Kenneth Davidson is one of the finest Australian columnists now writing about sustainability and economics. Writing for The Age, Davidson’s contributions are models of public discourse: well-informed, well-argued and consistent in their determination to look clearly at environmental challenges, and to avoid simplistic responses. His column today is a case in point (link here). Here he cuts through a political stoush that is currently occupying the politicians and the press but which, as he points out, is a politically driven response to some motoring groups’ anger over rising petrol prices.
As Davidson firstly notes, this political and media debate ignores the realities of world peak oil and the associated global challenges of climate change–as I noted in yesterday’s post.
Secondly, Davidson argues, as he has consistently over many years, that the responsible social response is to move funding away from private transport towards public transport. This is hardly a radical proposal, yet Australian federal and state governments seem to have trouble grasping it: when they talk about ‘infrastructure’ needs, inevitably it turns out to mean roads and associated services to accommodate private vehicles, rather than the infrastructure needed for the growth of public transport.
Rather than looking at ways to cut petrol taxes and excises as incentives to private motorists, Davidson proposes, attention should go to ways of eliminating benefits, such as the fringe benefits tax on private use of company cars, and directing the savings to improve public transport: “Our first order response should be to switch transport expenditure in the capital cities from freeways to rail, with feeder services in the outer services, so that when two-car (or three-car) families are no longer affordable they will have a genuine public transport option.”
There is simply no rational argument that can be mounted against this national strategy. Arguments to the contrary are nothing other than attempts to gain short-term political advantage by acquiescing in the national obsession with private cars. This political manoevring is transparent, but it will have serious consequences, not just for the next generation, but even for this one, as the gap between world oil supply and demand increases, and the impacts of climate change take hold.
Davidson bluntly concludes: “We are entering the era of global peak oil. Together with global warming and water shortages, it will demand statesmanship not in evidence in the present political debate.” One couldn’t put it better.
The implications of Davidson’s more general points are most important. To deal with issues such as petrol pricing outside the wider framework of national energy policy, national sustainability and global climate change is to invite disaster; and sooner rather than later. The simple fact is that petrol is not a detached issue which has just to do with motorists as voters. To treat it this way–and this is the sole context of the current discussion between the federal government and the opposition, and in the press reports of it–is to trivialise and essentially invalidate it. Any short-term, localised fix of this kind imperils the whole system.
Davidson has hit the issue squarely: what is needed here are not political antics, of the kind with which we have in this country become only too familiar, but statesmanship. We are moving into a time where the challenges to national and international well-being are unprecedented; when a wide breadth of perspective is critical; when leadership needs to include serious and informed public discourse and methods of widely distribute public deliberation; when political parties have to work out ways of acting together, and acting like grown-up people, instead of the idiocies that characterise what passes for debate in parliament. The people of this generation, no less than those of the next, deserve that serious intent in public service–in Davidson’s term, statesmanship–and we are still in this country a long way from it.
I venture to predict that the Australian people will not tolerate this deficiency for very much longer. The polls continue to demonstrate urgent public concern about the bigger issues of climate change and water and energy. Politicians ignore this groundswell of national intelligence at their peril.