State of the Blog: Going live from DC

I hope everyone has enjoyed their Christmas period; it’s certainly been an exciting time for us here at the USSC blog. Exciting and filled with upheaval, actually: We’ve shifted the entire blog, that is, we’ve shifted Erin Riley and myself over here to Washington D.C. Erin and I will be spending the next couple of months interning at Capitol Hill, under a program arranged through the USSC called the Uni-Capitol Washington Internship Programme. We’re both going to be working for American Congressman, Erin with Democrat of California Sam Farr and me with the House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina. It’s going to be hugely exciting, and now we’re both settled into our digs here in Arlington, Virginia, we’re gearing up to get the blog ready for a new American 2010. Don’t look for secrets from inside the Capitol — that would be highly unprofessional of us, I’m afraid — but we will be taking a look around the idiosyncrasies of this glorious mess called the United States of America and telling you guys all about what’s happening here and what we make of it.

Other than a cold day trudging up and down the wintery Washington mall, snapping photos of the Washington Monument , the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and, indeed, nearly everything else we came across in this incredible city, our lives to date have consisted mostly of acclimatising to those strange American practices that I forget until I’m back in the country. Like: their light switches are upside down! What’s the deal with tipping? Do people really want the prescription drugs they advertise with laundry lists of terrifying side-effects? Is there any finer creation than the Denny’s innovation of serving breakfast 24 hours a day? And hang on, was that really the 2008 AFL Grand Final we saw while flicking through our cable channels? (It was.)

So playing tourists for a week, the USSC blog will be up in New York City for the remainder of 2009. But come 2010, we’re going to back better than ever, with our totally unvarnished view of the USA, as directly experienced by the two of us. And a bit of the same old content you devoured this year, like, um, me talking about Maine. Hope you’ll enjoy!


Interview: Robert Hill in Copenhagen, part II

This past Thursday morning, I once again dialled Copenhagen and spoke to the USSC’s Adjunct Professor in Sustainability, Robert Hill. Hill will be teaching a course here at the Centre titled “Climate Change After Copenhagen: Australia, the U.S. and the world,” in Summer School 2010. He was once upon a time a Senator for South Australia and a Minister in the Howard Government, which he followed with a stint as Ambassador to the United Nations. Today he is the Chairman of the Australian Carbon Trust, and he’s currently in Copenhagen at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009.

Jonathan Bradley: Last time we spoke it seemed like things were still rather in the preliminary stages. What’s changed in the past couple days?

Robert Hill: A number of things. The world leaders are starting to arrive, quite steadily now, and most will be here by tomorrow so they’re expecting something like 110 heads of government or heads of state. With that change in the dynamic the President of the convention resigned – it was the environment minister – to be replaced by the Prime Minister. The meeting is ratcheting up a level – that was expected to occur; that was consistent with the meeting moving to a level more senior. The working group are concluding their consideration of the issue – sort of only half-happily one might say. They’re still concluding with lots of brackets in their text and considerable unhappiness by some delegations. There’s a feeling that they’re being curtailed in their work, they hadn’t completed their process, but basically they’re being told that timing is up. The Danish chair is introducing new text and needless to say, there’s lots of criticism with those texts as well. The organisers are now substantially reducing the number of NGOs that are allowed in the building, so the meeting is becoming much more focused on the decision-makers. So, it’s really now moving towards the end game.

JB: Right.

RH: So they commenced the high level meeting two days ago, but now it’s a moved level beyond that.

JB: You referred to a new text. Is this the new draft negotiation text that’s been spoken about?

RH: I’m not sure which one you’re referring to, but the Danish chair has introduced new text.

JB: Could you tell me a bit about what that text contains -what are its good points, if there’s anything about it that you feel is not strong enough?

RH: When I left the convention hall, one had just been introduced, and the other track hadn’t been, so I haven’t had a chance to examine the details of the text. Interestingly most people think that they in themselves are only a step in the process, that they will be overtaken by what will become a political agreement, which will be put together probably by a small group of heads of state. There’s always a discomfort in the UN about small groups, but 110 is too many to negotiate a common position.

JB: It does seem as if it would be quite difficult for 110 people to agree on anything, particularly something as contentious as this.

And here, thanks to the less than premium service of my Internet provider Unwired, the call dropped out. After a moment or so, however, I reconnected and Hill and I resumed our discussion.

JB: I was just about to ask about Kevin Rudd arriving, and how that’s pushed things forward in terms of Australia’s interests.

RH: I haven’t seen him, and I understand he’s been having a series of meetings with other heads of government as they arrive. But I haven’t yet heard what target he’s going to put on the table.

JB: Do you expect to see him at any point in the near future?

RH: No.

JB: So, you and he are working on different tracks, basically, is that correct?

RH: Yeah. He’s doing his business.

JB: What is your role as compared to his – what is your role over the next few days?

RH: Well, it’ll be interesting to see whether I get locked out tomorrow. So, it’ll depend a bit on that. But basically I’m working with certain NGOs, particularly WWF International. We help them, they’ve got 120 negotiators working over on a country basis or on specialised issues, and then I help them with the overall dynamics of the negotiations.

JB: So there is a chance that you could show up tomorrow and they just won’t let you in because of the escalation in terms of heads of government arriving?

RH: Well, I won’t show up if I’m not going to be let in. I’ll know before the morning. It’s not much fun standing out there in a queue. There have been delegates waiting ten hours in queues in the icy cold and then not getting, so that’s not the best way of doing the business.

JB: It doesn’t sound it. We’re missing a couple of very important leaders from the conference at the moment in Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. Is there still a sense that people are waiting until they show up, or is solid work being done even before these two heavyweights appear?

RH: I don’t know… is Mr Hu coming is he?

JB: I believe he was – perhaps I have misread or have been misinformed about that…

Hill’s question was warranted. I had confused China’s President Hu with Premier Wen Jiabao, who will be attending the summit.

RH: Obama is obviously the key player and no decisions will be taken before Obama arrives. So when I said we’re moving to the end game, we’re still not at the end game. That’ll be Friday, when Obama is here. The U.S., whether people like it or not, is still the key player in the whole negotiation. And it does in fact frustrate some because they say that the two track approach has really become necessary because of the U.S. not being in the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore there has to be a great deal of accommodation for the U.S. that some don’t like – but that’s the reality of international politics. And as you were hinting, the other key party now is China, because it’s now become the world’s largest emitter and it’s also the key developing country, and of course under the rules it doesn’t have any legal obligations. So they are the two key players in the negotiation. This is very frustrating for many who – small countries who see themselves as more directly affected by the consequences of climate change, and have less financial firepower to adapt to, ways to accommodate to changes in the climate. But there are the ones who are complaining today, and will be complaining in the next few days that their voice is not being heard. So it’ll be a tricky issue, you know. I heard today that the heavyweights are having a lot of trouble in determining the composition of the small group. No doubt they won’t even admit that there will be a small group. I don’t think they quite imagined that they’d have to compose a small group from 110 countries, and that’s almost unprecedented and is going to be a challenge in itself.

JB: How do they go about selecting the countries that will compose that small group? What’s the negotiation process there?

RH: [laughs] There’s no rule book. It’s economic and political weight, basically, and sometimes consideration of other relevant factors. So, you ask me who I think will be in the small group, it will be obviously the United States, and the European Union will be represented. It will be China and India, as the two largest developing country emitters. It will be Brazil, for a range of different reasons, including the importance of the Amazon on the forest issues. I think it will be South Africa, and then it starts becoming difficult, because each extra country that you include, you disappoint, if not irritate, someone else. Indonesia would have a good argument; Japan would have a good argument; one of the OPEC countries would have a good argument. So it’s not going to be easy at all to put it together and this is going to be a challenge for the chairman of the COP, but I think there’ll be considerable guidance given to him by the United States.

JB: You mentioned Brazil and forestry, and I read that there’s been an agreement on forestry issues – I think it’s the REDD agreement – how significant is it that there has been some sort of agreement broached on this issue?

RH: Well there’s not agreement, because there’s no agreement until everything’s agreed. But certainly there’s in the working groups there was a fair degree of consensus. Now how much of that will last the processes of the next couple of days is difficult to gauge. But I think there’s a good chance – in fact I am expecting – that REDD will be included in the outcome. Certainly, in principle, in other words, they say it in a political agreement, they adopt the principles of REDD, and how much detail will be attached to it as opposed to whether they instruct negotiators to continue to work on that detail won’t become apparent until right at the end.

JB: You said on Monday that Australia has a lot in common with a lot of developing nation in issues like forestry. Is the REDD agreement a good thing for Australia?

RH: Yes Australia’s supportive. Australia’s been very supportive, because the reality is that if you don’t preserve the world’s forests, then you are emitting more greenhouse gases, so it’s very important in terms of creating a sink and also in issues of restoration and improving the management of forests you enhance their capacity in terms of carbon. So it’s an important part of the total picture. Some have seen it as an escape from facing up to the real responsibility of reducing industrial and transport building sector emissions and the like. But certainly the view of Australia is that it can be an important part of the solution.

JB: Do you think that there’s any credibility to the view that this is an escape from the responsibility of reducing industrial emissions and et cetera?

RH: No, I don’t. I think that you’ve got to do both. I think conserving the forests is important and reducing emissions from those power sources, and other industrial, household, transport, et cetera is important as well.

JB: One thing that’s been reported a lot over the past couple days is that there seems to be a lot of drama between the U.S. and China in particular and they’re having a tough time coming to an agreement. Is this an intractable conflict, or is it just for show, and they’re going to get down to it at the end and come up with something that they can both agree on?

RH: I’m not saying it’s a show but I think they will reach agreement. The issue that seems to have been the trickiest is verification. From the United States’ perspective, seeing China is not going to take a legal obligation, it should at least, in their view, be obliged to accept a process of verification of the reductions forma business-as-usual scenario that they claim they would achieve, and there’s been a lot of debate over what the form of that verification should take. And some say that it’s going to be a deal-breaker, but my inclination is that behind the scenes they have a formula that will be acceptable to both sides. Why it’s so important for Mr Obama – President Obama – is that it’s one of those factors that the Congress will particularly look at because the Congress will view that China is getting it easy because it’s not going to have a legal obligation, and therefore it’ll particularly focus on verification. And that becomes relevant in terms of passage of next year’s domestic cap-and-trade legislation in the United States. Obama has to satisfy the Congress that China is carrying its fair share of the burden.

JB: Do you have any idea what that formula is going to look like – that they’ve settled on behind the scenes?

RH: I don’t really know, but my guess would be that it’d be a formula for maybe under the UN climate change processes for reviews of performance, where countries are in effect reviewed by their peers. It may be that China would accept that, whereas I don’t think they’d accept teams of experts, for example, being dispatched to China to examine their accords and the detail of the outcome of their efforts.

JB: Right. I think we’re getting close to five o’clock – sorry, that’s my time – seven p.m. your time, so I won’t keep you too much longer.

RH: Yeah, I’ve got to go to a function. We’ve got an Earth Hour function here, where they’re going to turn off the lights in the city, and Secretary-General Ban is going to be there. I’ve got to introduce him to some people.

JB: In that case I will save my final question for next time.

RH: Just in summary, I haven’t changed my view in terms of the outcome. There’s been a lot of pessimism around, but I think that there’s still a huge momentum towards ultimately finding a deal, because otherwise 110 global leaders have got to turn around and fly home and say they’ve failed, and I find that almost impossible to believe. So, I think that though all the parties may seem to be a long way apart at the moment and tempers are frayed and all of that sort of thing, I think the likelihood is still of a political agreement. And I think there’s a fair chance that, in terms of targets and commitments, finance, forestry, adaptation, technology transfer, et cetera, that it will be a reasonable agreement. But it will be one that still will require a great deal further work to be done next year. So I’ll see if I change my mind by Friday.

Interview: Robert Hill in Copenhagen

Last Tuesday morning Australian time, Monday evening Copenhagen time, I spoke with the USSC’s Robert Hill, who also happens to be head of the Australian Carbon Trust, a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, and a representative at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Here’s what we talked about:

Jonathan Bradley: So you arrived in Copenhagen yesterday, is that right?

Robert Hill: Last night, yeah.

JB: How is it? What’s your first impression of the city and the summit?

RH: Well I haven’t seen much of the city. I’ve basically just come to the meeting which is outside of the city, but, reading the press and looking at the billboards and so forth, there’s no doubt that the city and the Danish government have taken the opportunity to heavily promote their green credentials and their global leadership in this issue. The meeting itself is huge, and almost unmanageable. There have been queues. People have been waiting eight hours to get in the front door in freezing conditions, today. I think they totally underestimated the numbers, and there’s going to be a lot of irritation, because tomorrow they’re going to start cutting back the passes as new delegations come in, and each day the number of passes to be cut back will be increased in numbers. I think it’s going to be quite tense. I’ve got no idea how many are here, but the story I’ve been told is about 40 000, and when I compare that with the Kyoto Protocol, I reckon in Kyoto we had about 2 000.

JB: So we’re looking at twenty times the size?

RH: Yeah, I reckon. And so, it’s in many ways like a huge circus, and we’re going through this… all the working groups are continuing but the background to it all is that their work is just as likely to be torn up later in the week, so there’s a bit of tension surrounding that as well.

JB: You don’t sound very optimistic about the process.

RH: No, I think I’ve always been realistic about what is achievable and I think there is, I still think there is the likelihood of a reasonable outcome by the end of the week. Cause you don’t get 110 heads of government stroke heads of state to turn around travelling from all corners of the world to turn around and go home with nothing.

JB: Sure

RH: It just doesn’t work that way. They haven’t arrived yet, that’s why I think what’s going on at the moment is really a touch removed from what is going to happen later in the week, and that will be what determines the outcome.

JB: I understand a lot of the G77 countries are eager to get a firm agreement in place before the leaders come. Is that true; have you found that?

RH: That what, that they’re eager to…

JB: They’re eager to get a lot concrete in place before the leaders arrive later in the week. That’s what I’ve been reading.

RH: You would have also read that they were walking out of meetings, too.

JB: Yes.

RH: So all of that is not unusual at this stage because the people have been working on this project for two years now, a lot of them very intently, and there’s a certain amount of frustration and the tension is building up. But the reality is there won’t be agreements until the leaders have signed off. And some people think the leaders will be presented with drafts to rubber stamp, but I don’t think that’ll be the case as well, because that sort of diminishes the role of leaders. Leaders like to turn up and say that they’re going to rescue the process, take control, and I think the final agreements, uh, final agreement, will be put together by a relatively small group of players, probably some time on Friday, and then there will be the usual hand-wringing, and then it will be adopted.

JB: Who’s going to be included in that group, that relatively small group of leaders you expect to hammer out the final deal?

RH: Well, in UN practice, small groups are detested, and obviously the G77 has the numbers, and they detest small groups more than anyone, because they say it undermines the power of their numbers. But in the real world you can’t get outcome in the UN without the work of small group. So in the end it will be the United States, it’ll be the EU, it’ll be China, probably India, probably Brazil. Australia might be in there because of its unique position. There’ll probably be an AOSIS representative and one or two of the major G77 countries and that’s really the only way you can get an agreement.

JB: Can you talk a bit about Australia’s unique position?

RH: Well, Australia has led one of the major negotiating groups since the start of this process. We did it in Kyoto and we’ve done it ever since so that gives us a special place. And we also have a special place because we’re the world’s largest coal exporter. We are the developed country that doesn’t easily fit the pattern because of our developed economy is very resource-based and in some ways… talk about forestry issues for example, our position is closer to that of a developing country than a developed. So for a whole range of reasons, we have sort of carved out a unique space and that’s why we tend to be included in the small groups in this negotiation, whereas sometimes within other negotiations in the UN, we’re not.

JB: Do you find this is making for odd bedfellows in the negotiations – you’re ending up with countries you may have not expected to find common ground with?

RH: Well, again, if you take the forest issue, for example, Australia’s position would be closer to the rainforest countries, which are nearly all developing countries. So there are issues where we don’t easily fit within traditional groups. That gives a certain credibility if we use it well.

JB: Has the Parliament’s failure to pass the emissions trading scheme hampered your ability to negotiate at all?

RH: I haven’t seen any sign of it. I don’t think too many here would even know it?

JB: So all the discussions are happening at a bigger level than that?

RH: I just don’t think the mass of people here are focused on what’s happening domestically in Australia. I mean, what they’ll be interested in is what Mr Rudd brings in terms of a target for Australia, and what he commits in terms of a process of implementation. People are very interested in not only targets but evidence that countries who are making targets, who are committing to targets can actually deliver on them. So that’ll be more of the focus than what’s happened in the past in Australia.

JB: Australia’s five per cent cut on 1990 emissions, and the U.S.’s offer of a four per cent cut on 1990 emissions, what’s the response on those kind of offers?

RH: A lot of countries are expecting Australia and the U.S. to increase their commitment here. So in the case of Australia, Mr Rudd has said a minimum of five per cent, up to twenty five per cent. I think that the expectation is that he will be making an offer greater than the five per cent. How far he’s prepared to go, I don’t know.

JB: Do you think…?

RH: And…

JB: Go on.

RH: Well, the theory is you’re supposed to look for an equivalence of effort, and that’s not always easy to calculate because the cost of carbon is different in different economies. The cost of carbon in Australia is higher because the fact we are a natural resource-based economy, and quite a major agricultural economy. So, you need to take that into account in working out what is a fair share of the burden. So he [Rudd] will say that’s somewhere between five and twenty five, and whatever he goes for will disappoint some and will please others, but in the end it’s a consensus process so nobody can impose a target on you that you’re not prepared to accept.

JB: How important is the U.S. and China in this process? Does everything rely on what they do, or is there room to manoeuvre around them?

RH: No, they are the key players because they are two largest emitters. The largest developed country emitter and the largest developing country emitter. In terms of moving beyond Kyoto, what they are prepared to agree is – it’s really only the U.S. can bargain with China on this issue, and obviously a lots been happening behind the scenes for months now, and people will certainly be very interested in what both leaders have to say. Now, having said that I think that the general feeling is that what China has been offering is not unreasonable. And so there’ll be a certain focus with China not necessarily so much on their commitment, what they’re prepared to domestically commit in terms of a reduction from business as usual, but rather what they’re prepared to agree to in terms of transparency, in terms of measurement and in terms of verification. And I think that will clearly be one of the issues on the leaders table at the end of the week.

JB: Do you think China will open itself up to independent verification, or is that completely off the table?

RH: I don’t think China will accept a third party coming in and checking, but I also don’t know that that is really necessary in this day and age. If you agree to the methodology for measurement, you agree to a reporting mechanism, you agree to reasonable transparency rules, well, what people have commonly referred to in the past as verification may not be as important as it sounds.

JB: Right. And China made a fairly significant concession today, didn’t they?

RH: Well, my expectation is that China and U.S. will find a formula that is mutually satisfactory by the end of the week. And the rest of the players will basically accept that.

JB: So, what happens tomorrow in the conference? What’s on the cards for tomorrow?

RH: The same as today basically. The working groups will continue, and that will go on the next couple of days. But the emphasis will, as I said, towards the end of the week change as heads of government and heads of state start arriving in town…

JB:  Well Gordon Brown arrives tomorrow, doesn’t he?

RH: I haven’t seen the schedule but I think most of them start arriving tomorrow.

JB: Right.

RH: They’re actually putting in more time than they usually do with these things. Well, in the past, it’s never happened. I can’t think of a meeting like this that’s designed to lead to a political agreement, and which is a conclusion of a two year process where a large number of heads of government and heads of state have come in to assume responsibility at the end, I think that’s unprecedented.

JB: So is that an indication that there’s likely to be a solid agreement out of the process by the end of the week.

RH: I think it is, yeah. I think that they’re not going to all want to come here and walk away with nothing. I don’t think that’s realistic.

JB: So give me a prediction about what that agreement will look like. Are we talking binding targets? Look into the crystal ball.

RH: As long as you understand it is a crystal ball and as the week goes on I might have to revise my thought, but at the beginning of the week I might say a political agreement to basically a set of principles, and working programs, to continue to work on them during the course of the next year. Perhaps targeting the meeting in twelve months time, a meeting to determine issues that are not resolved here. I think that developed countries will commit to targets here and to implementation processes which will probably be included within a schedule. There won’t be any enforcement mechanism though. And I think the major developing countries will commit to improvements off business as usual projections. And I think there may be some agreements int erms of the methodology for measuring and reporting those performances. There’ll be a fund set up for short term efforts in mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, smaller developing countries in particular, and there’ll be a commitment to work on a larger long term fund. I think there may be an outcome on degraded forest, that agrees in principlethat action to reduce emissions through better forest management et cetera will be agreed in principle, with an instruction to go away and work harder on it. I think there may be some agree in principle on technology transfer, with an instruction to works further. Maybe something on adaptation, with instructions to work further, and I think that’s likely to be the sort of package that we’ll see. I think the Kyoto protocol, i think they’ll put that to one side, and say they need more work on what targets states are prepared to accept under a Kyoto agreement. I think they’ll avoid having to face up to that issue, and put that for for another year. They’ll say there’s time, because it doesn’t expire until 2012, they’ve got time to do that in the next twelve months. So I think a lot of the difficult issues out there that have been difficult for the last two years will actually be avoided rather than faced up to at that meeting.

JB: And left until Mexico City?

RH: Yep. There’s some talk about having a meeting, say, in six months time. I think it’s more likely the one in Mexico City.

California Love: The Sydney Morning Herald should recall 2003

There was something almost American about the front page of last Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald. Front and centre, above the fold, in black and white: a free press advocating the overthrow of the government. Well, sort of; it was actually the only slightly less-dramatic beginning of a campaign by the paper to change the New South Wales state constitution to allow the electorate to recall the government of the day. Now, that is something very American.

And, oddly for a paper seeking to convince a populace that tends to be, at best, deeply sceptical of American ideas, the Herald made no attempt to hide how American was its idea. Rather, it trumpeted it, imploring, “NSW can decide on another change — to introduce the concept of the recall election, by which the people of California voted out governor Gray Davis six years ago.”

America has many great ideas the Australian people could make use of (starting with the radical concept of the people electing one of their own as head of state), but we should be leery of anyone suggesting California provides a good model of government. This is a state regularly, and with much cause, derided as ungovernable. And much of the reason for that is its use of the very factors the Herald is trying to rally the voters of NSW behind.

I’ll let the New York Times explain the Cali problem, as it did back in 2003 when the state recalled Davis:

Between 1978 and 2000, more than 600 statewide initiative petitions were circulated, 118 issues appeared on the ballot and 52 passed. The subjects ranged from prison terms to car insurance rates. Roughly a quarter concerned how the state raises and spends tax money.

Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, not only cut property taxes in half statewide, but also required a two-thirds vote to raise new local taxes to replace them. Proposition 98, passed a decade later, required that 40 percent of state revenues go directly to public schools. When mandatory health care spending is factored in, there is little discretionary spending left for the governor and legislature to adjust to produce a balanced budget.

Term limits, meanwhile, which were also imposed through public initiative, and gerrymandered legislative districts have produced a State Legislature that is inexperienced, highly polarized and seemingly immune to compromise. The result, many experts say, is a state that is virtually ungovernable.

California, like NSW, is broke, unable to provide the services its citizens demand, and stricken by a dearth of political vision. Unlike NSW, however, it regularly invites its citizens to make the mess even worse. Remember that the 2003 Recall was a response to an energy crisis that was later found to have been in part the result of manipulation by the corrupt folks at Enron, and that, if anything, California’s fortunes have worsened since then, with drastic cuts to health, education and welfare services biting into an already recession-battered populace.

It’s true that a recall provision doesn’t necessitate that a state adopt citizen initiatives, and the Herald is not proposing that NSW does. However, the two ideas are of the same political school of thought, and go hand in hand. Indeed, apart from providing a quick-fix to this singular situation in which the electorate is immensely (and justifiably) dissatisfied with their present government, there is no real reason why voters should be charged with dismissing a government but not be permitted to force referenda on any issue that can gain support through a petition. Inserting a recall provision into the state constitution without a voter initiative option creates the odd circumstance where voters are presumed responsible enough to dismiss a government, but too irresponsible to dismiss or endorse a policy.

But if we set aside the contradiction, there are further problems with recall mechanisms, particularly for Australia. For the Herald‘s campaign, UNSW Law Professor George Williams writes that “Recall elections are widely available in the US, but are rarely held, and have only been used twice to evict a sitting governor: in North Dakota in 1921 and, most famously, in California in 2003.” He doesn’t mention that in the 98 years that California has had the provision, its citizens have attempted to recall their governor more than thirty times — on average, once every three years or so. Gubernatorial recall attempts are more common than elections in California, and if there’s one thing we don’t want to encourage in our state government, it is its tendency to be beholden to manipulating public opinion. State governments would be even less likely to engage in the big picture planning we need if they had to fend off attempts to unseat them halfway through each electoral cycle.

Further, unlike the Herald‘s proposal for NSW, California has no provision to recall an entire government, just individual members. While California was recalling Davis in 2003, its legislature continued to sit, providing some stability to the government. A recall in NSW would require every single state politician to be re-elected.

If NSW wants to genuinely fix its predicament, that is, that there is no way a government elected to four year fixed term can be held to account if it proves to be irredeemably disastrous, it should look at the source of the problem. In this case, it’s not the four year terms — they reduce the terms of bad administrations, not lengthen it (have we forgotten John Howard’s dawdling to his execution in 2007?) — but the concentration of power in the legislature under the Westminster system. The NSW Governor Marie Bashir is permitted constitutionally to dismiss a government, but since she is an unelected appointee of a foreign power, any action she took to do so would rightly be seen as an unreasonable encroachment on Australian independence. If NSW elected its governor, as California does, she would have greater leeway to call an election at times such as these. And perhaps in such a circumstance, when a recall would not result in the dissolution of the entire government, such an exercise in people power would be more practical.

The Herald‘s address is a stunt, and a good one, I suppose. Even if its petition should force a referendum on a state recall, it could not be held until the next election in 2011 anyway. Nothing the Herald does will hasten the removal of this government. But nothing attracts eyeballs like a major broadsheet campaigning to change the way we elect our democratic representatives. But the Herald should be wary of transforming the basket case of NSW into the basket case of California. And this is something it knows, as shown by an editorial it ran in May this year, titled California overdoses on democracy. An excerpt:

“California might be the home of Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the modern computer industry, and other models of business enterprise. But it also harbours an obscure electoral system, in which successive bids to fine-tune democracy by giving citizens as much direct power to call shots as their elected representatives often have the opposite effect. Mr Schwarzenegger, for instance, owes his incumbency to one such initiative: in 2003, Californians installed him after “recalling” Gray Davis, the then sitting governor.”

The editorial concludes: “Moves are afoot for a convention to iron out the wonky governance issues, and to put a revised state constitution to a ballot in 2012. Australians, with our poor record of constitutional reform, can only wish California good luck.”

Good luck indeed. If the Herald worries about California overdosing on democracy, it should be wary about ushering us down the same path. Leave the California Love to Tupac Shakur.

America isn’t doing nothing on climate change, it just looks like it

For the next couple weeks, at least, Denmark is going to be known for something other than Hans Christian Andersen and an Austrian pastry: add to the list Copenhagen’s United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009! Representatives from nearly 200 countries have shown up, and the fun and festivities kicked off yesterday. Since nobody expects a binding deal to result from the summit, you would be forgiven for feeling pretty cynical about the entire affair. And with good cause, too, perhaps; a great many nations need to make a much bigger commitment if we want to do something serious about preventing global warming. But delegates are going to be arguing in Copenhagen for the good part of the next two weeks, so we might as well start off with some good news.

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

Key goals of the Copenhagen summit: Keep the Little Mermaid statue above sea-level. (Photo via Flickr user only_point_five)

In the Sydney Morning Herald last month, the USSC’s Geoffrey Garrett and Simon Jackman had a bit to say about American attitudes to climate change. For instance:

Americans just do not consider it as one of the big challenges facing their country. They are preoccupied with the parlous state of their economy, the battle over health care and a looming decision on troop levels in Afghanistan. They are also more sceptical than Australians about the impact of human action on climate, are less willing to pay to mitigate climate change, and only want to act if other countries do, too.

This is not only fairly accurate, it reflects the common wisdom on American action, or lack thereof, on the issue. But those of us who do not live under the federalist, three-branched system of American government often miss the finer details, and the common conception that Americans are a bunch of do-nothing environmental vandals who are collectively fiddling while the world burns is not entirely true. Americans are doing something about climate change, but they’re not doing it in a way a country like Australia, which focuses its government in the strong combined legislature/executive of Parliament, can readily understand.

America’s legislature is being disappointingly tardy on this issue; the House’s American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 will probably not become law until halfway through 2010, if at all, but in the United States, not all power is vested in Federal Members of Congress, and some of the slack is being taken up elsewhere.

Case in point: The Environmental Protection Agency has decided that greenhouse gases are dangerous, and therefore subject to its regulation. The EPA can do this because it exists outside of Congressional authority; as an administrative agency, it’s under the control of the President, not the legislature. And just as environmental regulations were greatly weakened under the second President Bush – the President’s responsibility to execute legislation allows for a fair amount of flexibility in interpretation – Barack Obama has a great opportunity to be making a difference on climate change even without Congressional action.

The EPA decision is an excellent, solid step Obama can point to in Copenhagen as evidence that the U.S. is prepared to make an effort to halt global warming. And it’s also going to help spur Congress on to passing legislation. The Founding Fathers designed the branches of government to be in competition with each other, and Congress is not going to happily allow the President to unilaterally regulate greenhouse gases without its input. As the New York Times‘ Green Inc. blog explains:

The administration has wielded the finding as a prod to Congress to act on legislation, saying in effect that if lawmakers do not act to control greenhouse gas pollution they will use their rule-making power to do so. At the same time, the president and his top environmental aides have frequently said that they prefer such a major step be taken through the give-and-take of the legislative process.

And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is none too happy about the EPA announcement, saying, according to the Times, that regulation “could result in a top-down command-and-control regime that will choke off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project.” Perhaps this will spur the Chamber of Commerce to lobby Congress to pass a climate change bill, on the basis that if they’re going to be regulated, they might as well be regulated by legislation it can have an influence over.

And it’s not just the Executive Branch of Government that’s stepping up; America consists of 50 states, and not all of these are ignoring global warming. California and Texas have greatly divergent schemes to support green industry, while individual states are banding together to create schemes of their own, such as the ten-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (which includes a legally binding emissions trading system) and the Western Climate Initiative.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of Congressional action. America should be doing a lot more to combat global warming, and individual state action and administrative regulation cannot have the necessary, economy-wide influence a legally binding cap and trade system would. With Republicans already trying to make hay from the “Climategate” non-story, now is not the time to relax over the issue. The cuts Congress is talking about — a four per cent reduction on 1990 levels of emissions — are meagre as it it is. But, in fairness to America, we should acknowledge that the country as a whole isn’t quite as hopeless as its elected representatives.

EDIT: You might want to check out Robert Hill, the USSC’s Adjunct Professor in Sustainability and Australian Ambassador to the United Nations discussing the debate pre-Copenhagen in this interview.

America on tilt: Obama announces 30 thousand troops for Afghanistan

Is it any surprise that Barack Obama’s speech to West Point cadets announcing an additional 30 000 troops for the war in Afghanistan has been so poorly received? Given, in essence, the question the Clash’s Joe Strummer posed in 1982 — should I stay or should I go? — Obama answered with a decisive “Yes!”

That is, he announced a so-called surge of troops, and a date, July 2011, to begin withdrawing them. Well, unless his generals tell him the troops should stay. And since generals like winning wars, and he hasn’t announced any actual benchmarks for the Afghan government to aim for, this doesn’t sound like a very solid exit plan.

True, it is easy to be critical of Obama’s plan sitting here in Sydney, particularly when I’m a young man of military service age in a country with troops directly involved in this conflict who has made no moves to enlist for duty. And Obama’s dilemma is not an easily solved one. All but the most idealistic hawks must have abandoned hopes that Afghanistan could be transformed into some kind of South Asian version of South Korea. And even an ardent dove must fear that a destabilised Pakistan and Taliban-administered Afghanistan with huge swathes of wild, poor, rural and mostly lawless country is a dangerous combination once nuclear weapons are added to the mix — to say nothing of the inevitably brutal disregard for human rights that would follow.

Of course, neither option is really on the table for the Administration; the arguments have revolved around exactly what shape the twin courses of staying and going should look like; whether the focus should be on counter-insurgency, or nation building, or some other approach. I don’t mean to trivialise the important arguments being undertaken by important men and women that will lead to every day American (and Australian) men and women to be put into harm’s way. But America’s unfortunate situation seems to be as much about a grand historical shift in policy that hasn’t been matched with an equally large change in the nation’s temperament.

The historian Ken Burns said in his PBS series, “if you want to know about this thing called the United States of America you have to know about the Civil War,” and I’m wondering if the Vietnam War should be seen as a modern equivalent. Prior to that war, the American mentality regarding foreign action was generally consistent: they didn’t do it very often, but when they did, they won. Sure, the Korean War left behind a communist state that troubles the U.S. to this day, but it also established a thriving, modern democracy in the south of the country. Until Vietnam, it wasn’t hard to see America as something like a cautious poker place from the old West, one who kept his cards close to his chest and played few hands, but when he went in, he went all in. Remember, for instance, how difficult it was to convince America to enter World War II, surely a war the U.S. had both a moral and pragmatic interest in, even prior to 1941. But such was America’s reluctance to involve itself in a foreign conflict that even when German submarines sunk the USS Reuben James in October 1941, America remained officially neutral until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dragged it into war.

By contrast, Vietnam was a long, drawn-out affair based on at-best contentious policy objectives, that involved a relatively small sacrifice from the American public at large, disproportionately focused on the young, mostly working-class young men who qualified for the draft and could not or would not gain a deferment. Vietnam was expensive, and not paid for; Lyndon Johnson continued implementing his Great Society programs rather than convert to a wartime economy.

Poker aficionados will be aware of the concept of “tilt”, the frame of mind a good player gets into after a bad loss. The player will make bad decisions, chase risky hands and watch helplessly as his or her good luck goes bad. Since Vietnam, America’s military action seems to have been on tilt.

That’s a bad state of mind for a populace that expects to win its wars. But Vietnam set a bad precedent for American military action, and while comparing wars is a dangerous venture, the one comparison that can be made between the war in South East Asia and the current one in Afghanistan is the mentality behind them. Despite some small successes in the ’80s and ’90s, mostly about giving temporary backing to governments friendly to American interests, in major conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. still believes it can prosecute a war while not troubling the lives or wallets of the majority of its population. Congress is currently grappling with a surtax that would cover a very tiny portion of the amount the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan this decade, and despite a population that is lukewarm about the war and increasingly concerned about the deficit, this is unlikely to pass.

At the Washington Post, Ezra Klein says:

What began as fiscal irresponsibility is slowly transforming into hard precedent. The original deployment to Afghanistan was a rapid reply to a devastating attack that took place amidst an economy shaken by terrorism and the stock market collapse. I get why no one stopped to levy a new tax. It was arguably the right decision.

But then the war in Iraq, which was a war of choice begun amidst a stronger economy, wasn’t paid for either. The surge in Iraq, and the escalation in Afghanistan, both will be strategies of choice, and they won’t be paid for.

We’ve had wars of necessity, wars of choice, and the escalations of those wars stretching across both good and bad economies, and both Democratic and Republican presidents. And none of them have been paid for. The political system is learning to think of war as an off-budget expense, which is bad both from the perspective of the deficit, but also from the perspective of forcing us to confront the costs and tradeoffs of war.

I would argue that Americans not only think of war as an off-budget expense, they also think of it as an out-of-mind expense; that is, a problem they can delegate to a professional military rather than invest in personally. That is not only unfair to the men and women serving abroad, it’s also unsustainable. Obama is in a deep bind in Afghanistan, and the best that can be hoped for is that his troop influx helps brings thing to an acceptable close as quickly as possible. But once that happens, without disavowing small, practical, humanitarian exercises, America must return to its pre-Vietnam state of mind. It must see war as a rare exercise that requires it to go all in, psychologically and economically.

Six steps to successful leadership: Professor Fred Greenstein rates the Obama presidency

At the moment here at the Centre we’ve got Professor Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian from Princeton University, visiting us. He’s going to be chatting with Bob Carr about the Obama Presidency this afternoon at a public event at Sydney Uni (details here if you’re interested in an evening of American politics), but he gave a smaller lecture yesterday over lunch. (You might have seen me tweeting updates from it if you follow me on Twitter.)

I won’t give away everything he talked about, even though I’m sure he’ll introduce plenty of new material into his lecture tonight, but I particularly liked Greenstein’s rubrick for evaluating Presidents; judging them in terms of various leadership criteria instead of trying to evaluate their presidency as a whole. It let’s him make more nuanced judgements, and can help capture a President’s long-term strengths and weaknesses instead of focusing on the day-to-day movements in approval caused by the political cycle. While Obama’s present political rating hovers in the acceptable-not-great realm of low-50s, for instance, Greenstein offers the example of Ronald Reagan, whose rating in January 1983 was a low 35 per cent, yet still managed to carry 49 out of 50 states in the landslide 1984 election and become remembered in fond terms by most of the American public.

Greenstein’s presidential evaluation scheme uses the following qualities:

  • Public Communication

This is, straightforwardly enough, the Presidents ability to communicate with the public. Obama, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Reagan are Greenstein’s examples of presidents who have made great use of this skill, whereas George W. Bush was a renowned failure in this regard.

  • Organisational Capacity

Greenstein calls this an “internal job,” contrasting it with the public advocacy role of the first point. We saw a glimpse of the importance of ths in the Obama transition at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009; a President is charged with running a vast administration, and it’s no small feat getting this organisation to run smoothly and effectively. Greenstein points to the second Bush administration as a badly organised one, to the extent that some members were able to succeed in effectively shutting Colin Powell out of discussions.

  • Political Skill

Even a president who can make a good speech and run his staff well has to deal with Congress, and this requires political skill. Greenstein notes that early on in his career as an Illinois State Senator, Obama learnt to play golf and poker, two games useful for negotiating with other representatives in an informal setting. I’d point to Obama’s careful shepherding of health care legislation through the legislature as evidence of him having some political skill, but warn that the jury is still out on his presidency in this regard. Early signs suggest he might indeed have some talent here though.

  • Policy Vision

Greenstein credits both Obama and the second Bush as Presidents with considerable policy vision; Obama in his ambitious plans to reform health care and implement other such liberal reforms, and Bush with his strong conservative vision. Bush was not particularly successful at realising his vision, evidence that Presidents strong in one area may still fail due to other deficiencies.

  • Cognitive Style

Again, Obama and Bush provide good contrasts here. Obama is cerebral and thoughtful, considering opposing viewpoints and available evidence before making a decision. His recent care in coming to a decision on a future direction for the U.S. military in Afghanistan is an example of this being a potential strength or weakness. Bush was a famed “gut thinker,” something that served him well in connecting to the public, but let him down dangerously in his rush to war with Iraq.

  • Emotional Intelligence

Obama, says Greenstein, is even-tempered and detached, often to his advantage; he has made few major mistakes, whether as a candidate or a president. His coolness is occasionally a liability, however, for instance, in his perceived lack of urgency in realising his agenda. Like Bush, Obama was less emotionally controlled in his younger days. Both have spoken of lacking in direction when they were younger, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Greenstein gives Bill Clinton as an example of a President whose lack of emotional control allowed his polticial agenda to come off track; his dalliances with interns waylaid susbtantial portions of his Presidency.

Greenstein will be speaking at Eastern Auditorium at the University of Sydney today from 5pm.