Clive Hamilton: 'We can make Higgins a turning-point in Australian politics'

November 18, 2009

Well known author and environmentalist Clive Hamilton recently announced he will stand for the Australian Greens in the December 5 by-election for the seat of Higgins in Melbourne.

The by-election promises to be one of the most interesting and important Australian electoral contests for some time. The ALP will not contest the seat. The Liberal party candidate, Kelly O'Dwyer, is a bank executive and an ex-staffer for former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello.

Hamilton spoke to Green Left Weekly's Simon Butler about his campaign.


How much was the threat of dangerous climate change a factor that convinced you to stand in the Higgins by-election?

It was the only factor really. I've spent the last 14 months writing a book on climate change titled Requiem for a Species, which will come out in March. I've lived and breathed climate change for that period and it's made me truly fearful about the future.

If you start to truly listen to what the leading climate scientists are saying you recognise that we are in very, very deep trouble. We're almost beyond the point of no return and we certainly will be within a few more years unless we take radical action.

So when I was asked to throw my hat into the ring for the Higgins pre-selection for the Greens I felt as though I really had no choice. I felt it was more of a duty given how afraid I am [of climate change] and how important I see it as being.

It's possible that we can make Higgins a turning-point in Australian politics. That's certainly our objective: to raise the profile of climate change so high as to send a powerful message to Canberra that we want much more radical action.

The by-election is going to be just before the Copenhagen climate conference. What's wrong with the ALP government's climate change policy?

We all hoped that the Rudd Labor government would take a leadership role, and certainly Kevin Rudd spoke some bold and reassuring words early in the piece.

But it's quite clear the greenhouse mafia — the term the fossil fuel lobbyists use to describe themselves — have been extremely effective in Canberra at capturing the government.

So the polices Labor is pursuing are really pathetic. They won't go nearly far enough to tackle Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. They've been designed to pacify the carbon lobby. So Labor has failed grievously on this the most important issue.

To hear Rudd excoriate the climate skeptics other day was one of the worst examples of political hypocrisy we've heard for quite a long time. If he backed his words with action he'd be cutting our emission by at least 25% in real terms — not through fancy accounting — by 2020, and go beyond that.

Rudd reminds me more and more every day of Tony Blair: all spin and no substance.

Is Labor's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) worse than nothing?

Right from the outset I've regarded the CPRS as worse than nothing because once it goes ahead it will lock in a very weak target for a very long time.

I'm very worried that we might get locked in a scheme that is hopelessly inadequate. And that makes it all the more worrying that some environment groups, notably the Australia Conservation Foundation, backed the Labor government's CPRS.

I found it absolutely mystifying that a major environment organisation campaigning on climate change could give its endorsement to such a pathetically weak scheme.

You've said you also intend to campaign on the need to build a new, sustainable economy. Can you explain what you mean?

A sustainable economy is one that has very sharply reduced environmental impacts. We absolutely know the direction we need to go in and that we need to go a very long way.

One of the things that very few people, and certainly the main parties, are unwilling to face up to is that it will require difficult structural change. Which means, inevitably, people in the old energy industries will be displaced. That's unavoidable when you have major structural change in economies.

But a "just transition" would be one in which governments intervened in a substantial way. It would need to provide for those at the cutting edge of this transition, to ease the change, to provide financial support, to provide retraining and do all we can to ensure they not only have jobs but have better jobs as a result of the transition. I think that's a feasible target for any government to aim at.

During your campaign, what will you say about the kind of refugee policy Australia should have?

I think many progressive people have been disturbed at the turn of events over the last month or so, in which the spectre of Pauline Hanson has been conjured out of thin air and now stalks the halls of Parliament House.

So a lot of us have been dismayed by the role of Rudd in particular, and the intemperate language he has used — ostensibly directed at people speakers, but we know it's dog-whistling and it's really applying to the asylum seekers themselves.

We argue that we have both an obligation under international law and a moral obligation to provide refugee for people who are fleeing persecution.

We should go through the proper processes: bring them onto the mainland, assess them quickly, accept those in genuine danger — especially Tamils fleeing from Sri Lanka, where there is serious repression going on — and do the right thing.

The truth is we don't have a big asylum seeker problem in this country. Proportionately, there are very few people seeking asylum in Australia, so it's something we can deal with without any difficulty. It's really the Hansonite fears that are being stirred up and dictating the way in which the government is responding.

And what about Christmas Island detention centre, Should it remain open or should it be closed?

It's alarming that although the Rudd government corrected some of the worst excesses of the Howard government's policy it kept open the Christmas Island detention centre, which is excised from Australia legally and therefore limits the rights of genuine refugees.

They should all be brought to the mainland and given their full rights and treatment, quickly processed, and those assessed as genuine refugees should be taken into our country.

Polls now show a big majority support same-sex marriage rights. What's your position?

I've done a lot of work at the Australia Institute on happiness and well-being. Consistently, the research evidence shows the principal factor determining people's happiness is the quality of their relationships.

I take the view that society should recognise and endorse all relationships that are caring and loving because that's going to make for a better society.

We should recognise that same-sex marriage has the same value as marriage between people of the opposite sex.

Is Kelly O'Dwyer, your main opponent, one of the group of Liberal party climate change deniers?

A journalist said to me that getting O'Dywer's opinions on anything is like getting blood from a stone. But she said in the Age recently saying she does believe that global warming is happening — well hallelujah for that.

But it seems to me that she was really hedging her bets. A principal-backer of her campaign, who features in her election material, is Hugh Morgan — the godfather of climate change denial in Australia.

Morgan is the man who set up [climate denial organisation] the Lavoisier group and who has attacked environmentalism and global warming science on several occasions.
For someone who believes in global warming [O'Dwyer] keeps some pretty odd company.

What has been the response you've received since you announced you would contest Higgins?

My candidacy has certainly energised the local Greens. There have been a lot of volunteers offering help. We've had tremendous support in that regard. What we lack in funding compared to the Liberals we certainly make up for in enthusiastic volunteers.

Also, the climate action groups and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition have decided to become very active in the Higgins campaign. They're not endorsing anyone but certainly we can expect to see large numbers of climate activists in the streets of Higgins over the next three weeks.

But my candidacy has also brought out some strong opposition. There are two or three candidates who are running in Higgins explicitly to oppose me.

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