March 19, 2010

Lessons from The (Modern) Prince, Part 1: The CPRS

As part of my Project 52 posts, I thought I’d spend a few weeks musing on the lessons of Niccolo Machiavelli not learned in our modern times. I’ve added a parenthetical “Modern” as a reference to my favourite theorist Antonio Gramsci‘s famous treatise The Modern Prince. In The Modern Prince, political parties are cast in the role of the Renaissance prince.

The modern Labor party is acutely aware of history – the Howard decade, the Hawke/Keating and Whitlam legacies. Many of the senior operatives in Labor are amateur experts on American history or the history of World War 2. Unfortunately, there seems to be a book missing on their shelves. The seminal Florentine real-politick manual, The Prince.

This is particularly evident in the handling of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

Those who by valorous ways become princes, like these men, acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease. The difficulties they have in acquiring it arise in part from the new rules and methods which they are forced to introduce to establish their government and its security. And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.

Machiavelli: The Prince: Chapter VI.

Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions…” This is evident when looking at the national debate on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is the first step to economy-wide change built around putting a cost to polluting. Climate change is one of the most serious problems facing Australia and the world, and is caused in no small part because of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions. There is no cost to pollute, so no incentive for businesses or citizens to reduce their emissions. The CPRS introduces a (small) cost. It is a first step towards a clean economy.

The political problem is that large emitters profit enormously from the current arrangements. They can pollute with no accounting of the externalities of their actions. Needless to say, they have fought tooth and nail to stop any reform. It is in their interest to oppose any change, and furthermore to fund efforts to make the introduction of the CPRS as politically painful as possible. This has seen scare campaigns run in regional electorates, legions of carbon lobbyists descend on Canberra and marginal seat MPs, and millions of dollars sent to climate denialist groups (including the Liberal Party).

…and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” Similarly, any added cost to polluting will be in large part passed on to consumers – citizens. This added cost to ordinary Australians has prompted opposition from a significant (but no a majority) part of the community. Ordinary Australians are being asked to subsidise the big polluters through taxes, and to bear any increased costs through polluters passing on higher costs. This is despite the large number of Australians who support carbon pollution reduction.

Little wonder that supporters are “lukewarm”.

This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side…” In this case, the opponents are the Liberal Party, who, while they cannot make laws, can hold up laws. Supporters of the CPRS are worried about supporting in the event the Liberals get reelected. Furthermore, they are unwilling to invest in a climate of uncertainty when the Liberals are blocking the CPRS in the Senate. Similarly, many ordinary Australians are being targeted by the scare campaign of the carbon lobby – they are scared of losing their jobs. The carbon lobby (especially aluminium) is especially effective. The vast bulk of Australians are disorganised and inattentive, while the carbon lobby and big business have money, organisation and the Liberal Party in their favour.

…and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.” Even those people who support adding a cost to carbon pollution, there is waning support. Many are cool on the idea because they believe the CPRS does not go far enough. They get information from “green groups” that say that the CPRS gives too much compensation to big polluters or that the targets are not high enough. (Without joining the dots that currently there are no targets, and no reductions in pollution at all). Simply put, they do not believe things will be better under the CPRS – especially since the reforms are so long into the future (2020, 2050 and beyond).

If Machiavelli were around today, he would no doubt be shocked that Labor has been so unMachiavellian.

For environmentalists, and environmentalists in the Labor Party, it may pay to follow the Florentine’s advice a little more closely. We need to overcome the credibility gap in stating that a price on carbon will be pain-free. As Machiavelli says, the most effective princes (or parties) are those who are virtuous and truthful, in reality.

Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.

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