Menu Close

Changing climates

Brandis’ ‘authoritarian’ climate game

AAP/Stefan Postles

Just before Easter, attorney-general George Brandis appeared in the UK libertarian free speech magazine Spiked to attack the Greens and Labor over a variety of issues. He singled out climate change as a field that has been commandeered by:

…the authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate change deniers.

Labor’s former climate change minister, Penny Wong, is singled out for having declared that “the science is settled”, which Brandis labels as:

…ignorant … medieval … the approach of these true believers in climate change.

Paradoxically, Brandis tells Spiked that he is “on the side of those who believed in anthropogenic global warming and who believed something ought to be done about it”, which is what the Coalition government puts out as its official line. The Coalition is still to demonstrate that it will deliver on what it says it is committed to, and demonstrate that it respects the surveys of Australians who show overwhelming concern about climate change.

Even thinktanks like the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Lowy Institute have produced surveys showing strong levels of concern. So why does Brandis want to sow seeds of doubt about a reality that turns on evidence, not on opinion?

Firstly, Brandis should be applauded for conducting this interview with Spiked, an open web online magazine, rather than simply appearing in the government’s shop window of The Australian, where readers must scale a paywall just to look, let alone exercise the freedom of speech that Spiked affords.

An open web magazine affords more of the freedoms that Brandis is passionate about, even if it may not actually be heard as much as a mainstream news outlet. Unless, of course, it is simply used as a source for someone already in a powerful “authoritative” position to be picked up.

While Brandis enjoys the authority of attorney-general in order to have his views heard, his interview at Machiavelli’s restaurant in Sydney, with Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill (who has also written for The Australian) identifies with climate deniers and followers of J.S. Mill alike as victims of a great injustice.

In his article, O’Neill endorses Brandis’ perception that “eco-circles and…political and media elites more broadly” have imposed:

…the idea that the time for debating climate change is over, and now we just need action, action, action.

Brandis labels these eco-circles as “anti-intellectual” and “throwbacks”:

…because they adopt this almost theological view, this cosmology that eliminates from consideration the possibility of an alternative opinion.

Later in the interview, in relation to Brandis’ desire to remove the prohibition of hate speech from the Racial Discimination Act, Brandis goes so far as to link any kind of closure of debate to an Orwellian state:

…the moment you establish the state as the arbiter of what might be said, you establish the state as the arbiter of what might be thought, and you are right in the territory that George Orwell foreshadowed.

It is important that Brandis has outlined his view on free speech in an interview like this. It provides an opportunity to debate – but not about climate change science, which is based on evidence and is about facts not opinions, but the nature of free speech itself. Brandis adopts the default orthodoxy that is drawn from the US constitution, that freedom of speech is simply about “freedom from censorship”.

Interestingly, the origin of this sense is derived from the need to defend small publisher presses (of which Spiked is a modern electronic equivalent) from censorship and control – by monarchs, courts and the church. Eventually, independent publisher presses developed into large institutions with their own legal representation and ability to hold governments to account – should they choose to do so.

However, while individuals and media outlets share freedom from state censorship, there is also a positive sense of freedom that Brandis is ignoring, a freedom to be informed. In the latter case, the state is obliged to provide conditions suitable for informed public debate. It does this through supporting education to a large degree, but it should also ensure citizens have access to a diversity of opinions and evidenced-based information.

Conservative governments have typically abrogated their responsibilities in providing citizens with the freedom to be informed, by adopting Mill’s idea that the press operates in a “marketplace of ideas” that is seen to be free from state control. Hence, commercial media are regularly favoured in the media policies of modern liberal capitalist states, even though they have become dominated by huge conglomerates, far removed from the small market enterprises of competing independent presses that characterised the market capitalism of Mill’s day.

Contemporary governments are able to downplay the fact of both their fear and support for conglomerated mainstream media by pointing to social media as the new platform in the marketplace of ideas, even portraying the mainstream media as “victims” of the new media.

But in the Machiavelli play-the-victim interview with Spiked, Brandis has mastered a kind of doublethink that would resonate well with Orwell.

Brandis says he fears the Orwellian State – but he is in fact a tacit supporter of one in promoting the ignorance required to insist on a pseudo-debate about questions of fact. Climate change is not a parochial Australian “debate”, but a global reality that even the military is acutely aware of.

Calls for a distinctly Australian “debate” into the role of carbon in climate change, for example, were annulled long ago by the IPCC.

Instead, Brandis is attempting to construct climate change deniers as “victims” because he thinks it will create pseudo-disagreement that might vindicate the government from having to do anything about climate change. He tells Spiked that:

The best way to popularise a political opinion is to censor it.

But Brandis is attempting to manufacture the idea that climate is a matter of opinion and that it is being censored.

On the one hand Brandis is following government policy that it is important to present a line to the Australian pubic that they “accept climate change is real and caused by humans”, but on the other he is supporting the cause of the denialists. But in toeing the party line, he is not being much of an independently thinking “John Stuart Mill-man” as he insists he is to Spiked.

Secondly, in projecting a kind of faux indignation that state-directed “political correctness” has denied people the right to debate climate change, Brandis ignores the way the Coalition government has set about dismantling anti-mitigation policy on climate change and promoted the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

In the interview, Brandis asks “to what extent should the state be the arbiter of what people can think?”, as if all states are simply actors in some 18th century free speech imaginary, rather than the specifically corporatised pro-mining state instrumentality being created before our eyes.

Most would agree with Brandis’ claims that an idealised state should not be arbiter of what people think, or deprive them of their liberty. In multi-party pluralist nations this seldom occurs, except when such liberty impinges on others. The state needs to, as Brandis observes, “protect the weak from the strong”.

Climate change activists would argue here that in ignoring the climate science, the current government is withdrawing protection from future generationsl to which they will be surely held accountable.

Could it be that the government itself that is promoting a medieval ignorance that disregards the strong public concern about climate change and fails to educate those who are apathetic about it?

There is a recent case of a Liberal government taking quite drastic action in protecting individuals from a dangerous climate change event. In fact, action was taken even against the will of those involved, with questionable legality.

The forced evacuations of people from their homes in the State Mine fire in NSW last October could in fact be held up as an example of the state depriving people of their liberty and being a clear arbiter of their beliefs.

The evacuations were to protect those people based on state authorities, who understood the risks and dangers involved. But these actions by the state actually disregarded the judgement of those at risk: it disregarded what they thought, their emotional attachment to their properties – and all based on the science of fire safety.

Welcome to the future.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the state’s role in the public education of Australians about the risks of climate change will not be slow and incremental. Extreme weather events of enormous magnitude will impact Australian society so profoundly that the greatest civic education campaign this country has ever seen about mitigation and adaptation will suddenly be forced onto people, as if we are at war, and not with any apologies to John Stuart Mill.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 150,700 academics and researchers from 4,452 institutions.

Register now