as a skilled but flawed leader and negotiator. The strongest – and most depressing – sections revolve around the period in mpccc-bluffers-guide-page1early 2011, when the “Multi-Party Climate Change Committee” hashed out an agreement acceptable to Labor, the Greens (at each others’ throats) and several Independents who held the balance of power. Meanwhile, the media reported and participated in a vicious, unrelenting programme of distortion, fear-mongering and (occasionally misognynistic) character assassination by the Liberal Party and assorted hangers-on. I was in Australia at the time, and it struck me – and far more knowledgeable commentators – as an unprecedentedly coarse moment in the national “discussion”. The attacks were also, as Chubb shows, very effective.

Gillard had been determined to bring in the scheme a year before she had to face the polls, to put the lie to the claims of denialist-politicians and “compensation”-hungry industry that the sky would fall because of a carbon tax. By the time the scheme started, on schedule, in July 2012, Labor had given up even trying to defend their orphan law. The sky didn’t fall, of course – all the hysterical claims of economic doom were shown to be false. Nobody, however, was paying attention, and the media in Australia didn’t point out the falsity – unsurprisingly, since they’d been vociferously peddling the scares in the first place.

While the book is well-written, and scrupulous in not creating a saint or martyr out of Julia Gillard, it’s not perfect. There are signs of haste – the misused “dispassionate” (p216), “dervies” (p. 274) instead of derives, and, frustratingly the opening pages have been removed from chapter 11, but the footnotes not renumbered.

More importantly, Chubb is largely silent on the reasons climate skepticism found such fertile ground in Australia (beyond the “biological cringe,” post-ecological thinking and, specifically, a continuation of the culture wars which had occupied the 1990s, with battles over how the history of Aboriginal-White settler contact (a euphemism if ever there were one!) should be told.

Chubb also could have given a little more historical context. Australians were early to understand climate change. In 1988 conferences were held simultaneously in 10 cities in Australia, linked by satellite. The late Stephen Schneider gave a presentation, seen by thousands, of the peril we face. How is it Australians have come to allow their politicians to be so cowardly? Part of the answer is supplied by academic/activists like Sharon Beder.

This book should read be read by all Australians who want to understand how climate policy has been mismanaged recently. (If they want gruesome accounts of earlier mismanagement, they should try Hamilton 2001, Hamilton 2007, Pearse 2007 and Pearse 2009). It should be read by policy-makers so that they don’t end up screwing up in quite the same way next time (if indeed there is one), and by activists.

Few people, however, will like it; not Labor (old wounds), the Liberals (exposed as poltroons), the Greens (Chubb reckons they got no more in 2011 than they’d have got in 2009, when they voted against Rudd’s CPRS), the social movement types (Chubb is gently scathing on the “Say Yes” campaign mid-2011. The only person Chubb seems to rate highly is economist Ross Garnaut, who fought a valiant if ultimately unsuccessful battle against the notion of giving huge “compensation” to coal-miners and power companies. They emerged from the 2011 process as the clear winners, with predictable windfall profits.


The next Federal elections are due in 2016, after the next big international climate debacle in Paris (November 2015). It’s hard to imagine the Australian Labor Party wanting – or being able even if they did want – to go anywhere near climate policy with the proverbial ten foot pole. Given the enormous carbon footprints of Australians, and, worse, the well-advanced plans to expand coal exports (to China, India and Japan especially – see Pearse, McKnight and Burton’s excellent “Big Coal”), this is just one more tragedy in the unfolding ecological debacle that is homo sapiens carbonicus.

Marc Hudson

See also
Recent interview with the author

The myth of “carbon leakage” by Ben Eltham (2008)

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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