Thinking

Comments on A Modern Moses with Beliefs Set in Stone

Matthew Parnell - Monday, February 22, 2010

My comments on David Burchell’s article in today’s Australian regarding Peter Garrett’s and the Labor Governement’s failure to properly design their sustainability schemes:

As a  consultant working to improve the sustainability of our built environment, the thing that most appalls me is that this insulation scheme and the others (HSAS, Green Loans etc) are fundamentally unsustainable! I have no sympathy for all those new start-ups who based their entire business model on a dodgy government program. If the available work wasn’t enough to be in the insulation business before the scheme, it sure as hell wouldn’t have been once it had closed down. The fact that the solar scheme closed down early was a bit of a hint that all other schemes would not last, at least in their original forms. Talk about opportunists coming to the honey-pot, but having no contingency plan for the inevitable end of the program! I fear that this government has made it much more difficult to progress on the path to real sustainability.

David Burchell’s article follows:

A modern Moses with beliefs set in stone

At present – in parts of its infrastructure planning, several of its environmental programs, much of its pseudo-support for hybrid automobiles and more or less the entirety of the National Broadband Network – contemporary federal Labor is tiptoeing close to the edge. It’s time to step back again on to economic terra firma.

From this seemingly forgotten low-water mark of Australian public policy, I’d suggest we can infer the following moral. When you abandon the ethic of responsibility for a troubling and unstable combination of high moral rectitude and low political cunning, you expose yourself to the dizzying prospect of the abyss. And once you begin to fall, there are no handholds.

Writing about the notorious loans affair that finally brought Labor to the abyss, Freudenberg conveys the impression that the disaster had only two causes: the grand but sadly flawed personality of Labor’s minerals and energy minister Rex Connor and the diabolical malignity of Labor’s enemies. On the question of whether a federal minister ought to secure a personal budget line by borrowing billions on the security of the Reserve Bank through a dubious business intermediary, in the ignorance of most of his colleagues and against the furious opposition of Treasury, Freudenberg is elegantly silent. Indeed, he does not even trouble to tell the reader what the Middle Eastern loans were supposed to be for, let alone whether they were necessary. All that matters was Connor’s goal of building a great nation. This is the Sermon on the Mount reduced to a farce.

PERHAPS the most beautiful and disturbing meditation ever voiced on the tragic character of modern politics, Politics as a Vocation, was delivered almost a century ago in another world from ours, among the bare whitewashed walls, wide-eyed Byzantine icons, slender Moorish windows and dusty sunbeams of the University of Munich, then consumed in the death-throes of World War I. Pressing on the great sociologist Max Weber’s heart as he spoke was an agonised awareness of the great catastrophe already unfolding in Germany: the great tragic ballet in which the far Left and the far Right, locked in their fatal dance of mutual hatred, dragged the entire civilisation of Europe down into the flames.

By contrast, Weber suggested, mature political leaders have to be content with an ethic of responsibility, one that takes into account the “average deficiencies of people” and holds itself responsible for its mistakes.

Attempting to understand why so many people were willing to draw Europe into the abyss for the sake of imagined utopias they didn’t seriously believe in, Weber was moved to compare the visionaries of his day to the early followers of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount or Moses’ tablets, believers in an absolute ethic that brooks no compromise and focuses only on ultimate ends. To the followers of this creed, “if an action of good intent leads to bad results”, the responsibility must lie with the world, or with the stupidity of others.

At our best we may manage to combine both ethics, so that the grand cause and the steps along its way are equally visible to us. Most often, though, the final goal is shrouded in life’s moral mist.

Watching Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s other-worldly television performances last week amid the dying fall of the government’s home insulation program, I found Weber leaping to my mind. Here, after all, is the minister who best lays claim to our contemporary Sermon on the Mount: the preservation of the planet, seen as the overarching political good. Here is a man who incarnates the notion that a good conscience can overcome all political ills; the conviction that “from good only comes good, but from evil only evil follows”, in Weber’s words.

And yet here, at the same moment, is a man who seems constitutionally incapable of accepting any personal responsibility for one of the great public policy follies of the past decade and who seems, to all appearances, strangely emotionally detached from its human consequences. If there was ever an example of how an unquestioned good heart and political irresponsibility of the most abject kind can travel hand in hand – like two heedless child-lovers out of a Medieval chivalry romance – surely this is it.

It is humbug to suggest – as Garrett continues to suggest – that his scheme has been laid low by the machination of shonky operators or the negligence of half-trained operatives. Patently, there would have been no fly-by-night insulation firms and no army of semi-trained labourers in the first place but for a decision to throw billions of dollars of public money, holus-bolus, towards the creation of a new and for all practical purposes unregulated industry without any apparent concern for the consequences.

Nor is it credible to blame the existing safety standards of state governments when their creators could hardly have imagined the industry would grow 30-fold within a few months.

Curiously, in his interviews Garrett neglected to mention that the proposed replacement scheme will be subject to a rigorous independent assessment. But then, signalling a belated return to good governance might amount to a confession of error. And for our granite-faced modern Moses, that would never do.

By the normal measures of prudent governance it ought to have been obvious that the business of combining our largest ever stimulus package with a vast wish-list of public infrastructure programs and improvised environmental remedies was laden with peril.

As a stimulus package it is probably too large and too lengthy, because of the competing policy demands generated by it and because of the impossibility of cutting off the fiscal tap once so many undertakings have been given. At the same time, as a public infrastructure program it is too improvised, too spontaneous and too nakedly political. To save the planet, fill up schoolyards with new buildings, prime the pump and lock in the electoral support of Ute-Man all at once is a virtuous circle of vertiginous complexity. In the end, it is an invitation to irresponsibility.

Of all the grand literary creations of Old Labor – the romantic, quixotic Labor of the 1970s, with its endless litany of self-justifying mythologies – none is more elegiac or more eye-opening than Graham Freudenberg’s classic biography of Gough Whitlam, A Certain Grandeur. Penned in the mordant, sententious tones of Roman imperial historians, it relates the fall of Whitlam as a kind of grand tragedy, replete with heroic but flawed characters and the inscrutable hand of fate.

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About Dr. Matthew Parnell - With a built environment background, Dr. Parnell's specialty is buildings and their environmental impacts. Greensynergy Consulting is also active in bringing about change by developing the capacity of people, communities and organizations to adopt sustainable practices and develop strong sustainability cultures.
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