ADVERTISING campaigns are not often celebrated for their honesty. But the Gillard government’s media campaign to “illustrate a vision for Australia’s clean energy future” has a refreshing candour. The advertisements parade various beneficiaries of the government’s energy policies. With surprising authenticity, most of these ventures are small, parochial and inconsequential… writes Thomas Barlow in The Weekend Australian.
ONE of the more remarkable examples of the government’s vision for our future, however, is the wind energy company, Infigen. Infigen is an Australian Securities Exchange-listed company. Its assets include the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere and, judging by the government’s advertisements, it has some pretty happy employees.
But it is also a company that recently reported a $34 million loss during the six months to last December and looks likely from its financial statements to report another loss this year. Equally telling, its very name (a conflation of infinite and energy generation) gives the finger to reality.
There is no surprise in any of that; it is a renewable energy company after all. But think about the symbolism. Everybody knows this government’s vision for a clean energy future involves running Australia at a loss. But normally in advertising you put your best foot forward.
To choose Infigen as a pin-up for this government’s vision of our energy future is effectively an admission that profits, or even balanced budgets, don’t matter.
There is another, deeper truth, however, that emerges from these commercials. Ironically, the only scientist quoted is also the one person to make an overtly misleading statement.
Alex Wonhas leads CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship. At the end of one of the carbon tax advertisements, he observes that “the transformation that we are about to undergo is a similar transformation to the industrial revolution”. Now scientists are renowned for hyperbole. The standards of proof they use when talking about the impact of their work are never the same as the standards they use in doing their work.
But this claim takes the established double standard to an unprecedented level.
The industrial revolution replaced wind power with coal power, it led to a dramatic increase in energy consumption and it enabled industry to produce manufactured goods at massively higher volumes and at drastically lower prices than was previously the case.
Contrast this with the outcomes from Australia’s proposed clean energy future. Our little revolution here seeks to replace coal power with wind power, its overt intention is to decrease energy consumption and it can only increase the cost of manufactured goods. The debate today is entirely about who should pay for it.
There is another important difference too. The industrial revolution was a commercial phenomenon. Practical people in private employment made the great inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries, and their ideas were implemented by businessmen who realised the potential for providing human wants on a mass scale.
By comparison, Australia’s new clean energy future is a political phenomenon. The transformation promoted in the government’s advertisements is entirely a creation of policy-makers and intellectuals: in other words, of impractical people for the most part working in pubic employment.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to what happened in the industrial revolution, this particular transformation can be implemented only where governments act to control and constrain the choices consumers are able to make. Whereas the industrial revolution dramatically increased freedom of choice in human society, this government’s revolution is likely to reduce it.
The inclusion of such a hyperbolic claim within these advertisements and its association with an authoritative scientific organisation such as the CSIRO is disturbing. But it also befits our times.
It seems we have a government whose members are altogether too eager to hear only what they want to hear and too ready to place their blind, unquestioning belief in the authority of experts.
It is this, coupled with the reciprocal readiness of scientists to blur the distinction between fact and assertion, their willingness to equate computer models with empirical data and their propensity to confuse present technological realities with future possibilities that got us into this mess in relation to climate change policy.
There are a great many criticisms that can be made about these extraordinary government advertisements. They have been justified on the basis that we need more information yet they contain little information. They have used taxpayer funds to provide free publicity for a very small group of companies, presumably to the disadvantage of their competitors – something for the government’s Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office to chew over.
But the real sadness lies in what these advertisements tell us about the failed and excessively cosy relationship between this government and its scientific advisers. In its blind acceptance of the scientific promise, this government tragically has succumbed to the triumph of wishful thinking over common sense.
Thomas Barlow was formerly a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and a science adviser to the Howard government and is the author of ‘The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited’