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Christine Milne In Conversation: full transcript

David Bowman What I wanted to ask you is, in two years time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be about 400 ppm. According to the Greens' policy documents, the world should have…

David Bowman What I wanted to ask you is, in two years time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be about 400 ppm. According to the Greens' policy documents, the world should have an atmosphere with 350ppm. Many scientists think that we now probably have crossed - or are in the process of crossing - very major thresholds which will have all sorts of unforseen and possibly unforseeable consequences. So really the question for a politician is, how do you prosecute your case if your opponents don’t believe in that?

Christine Milne Well, we continue to do so, but it is extremely frustrating to know what you do know and to take the science seriously and to have people say to you that it’s wildly exaggerated, it’s not true, and so on, when they haven’t even tried to read the science, they’ve made a decision to reject or ignore the science because it suits their world view. And it’s not about the science anymore, and I think all climate scientists have realised that too, and I think we in the environment movement and the broader science community realised it too late, that denialism has much more to do about values and world view than it has to do with actually understanding the science. So we should have been using the social sciences a lot sooner than we have been to work out ways of talking to people’s value systems rather than to their intellectual capacity. So we’re just coming to that now. Graeme Pearman was the first of the leading scientists around Australia that I had contact with that started to recognise we need to get involved with the social sciences, and he’s been doing a lot in that regard.

I first came across this back in 2002, when I went to a global biodiversity meeting in the Cook Islands. And I was chairing a session on global warming, and a couple of scientists got up and talked about likely impacts on coral reefs, likely impacts on sea level rise, saltwater incursion into freshwater lenses, you know all the issues facing the Pacific essentially. And then the local person who was the environmental campaigner on global warming got up to speak and he just said, look the problem here is that the community here in the Cook Islands are extremely religious. They’ve inherited their views from the London missionary society, and they go to church every Sunday, and they are told that this is the beginning of the Second Coming, that there’s extreme weather events, that all these changes are consistent with the Biblical interpretation of the Second Coming, and therefore when you say to them we have to do all these things to stave off global warming, they go, “ah, no, bring it on, we’re on our way to Paradise”. I thought, I don’t know how to deal with this - I don’t know how to respond to people if they’re going to respond to me like that. So I came back to Australia and I talked to people then in the World Council of Churches, saying that this is a values system, it’s a values argument, it’s not to do with the science. So we need the churches to return with an alternative, which is the stewardship story, and that is essentially the Gospel story of we are charged with stewardship of the Earth and if we fail in that, we’re all not going to heaven. Because if we’re going to have a contested view about whether we’re going to heaven or not, you have to talk about it in the same context.

So coming back to the politics, I went through a period where I became deeply despondent about the consequences of what’s going on with global warming, and my rational mind said to me, it’s too late, that we’re on a trajectory for four to six degrees of warming, and this is the critical decade, the scientists were all saying, global emissions have to peak by 2015 and start coming down or we’ve got no hope. 350ppm is much better than 450; we argued the point through the Climate Committee, the multiparty Climate Committee, because the $23 price is based on a 450 - sorry, a 550ppm trajectory, if we’d gone with the 450, the price would have been over $50, and they wouldn’t even countenance the idea of doing any Treasury modelling around what a price would need to be to deliver 350. So I went through a very bleak phase of thinking we’re just not going to make it as a planet - well, the planet will make it, but how humans survive and how ecosystems survive is another thing.

And I’ve gotten through that by just simply taking the view that one has to keep arguing for it and doing everything we can, because it will be better than it otherwise would have been. So I just take the view that anything you can do is better than it otherwise would have been, and you have to hope. Your optimism, if you like, has to be there. That in the course of doing that, just maybe we will gain momentum if enough people get to that point.

But your rational mind tells you it’s pretty frustrating, and I look at the others and I think, how can they face their children and their grandchildren, knowing full well if they actually embraced the science… I get really angry with people like Bjorn Lomberg and others who profit from denialism, and just change their story every five years or so to stay close enough to a rational position to be able to continue to make money out of it, when he’s been in my view just like the tobacco industry. Knows full well from the beginning what the story is but there is a view that needs to be prosecuted by the vested interests, and their associates in the media, and they will find people like him and in the Australian context like Bob Carter and others, who they’ll give equal column inches space to as they do to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

David Bowman But one of the questions which sort of feed from that is how do you build a constituency of interest without terrifying people into catatonia? But also, how do you articulate a vision when, as far as I can tell, everything at the moment is about the fear of debt, the fear of costs, and - because it’s rained - it seems in Australia that climate change has just disappeared. So as a politician, how do you - it seems to me you’re almost involved in some sort of asymmetrical warfare, where you’re trying to take on two almost impossibly difficult arguments at once. One is to convince people of the seriousness, the magnitude of the global change problem, and also the fact that you’re trying to articulate an alternative economic model which just doesn’t seem to be - doesn’t really seem to have any political support from anybody out there much, as far as I can tell.

Christine Milne Yes, fair enough, and it’s a huge challenge for us, of course it’s a huge challenge for us. On the first one, I think the mistake that the broad environment/climate community made was to think we can’t keep talking about the real impacts of global warming because that will frighten people and then they will go into a state of inaction and retreat to their backyard makeover because that’s something they can do. They can grow some of their own vegetables in their backyard and feel like they’re in control of the situation - they don’t have to face the big picture.

So a lot of people went to that, and a lot of the environment groups, and they’ve just gone out there with the positive story. A positive story about we can do 100% renewable energy, or we can do a particular activity in a particular place. A positive message, but not directly related to the climate message. I’ve always argued that that is a mistake, because you have to link it to - this is the problem and this is the solution, because otherwise the problem just gets disconnected. But that is what’s happened, and a lot of the groups have gone out and done that, and so that connection has been lost.

In terms of the new economy, the problem in Australia is that it’s the Machiavelli problem (you know, he identified in the 15th century and it’s just as true today) and that is that, it’s almost impossible to bring about a change in the order of things when the vested interests fight like partisans to keep their vested interests in place. Whereas those who believe in the new order are only lukewarm in their support of the new order, because - he says “mankind” - humankind doesn’t believe in new things until they’re actually delivered. And I think that’s true and one of the things - that’s why I said when I took over the leadership that one thing I wanted to do was to build a constituency in progressive business, because for the first time in Australia we now have a critical mass of businesses - most of them small and medium-scale businesses but nevertheless a critical mass - which depend collectively on embracing a low-to-zero carbon economy, and accelerating our changed behaviour in terms of sustainability. So there’s a whole range of them, in everything from architects designing green buildings, new building product, town planners, energy efficiency, the renewables space, environmental health, all kinds of areas now all depend on this.

But, they are terrified to speak out, and I’ve spoken to them all recently, things like Sustainable Business Australia, last week I spoke - opened a solar conference. And there were hundreds - I don’t know, probably nearly a thousand people - at the Clean Energy Week over the week, all need this. All terrified that if Abbott gets in, he might dismantle this, because it’s essential for their business. So I say to them, why aren’t you out there ringing up the radio stations, writing letters, putting out press releases, saying, we need this and Tony Abbott is undermining so many jobs in my energy efficiency business or my green architecture business or my whatever. And it’s because they’re afraid, and this is part of the culture of Australian politics, that if they speak out, and there is a change of government, that they will be punished accordingly, and that they will fail to gain access. That the government programs which benefit them - for example, the renewable energy target or the like - will be significantly changed to their detriment.

So there is a real lack of, I would say, political courage, from the new and progressive business sector, for all sorts of reasons, but I understand those reasons - they are real reasons for them, it’s not imaginary. But that’s our job. There is a critical mass of people across the community who want to make changes, and there’s a critical mass of business, but it’s now about them having the political courage to get organised.

David Bowman So what you’re speaking about is the confluence of industry and government, which is sort of a mixed economy. So how do you think the Greens are able to negotiate the fact that - the tension between top-down regulation and the capacity of market to innovate? A lot of people talk about - disparagingly - green tape, as being a barrier to investment and possibly a barrier to innovation. And parenthetically, if you look at the Green policies, one of the tensions I suspect which will emerge is that there are some technologies which are challenging, which may in fact be critical for the survival of civilisation, such as GMOs. They may in fact be the thing that’s going to put food on the table for nine billion people. So how can the Greens deal with those tensions of a mixed economy, of the state knowing best, versus the fact that the market’s able to find novel solutions?

Christine Milne It’s going to be a mixture always, and where we’ve gone wrong, the global financial crisis, occurred not because of over-regulation but because of deregulation. So if you go back and see what happened, it was essentially that decision to take away the separation between investment banking and the rest, and to let them all merge together, that led to a lot of the problems that we got with the whole global financial system.

So there is a place for regulation and there is a place for the market, and the Greens have argued that strongly. That’s why I support emissions trading and don’t support Tony Abbott’s direct action plan that he’s got in place - it just won’t deliver. So there’s room for both.

I am totally opposed to this nonsense of green tape. That is just a clever use of words to imply that environmental regulation is somehow hindering the ability to do business. Environmental regulation is actually protecting what is a public asset in the interests of the community as a result of a long time of campaigning and work by people to get decent environmental regulation in place. And what you’ve got business now doing, where they’re trying to get rid of environmental regulation, it’s because they want to do things which clearly are unsustainable, and that’s why you’ve got a massive push from the resource based industries, particularly in Queensland, to build this huge port development up the Queensland coast, and you’ve got all that push to undermine the World Heritage protection framework to dump spoil into the reef and the rest of it. So we will be campaigning strongly, I can tell you, in the next 12 months coming into the Federal election to maintain levels of environmental protection that are consistent with the challenges of the century, and the challenge of the century is sustainability, and that is about slowing down the extraction of non-renewable resources and making the use of those non-renewable resources more efficient by pricing them more effectively. That goes in terms of the use of the resource and indeed the pollution as an offshoot of that resource.

In terms of the technologies that you have suggested may or may not be part of the solution, GMOs have not demonstrated to date that the claims that they’ve made have in any way come to fruition. So we’ve already had the claims of golden rice and solving the world’s hunger through GMOs, and all we’ve got is Monsanto and the like pushing very strongly to get rid of regulation, particularly in terms of labelling. And they’re trying to do that currently through the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, to overturn any kinds of regulation and labelling in the Australian context if that gets up. And what they’ve done is of course exchange one set of costs - input costs to farmers - with another. So they go to GMOs but then they have a whole range of chemicals that they happen to produce that they will then require to use in the same context. And then you go to the terminator gene and all the other problems associated with it.

The latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, The World Bank, that came out in 2008, basically saying that if you’re serious about sustainability in an age of climate change, accelerating global warming, then we need to make sure there’s local resilience in food production systems, and that the increase in productivity has to come from the global South and not from the global North. That means maintaining local control over the capacity to produce food, and local ecosystems and the like. And that’s why I’ve got such a - take such a strong position on the land grabs that are going on around the planet, and seeing countries like China and the Saudis, the Qataris etc, moving in massively into Africa, buying up large tracts of land from often corrupt governments or militias who’ve displaced local people and then they sell their land before the people can even come back, and we’re going to end up with local people displaced from their land unable to grow their own food.

So I think we’ve almost seen the pendulum swing to the extreme on some of those technologies and we’re going to see it come back now where people are recognising that more biologically consistent systems in agriculture are going to be cheaper and more resilient in the face of global warming and that’s what we have to be doing. And our role in that in Australia is not just in producing food for global markets. Our role is also capacity building in many of those global south countries where we can use the expertise we’ve developed through CSIRO and other organisations to assist them to maximise local productions and maintain their own genetic diversity and not end up with just broadscale agriculture as we’ve practised it.

David Bowman So you could argue that the emissions trading scheme is actually just globally symbolic because we’re not going to be able to detect a change in the concentration of CO2. So can you imagine the Greens embracing more heterodox - I guess the question which I think is going to confront environmentalists is that because the world is very rapidly changing and we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to open our minds to alternatives, and maybe make opportunities to make global statements.

One of the things that bothers me is that Australia has been an exporter of uranium. We are ideally situated to take that waste back and many industries have a cradle-to-grave perspective. Do you think the Greens could ever alter their perspective on our relationship with the nuclear industry, even if we don’t have a nuclear energy capacity, but to actually take responsibility for the nuclear waste which we’ve created over the last 30 years?

Christine Milne Well my view is we shouldn’t be exporting uranium in the first place, therefore we oughtn’t be taking back the waste. We oppose the Muckaty waste dump, as you know, for that reason.

David Bowman But there’s 30 years of waste.

Christine Milne That’s right. And there should have been the consultation and so on that was promised in relation to finding a solution - well, there’ll never be a solution as such, but - to resolve the issue of storage. But from our point of view the best thing to do with uranium is leave it in the ground. And in my view in terms of fossil fuels the same thing applies.

I read some figures recently where we’ve got less than 600 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide to atmosphere left if we’re going to meet the carbon budget (that even gets us supposedly under two degrees, though there’s some debate about that). But if you look at the reserves of fossil fuels in terms of coal, oil and gas, it’s over 2000 gigatonnes. So on that basis, if we’re to save ourselves, then 80% of the reserves that are currently in the share price of the fossil fuel companies have to be written off. Something like $20-30 trillion dollars worth of asset value to be written off. So I mean they’re the kind of realities we have to face up to.

But in terms of uranium, there’s absolutely no need for us to be exporting it. We’ve opposed the new mines, we continue to oppose the new mines, and we’re not going to countenance that. But we’ve opposed Muckaty because there was never a proper process, that was just imposed on those people.

David Bowman So just one of the questions which has been topical - if we take a very global view as we’ve been taking - the Greens party also necessarily has a whole lot of social policies. And you could argue that in fact, are Green parties logical? Wouldn’t it be better to have mainstream political parties which are dealing with the vexatious philosophical issues of social organisation which always will remain? They’re possibly intractable and something humans have to grapple with because they are ultimately value based: wouldn’t it be ultimately better not to have a Greens party but just to have very strong environmental principles in all political parties? So do you see the Greens as just a transitional stage, rather than really a significant new development politically?

Christine Milne Well we have said for years that if the others became serious environmentalists then there would be less appeal as far as a Greens party is concerned. But actually I think it’s become a fundamental difference, and the reason is this: that the Liberal and Labor parties in the Australian context - but it’s pretty much similar globally - both emerged at a period when the Earth was free. There was a view in both sides of politics that the planet had an infinite capacity to give up resources, and an infinite capacity to absorb waste, so we could pump as much waste to ocean and atmosphere as we liked, and we could keep extracting resources.

And so that was taken as read - the Earth is free as a source of resources and a source of waste dumping. The politics emerged out of who should maximise the benefit from the transition of those free resources and dumping into atmosphere and ocean. And of course the conservative parties took the view that those who owned the capital, if you like - the capacity to transform - had more of a right to the profits from that. And the workers became organised on the basis that they had a reasonable right to a share in the profits of what is engendered. But they are both taking the view that the Earth is free and infinite.

And they still do, and that’s where fundamentally the Greens are different, and neither of the others will take that on. So that is why for them the environment is an add-on. It’s just another part of a suite of policies, it doesn’t actually underpin where they come from, it’s just another part of a suite of policies.

Whereas for the Greens, we emerged in the 1970s at a period when there was beginning to be a strong recognition that the Earth was not infinite in its capacity to give up resources or absorb waste. This was the period of course of the Club of Rome, and so there was a lot of recognition at that point that the Earth is actually finite, it has a finite capacity in this regard. And therefore everything depends on the ability of the planet to sustain a human population and the broader ecological integrity, and there has to be a major rethink about our engagement.

Out of that came the Brundtland Report. I spoke to one of the people who was central to the Brundtland Report, and I said to him, how did we ever end up in situation where you had society, economics and environment? Because out of Brundtland, they came out of it basically saying there are only two real things - people and nature - and it is the interaction of those two that have to be sustainable, and the economic tools have to be tools that actually better guarantee a sustainable relationship between the two. How did we end up with economics suddenly having equivalence with people and nature, which are two real things, whereas economics is a conceptual tool? And he said that basically it came out of Brundtland and went to the World Bank, and when it came out of the World Bank it came out as a triangle.

Now I didn’t know that, and it really makes a lot of sense to me, because the minute it came out of the World Bank as a triangle and so you had the three things, then you always had society and economy trading off against environment. And that has been the politics out of the whole sustainability debate for the last 20 years of the last century and the first decade of this one. Whereas if we’d actually ended up out of Brundtland with a recognition that really you’ve only got people and nature - we’re actually part of the same thing but for the point of argument we’re separating them - and therefore you had to redesign the economic tools better to do sustainability we’d be a lot further down the track.

But what I’m saying is, for the Greens, because protection of - the sustainability of the planet as a home for us - is central to us, then you have that as completely the central focus. You build on that, so you protect your environment as the basis for a sustainable society, one that is just and peaceful and so on. So your four pillars of the Greens are ecological integrity (of course), social justice, peace and non-violence, and participatory democracy, and so that’s fundamental.

The others don’t get it. And that’s why you will have - you do have - a global financial crisis and you have every world leader on a plane heading to where they have to head immediately, we have to have emergency action, we have to have billions spent on stimulus and so on because we’ve got to save the economy. But we go into Copenhagen, we go into Cancun and then Durban, and we’ve just come out of Rio, and half the world leaders can’t be bothered going, and those who do go come out with some pretty pathetic statement that they might try somehow to do something. So we’ve now got a situation where out of Durban they agreed that by 2015 they would try to get to a global agreement that would take agreement after 2020.

So you see what I’m saying - that for the other - for both the Republicans and the Democrats in the US, for the Coalition and Labor in Australia and the same in the UK, the environment is just an add-on, they don’t get it as a central, absolutely underpinning feature. And that’s why they can keep saying, oh the fires and the droughts in the US this year, terrible terrible, but they’re kind of one-off - except they’ve broken every record nearly across the US in terms of temperatures - we’ve just had the Arctic ice retreat at historic rates, right across the planet, but yet they continue to talk about this as if it’s one off. And then you can have Campbell Newman standing up in Queensland saying that Queensland should be able to keep all their royalties etc from their coal, but of course the nation had a responsibility of a flood levy to help them when they accelerate global warming and they get massive cyclones and floods, but really, there’s a complete disconnect. You had Peter Beattie stand up and say he wanted to massively expand coal mining and build a new set of cyclone shelters down the Queensland coast, and people thought that was a reasonable kind of proposition, except the cyclone shelters never got built.

So that’s the difference, and that’s why I say, because the other parties do not have the same philosophical view or even a philosophical view about the environment underpinning everything else, they’re never going to be able to approach these issues with the integrity the Greens do and therefore that’s why the Greens are growing this century.

David Bowman But let’s consider Tasmania. Some commentators see Tasmania as a basket case, as a joke, because its resource exploitation stage has been passed, pretty much. So how would the Greens be able to convince people that Tasmania is in fact ahead of the game? Because isn’t that what you’re describing - a lower amount of economic activity, less capacity to really generate more revenue from resource exploitation at least - so Tasmania is struggling and in fact the politics are that they’re wanting more of a slice of the pie from resource exploitation on the mainland, rather than saying - I mean, how can the Greens convince people that Tasmania is a good situation?

Christine Milne We can’t. And I’d be the first one to say that, and in fact it proves the point. From the early - after the Wesley Vale campaign, 1989, and I was elected to the Parliament, I argued then that the future for Tasmania was not in the resource-based sector, that we had to make the transition out of the resource-based sector, into a brains, knowledge and service based economy, that the idea was to protect the environment and to build on the reputational value of genuine protection of the environment, get out of bulk commodity markets and go to high-value, low-volume markets, partly because of our isolation and the costs of freight, and partly because of the scale and the nature of the population. And that in that transition from a resource base to a brains-knowledge-information-skills based society, we needed to completely change the way we thought about things.

Proximity to Antarctica was important, to make this as a hub for Antarctic services; to look at being able to attract those people who in the new computer-based age - and things have accelerated massively in the last 20 years in this regard - but bring people to Tasmania who needed a creative environment in which to work, so all your innovators. So this really came from my thinking at the time with IBM. IBM then was saying to its workers in the US, “where in the US do you want to live?”. Because IBM realised that its competitive advantage was its human resource, and if it was going to compete against the others, it had to keep them, so they needed to ask their best brains, their best people, where do you want to live in the United States and we’ll set up there. And they overwhelmingly said Vermont, so they went to Vermont for that reason.

At the same time I went to Sophia Antipolis in the south of France. And what they did was say, OK how can we hit in France some of our best brands and some of our best industries when the wage structure here is such that we can’t pay them as well they would get elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavia or in the [United] States at that time. And so what they did was think, well this is the south of France – a lot of people want to live in the south of France – so what can we offer that other places can’t? And so they put up a satellite so they got the fastest data transmission at that time and attracted a whole lot of financial … Air France and others that depended on fast data transfer to establish themselves and they had really innovative structures.

So I argued in the early 1990s that there was no future in native forest woodchipping, that it would be dead as an industry by the end of the 1990s, that Tasmania couldn’t go on as it did, that we needed a massive investment in education and training. So protect the environment, massively invest in education and training, reposition ourselves in terms of the Antarctic, actually rethink this. And I brought out the Tasmanian business and industry strategy called “Clean, Green and Clever”. And essentially that is the model that the successful businesses in Tasmania have taken up.

So when you look around the state at our agricultural industry, we’ve become the epicure state of Australia. And that is based on high value/low volume, really high quality product. And wherever you look around the state from Bruny Island cheeses and quail and wines and organic beef and cherries, you name it. They’re not opting for massive, bulk commodity markets; they’re aiming for the high value markets. And Elgar farms just gold medals at the Sydney show and so on.

Where it all went wrong was neither Liberal or Labor in Tasmania would give up on their insistence that the blue collar base in the extractive industries had to continue to be subsidised. So we fought this through the 1990s and Tasmania just went further and further backwards. And then we were in a state of real depression in my view in the mid-1990s. And the then Liberal minority premier, Tony Rundel, agreed that its time we looked at the knowledge-based economy. And he was the first Premier - I felt so delighted I can’t tell you - he was the first Tasmanian Premier to come out and say the future of Tasmania is not in the resource-based industries. I thought “Oh, at last!” and he wanted to adopt what he called the “New Brunswick” model, which was out of Canada, which was basically an IT model.

But again he got it wrong because he wanted to focus on the low-skilled end, so the call centre-type end. Now there was a place for call centres then, but it was clear they had a very narrow window of opportunity because it would get picked up in Asia in low wage economies, where you had fairly high levels of education and that’s of course what happened. But he didn’t pick up the top end even though Harradine at the time got $100M for Tasmania to establish this IT future. And that $100M was practically wasted. It’s just a tragedy of the lost opportunities.

Jim Bacon took over the leadership of the Labor party. And this is, in my view, the most shocking thing he did and something I will never forgive him for: he went to that election in 1998 saying, “Take no notice of all this, Labor’s going to take you back to your comfort zone. We’re going to go back to the kind of Tasmania you all like, we’re going to re-open the mines, we’re going to get the logging industry going again. We’re going to get all those things you’re all comfortable doing”. And we got to a point in Tasmania when people realised that was not a sustainable model. And he made Eric Reece – “Electric Eric”, the patron of the Labor campaign – and he went into that campaign, and everybody went, “Oh, what a relief! We’re going to go back to everything that we were comfortable with and that we knew” and so he got elected.

The GST came in then and Tasmania got this massive windfall gain out of the GST and the $100M of Harradine money. And so this new Labor Premier came in. They changed the electoral system to try to get rid of the Greens and they got this massive windfall of cash, suddenly hit Tasmania. And so they said, “See what happens if you’ve got the Greens in balance of power, look the state’s going nowhere? Put Labor in and look we’ve built a new racetrack out there, we’ve got new gates on the football ground”. It was bread and circuses here in Tasmania and they just frittered away the one opportunity we had to do the massive investment in education, training, in rethinking what the future might be.

In the meantime I’d been arguing to get the university to expand beyond Launceston into the northwest, because we had really poor retention rates to senior secondary and university in the northwest and we massively needed to get investment in education there. And one of the great things I’m really happy about is the direction the university is taking in Tasmania. And it’s ironic that the university will be the major employer in Burnie within the next few years. This is the town that was most famous for the pulp mill, you know, for many, many years the industrial centre of the northwest. And to me that’s pretty symbolic of the gradual change that’s going on that we’re getting that investment in the university up there.

So my view is the current state of Tasmania - the fact that the logging industry has been subsidised heavily from the mid 1990s and is still got its hand out - is because Jim Bacon opportunistically chose to abandon the right course for Tasmania and actually pursue what we had done under that Liberal period of minority government when we were in balance of power to get the state thinking about the alternatives, and to actually delay the inevitable transition of Tasmania by more than a decade. And what we’re going through now is exactly what we went through in the mid-1990s and I think, what a waste.

But those sectors that chose the new direction, they’re doing very nicely, thank you. And what we need to do now is really push those sectors that can do well. And the fact that we’ve got 600 marine scientists in Hobart I think is fantastic. Well not just in Hobart, but Hobart and environs. Isn’t that marvellous? A critical mass of intelligent, innovative scientists. We’ve got the Antarctic division, the CRC at the university, the CSIRO, what a fantastic thing to build on with proximity to Antarctica. We’ve got a whole lot of countries that get to determine where the Antarctic base is going to be, why wouldn’t we be doing everything we can to make it Tasmania? So I think what we’ve got in Tasmania, for anyone who wants to look at it, is a microcosm of the rest of the country. We are now seeing a massive resource boom across the country, we’ve seen the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector, we’ve seen no investment in education and training over all those Howard years, a big wind back and a disproportionate dependence on the resource extractive industries, and what’s going to happen at the end of the boom? Just like happened in Tasmania: you’ve lost a decade’s worth of building the alternative economy, and then what do you do?

So that’s why I’m so passionate about getting Gonski implemented in terms of getting our school funding back on track, and really starting to look at developing the manufacturing sector and the roll-out and commercialisation of the innovations in our universities around global warming because we’re some of the cleverest in the world when it comes to these technologies.

David Bowman So you’ve talked a lot about government investment. The counter argument is you’ve got to raise the revenue from somewhere. Classically politicians don’t like raising taxes and Tasmania would benefit for instance from a GST 25% increase or something; it would have an immediate benefit for a poor state like Tasmania. So these questions of the balance between aspiration and ideology versus the pragmatics of politics: you’re a politician, so how do you, in the end you have to make compromises and you’ve also got to have your eye on what the electorate is willing to tolerate. Do you think the Greens really want to be in these balance of power situations? Isn’t it a much more ideologically pure state to just be outside and having visions of how the world could be, rather than the grubby mechanics of how the world is?

Christine Milne Getting balance of power is much more important because you can actually deliver outcomes. The only reason we’ve got a clean energy package implemented, legislated, implemented, in effect, right now, in Australia, is because the Greens got balance of power in both houses in the Federal parliament last election. Both major parties went into that election saying they were not going to price carbon in this period of government, and it was only because of the agreement with the Greens that the Multi Party Climate Committee was set up and that we got the outcome that we did.

And so I feel in terms of my political career thus far in the parliament … I went into the Senate in 2004 campaigning to say we need to take global warming seriously and so I feel a great degree of satisfaction to having been part of that and to deliver as close to a whole of government approach as I could get (notwithstanding resistance in some parts of the federal government, Martin Ferguson in particular). But we’ve got the Carbon Farming Initiative, the Biodiversity Fund, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in addition to emissions trading and several energy efficiency measures, so that’s just one example.

Balance of power in Tasmania, when I had that with the Liberals it was my bill that got gay law reform in Tasmania, we got gun law reform as a result of a tripartite agreement at that time. The apology to the stolen generation came because we were in balance of power, and the vote for the republic before the Constitutional Convention. Then back to 1989-92 with the Labor-Green accord, it was because we were in balance of power that we doubled the size of the wilderness world heritage area in Tasmania. And when you drive around you see the Friendly Beaches National Park, the Douglas Apsley National Park, the southwest wilderness – it’s because the Greens were in balance of power.

So the periods outside balance of power are when you do the work on the policy detail so that the minute you are in a position to implement it you actually know what to do and you’ve got the detail and you’re ready to go, which is what we did. So you absolutely need to be in balance of power to actually deliver on those policy outcomes.

Can I just go to the tax issue? One of the things I got in the clean energy package which I’m really pleased about - and it wasn’t just the Greens, the Labor party wanted this too, so this was a happy coincidence of coming together of ideas - and that was that if sustainability is your core objective and you need to stop dumping things to ocean and atmosphere then clearly what you need to do is make it more expensive to do so, so you price the bads. You price pollution and you price resources so that you slow down their extraction and make their use more efficient. And on the other end of the scale you lift the tax on income so that you start rewarding creativity and the good. So if you are not extracting resources and polluting then you can earn more.

That’s exactly the kind of financial structures we’re going to need this century and this is the first time in Australian politics where we’ve actually implemented what I would call an ecological financial arrangement. So now we are pricing pollution at $23 a tonne and now people who had a $6000 tax-free-threshold, now it’s $18,200. Now there’ll be an awful lot of students around Australia and a lot of people working part time who probably didn’t earn more than 30-odd thousand or maybe 35 working part time, they will now get 18,000 of that tax free. So what a good outcome for the planet! We start getting pollution down and we start getting the pressure taken off people who are trying to make a different contribution.

So that’s the kind of thing. The super profits tax was another one. We are in balance of power, we have to take responsibility. We said we will support the super profits tax, absolutely, because we want to go into a sovereign wealth fund just as the Norwegians did so that we can use that in this transition because we need to pay for health and education and everything else. The government wasn’t prepared to do that but in the recent budget we took a lot of flack because we came out and said we will not support the tax cut to big business because we need that money to implement the new education proposals for Gonski, we need that money for the national disability insurance scheme, we need it for good things. The government, and we said we’ll support a tax cut for small business because in the current economic environment they are suffering because of the high dollar and because of the difficulties they’ve got getting workers because of the mining boom. And we said to the government if you are not prepared to split them that’s your problem, we are prepared to split them but we’re not going to support that tax cut to big business.

The result was they didn’t proceed with the tax cut to big business, that saved the economy a huge amount of money, billions, but instead of putting it into systemic reform like implementation of Gonski, they gave it out in terms of the education bonus. You know, $300 or whatever across, you know, students and so on. Now that put money into the economy to enable people to buy things and no doubt some of it was spent on education expenses or you know meeting general expenses, but it’s not the systemic change that you need to make across the country.

The government knows that, but we were the ones that made the tough decisions on that tax, and we’re doing exactly the same on the withholding tax where the government wanted to increase it from 7% up to 15. And I said I’ll agree with that providing you give me a discount rate of 10% for overseas investment in green buildings, commercial buildings, that have a high energy star and energy performance rating, because I want to make sure that the new skyscrapers in Sydney and elsewhere are actually energy efficient buildings. And the reason for that is that pension funds in Canada and the like have quite high ethical standards to meet and a lot of those want to invest in things like office buildings but they have to be the right kind. So we’ve now actually leveraged $2 billion worth of investment in new office buildings in Sydney from pension funds in the US and Canada which are going to go into green buildings which are better amenity for the workers, they reduce the costs and so on. So we’re constantly trying to raise money. It’s actually the Greens pushing to raise money and the government is reluctant to take on those because they are concerned about increased taxes and the like. But Scandinavia does it and you get the result.

David Bowman Going back to your parable of Tasmania, and the fact that you really - that’s very much a rocky trajectory in terms of your argument for a transition to a green economy - there’s a number of political changes occurring and that are predicted to occur in Australia. So isn’t one of the jeopardies that a Green party has is that although in the first instance there may be some symbolic wins, there may be some spectacular losses if some of the reforms are promptly abolished, as discussion is for instance with some of the legislation in Queensland, the Wild Rivers, Tony Abbott seems to be staking his political credibility on the fact that he wants to abolish the carbon tax. So isn’t that a high-risk - because what would be the global significance of that, if these achievements are actually ultimately turn out to be reversed?

Christine Milne Well, it would be a terrible setback for a transition to a low-carbon, zero-carbon economy if the whole clean energy package was reversed, not only in Australia but yes I think there would be a significant flow-on effect - people around the world would throw up their hands. But you see I don’t think it’s going to happen. Tony Abbott said that he appointed Malcolm Turnbull to tear down the NBN. Remember that? Demolish it, smash it, that’s what his job was - get rid of the NBN. And Malcolm Turnbull came out and said he would do so, it was an absolute disaster, we were getting rid of the NBN. Here about, I suppose, a month or two ago, the Liberal party met and determined they were no longer going to get rid of the NBN. Unlike the Prime Minister, who is accused of being a liar and everything else when she changed her mind on something, it didn’t even rate the front page of the paper. In fact, most people around Australia don’t know that the Liberal party have actually reversed their position, they’re not smashing and tearing down the NBN anymore, it’s just disappeared, the NBN is there to stay.

Now, I totally agree that Abbott has made a much bigger play of carbon pricing than he did on the NBN, but nevertheless it’s the same positioning. Now, they came out and they said the Carbon Farming Initiative was terrible, was going to destroy rural and regional Australia, they filibustered the debate, in the Senate, it went on and on with all the biggest load of nonsense you’ve ever heard. When it went through, they stood up and said, oh, now that it’s the law we’re not going to reverse it. So the Carbon Farming Initiative and Biodiversity Fund are here to stay.

So then the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the $10 billion that was described as everything as a sort of slush fund for the Greens and so on - it’s actually a statutory authority to invest in renewable energy - the Coalition were going to abolish that on day one, now they’re going to refer it to Treasury and the bureaucracy to see how much money has been expended and where the contracts are and so on and so forth. So you just watch that space.

That brings me to emissions trading. The trouble for the Coalition is, where are they going to get the money. They say they are committed to a 5% reduction in emissions and they say they’re going to do it with their direct action plan. Now they’ve already said they’re not going to pursue the mining tax, so that’s going, and they’re not going to charge polluters for the pollution; in fact, the taxpayer is going to fund the paying of the polluters to reduce their emissions. He is going to abolish more than 12,000 public service positions, but even that is not enough to fund this. So the question is, where is Tony Abbott getting the money from to pay the polluters? Now, he hasn’t got it.

They’ve already got a $70 billion black hole, they don’t have the money. So that is why I’ve said, in the next 12 months - and bear in mind, Tony Abbott cancelled the leave of his front bench for the first two weeks of July so they could fan out across the country and start the people’s revolution against the carbon price. Now, I don’t know about you, but there was no citizen’s revolution starting anywhere that I noticed at all. People in fact have mocked Tony Abbott all over the place, and the latest poll is saying people are going, what was all that about then, it hasn’t affected me at all, much. So Abbott has just changed his position in the last couple of weeks and the focus is now not so much on carbon pricing, it’s gone back to “can you trust the government?”. So it’s gone back to integrity issues rather than carbon pricing because he’s not making way on carbon pricing.

So I’ve said that Tony Abbott either has to change - Tony Abbott and the Coalition have to change their position on emissions trading, or both. And then we had the Australian, run an editorial out of nowhere talking about emissions trading, whether you needed a whole-of-economy emissions trading, or you might have a sort of narrower one. And I thought, oh here we go, News Limited’s starting to create the debating space for Tony Abbott to move into perhaps a more restrictive emissions trading, or some kind of nuancing of the existing scheme. So I don’t think you’re going to see, give it another six months, the Coalition going into next year without having significantly changed its position.

But in terms of how you maintain ownership, the reason I support work with multiparty committees and experts is that having experts on parliamentary committees allows people to change their mind, creates the space for people to change their mind whilst saving face. If you get a group of politicians around a table, it’s very difficult for people to change their position without being described as having backed down, back flipped, this or that. If you get a broader group of people - and an academic says, “well yes you could say that but actually its wrong”, or “have you thought about trying to get the same outcome with this different mechanism”, or whatever, it creates an environment in which people can come together. And then when they have, the ownership is such that even if there is a change of government, you don’t lose the reform.

And that’s what happened with gay law reform in Tasmania, and it’s what happened with gun law reform. And that’s why I wanted to get all the parties on the Multiparty Climate Committee for the same reason, and it’s why I proposed to the Prime Minister we have a multiparty group to look at asylum seekers - and to get experts around the table to take the political pressure down several notches, and to bring a more serious policy engagement around the table, in a safe environment, which is created by having people outside the political process engaged.

I think that many of the reforms we’ve achieved in this period of government - things like the Parliamentary Budget Office, so from now on, this coming election but henceforth, there’ll be a Parliamentary Budget Office so that opposition parties can get their policies properly costed - those kinds of reforms will stay, and they’re there because of the Greens.

David Bowman So almost in conclusion, you’re arguing that the Greens are a reformist party rather than a revolutionary party?

Christine Milne Absolutely, we’re a reformist party and we’re going back to basics in terms of what is real on the planet. And that is, people and nature are real, the rest are constructs, and those constructs can be changed, and economic tools have to be changed in order for people and ecosystems to survive.

David Bowman Ok, well thank you very much.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. David Leigh

    logged in via Facebook

    An excellent interview and one desperately needed, on the political 'broadscape' of Abbottism. News Ltd has given so much airtime to the opposition over the past few days, for a one-sided, near hysterical push by Abbott, to destroy the Gillard Government’s credibility. Fortunately, Australians are savvy beasts and can see through the rhetorical outbursts.

    I fully agree with Christine that good things have happened and will continue to happen, under the Labor – Green accord. The first part of…

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  2. Anneliese Ford

    Senior Consultant

    Wonderful interview - With depth, common sense and integrity, Christine Milne promises to be an excellent replacement for Bob Brown.

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  3. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Pretty depressing really. The Greens don't grok energy or food. During the last decade, with a bit over half the German population, the South Koreans have built triple the energy production capacity with nuclear that the Germans have done with solar ... and much cheaper ... and it doesn't only run when the sun is shining. So it's hard to take Milne seriously when she talks about urgency of dealing with climate change. The richest country in Europe has only managed 18 TWh/yr with solar and its viewed…

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  4. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    "Well, we continue to do so, but it is extremely frustrating to know what you do know and to take the science seriously and to have people say to you that it’s wildly exaggerated, it’s not true, and so on, when they haven’t even tried to read the science. They’ve made a decision to reject or ignore the science because it suits their world view."

    Isn't there a great irony in that this is what we experience all the time when trying to talk to "Greens" about, say, biotechnology or nuclear power…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Luke Weston

      This is my issue with the Greens as well; the hypocrisy.

      Their "support of science" is not really a support of it unless it agrees with their position. Their opinion is almost never informed by science, much like most of our political leaders.

      On an anecdotal note, I've worked with landcare groups as a participant and science contact for a number of years, and I am yet to meet any Green or Greenpeace members at these organisations. I'm not saying that they haven't been involved at grass-roots levels, helping with actual environmental problems, but it has been my experience that they don't get involved unless there is a TV camera near-by.

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    2. imogen birley

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      And a splendid example of why anecdotes are meaningless Tim. I have a science degree & worked full time in NRM including volunteering for 10 years, and a significant proportion of those involved were Green members and supporters - which I knew for a fact because I was state secretary of the party at the time.

      Most greens I know involved in such activities value them for what they are, a chance to participate in land & water restoration & protection with their local community; not a place to be overt in political membership. I'm pretty sure you don't know how many Labor or LNP members you've met involved in such activities either.

      But I did enjoy the irony of you putting forward an error-laden anecdote, inviting others to draw conclusions from it, in the same post that you posit that the Greens ignore science - a statement that is also completely fallacious.

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  5. Len Puglisi

    Urban environmental writer

    Christine: a very informed set of responses. Two key issues that I would have hoped for comment on - perhaps this note should have been to David Bowman? - are:
    1. When you speak of a 'green economy', do you have in mind something like a steady-state economy? Clearly now, the proposition that we can't have economic growth forever on a finite planet' has reached a substantial consensus amongst scientists and ecological economists. So someone soon has to put it on the political agenda - even if the outcry will be blinding!
    2. Population stabilisation. I'm not sure of the Greens position on this issue today. Again, a highly explosive one but it must be a part of any future-looking policies if nature (which includes all other living creatures) is to carry weight in the political agenda.

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  6. Penelope Laskey

    Anaesthetist

    Thank you for 'The Conversation', and especially this interview with Christine Milne.

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