Leadership: Missing In Action

Abbott almost sounded like a leader at the Coalition campaign launch. But does his vision extend beyond Australia’s borders, asks Fiona Armstrong

This election campaign is all about directions – moving forward, back, or just away from something else. Distracted by where they’re going, our political leaders have offered very little in terms of debate on serious issues: our economic future; the health and wellbeing of the population; or what will be done to ensure a stable society in the face of increasing global threats.

Commentators have been decrying the lack of leadership and sincerity in the campaign, so it was refreshing when, at his party’s campaign launch this week, Mr Abbott sounded more like a leader. He sounded sincere too, and while he could be accused of using hyperbole — this is an Abbott speciality, after all — he finally elucidated a vision to the electorate of what his government might offer.

Trouble is, it’s only a small vision, and it is confined to Australian borders. Taking an isolationist (stop the boats) and reductionist (stop big new taxes) approach to public policy as we approach the coming century ignores the interconnectedness of contemporary society. While our democracy is currently failing to deliver effective responses to some of the big global challenges (e.g. climate change), it is folly to imagine that a better society might result by “clawing back debt” or further strengthening the hand of corporations to dictate policy with “lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom”.

There was little acknowledgment in Abbott’s speech on Sunday of global issues: no foreign policy; no defence; no trade. Nothing on the immense challenges we face (nor any sign of a plan to guide us) in transitioning, as inevitably we must, to a low or zero carbon society as we contribute to the global task of restoring a safe climate.

There was only a passing reference to climate change, despite it being the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”, according to this UK study.

Mr Abbott’s Green Army is a quaint, practical vision for helping to restore the health of local ecosystems but falls far short of making a dent in the real problem – which is in the atmosphere. Planting trees to draw down carbon dioxide while we continue to burn coal is rather like mopping up the blood off the floor but failing to apply a tourniquet. We need to stop the haemorrhage of harmful (locally, to individuals as air pollution, and globally, as contributors to the greenhouse effect) gases into our atmosphere – our global commons.

Both Abbott and Gillard are responding to the challenge of climate change by deferring responsibility elsewhere – Abbott to 15,000 young people (to tackle “large-scale environmental remediation” ) and Gillard to 150 randomly selected citizens (“to examine the evidence on climate change and the case for action”).

Other countries meanwhile get on with the task of making plans, cutting emissions, investing in renewable energy, and boosting climate literacy in their communities to build support for the changes ahead. All of these actions require leadership. Not groups of enthusiastic gardeners or well meaning volunteers grappling with complex earth system science.

Leadership. It’s badly needed, but it’s missing in action down here in Australia.