Ross Garnaut says Australia can’t reset without respect for knowledge

By Shannon Jenkins

March 12, 2021

Ross Garnaut
Placing greater value on the facts and wisdom can benefit us in this new era of strategic competition, says Ross Garnaut. (AAP/Lukas Coch)

The Australian government should take note of the successful role knowledge played in policy-making during the COVID-19 pandemic, and utilise the facts when creating policies related to climate change and the economy, according to renowned economist and best-selling author Professor Ross Garnaut AC.

Garnaut joined Mandarin Talks on Thursday to discuss his new book, ‘Reset: Restoring Australia after the Pandemic Recession’.

In arguing the value of knowledge and knowledge-sharing, Garnaut has warned that democracy is being challenged by a decline in knowledge, as well as a decline in “respect for the role of knowledge in policy-making in the 21st century”.

“We won’t get out of this recession, won’t get the conditions of full employment and rising incomes, without respect for knowledge, broadly-based knowledge,” he told The Mandarin’s Chris Johnson.

“And without full employment and rising incomes, we face the continued disintegration of our democracies, and the establishment here of Trump-like development.”

He noted that a respect for knowledge and science played a large role in policy-making during COVID-19, which led to Australia’s success in responding to the pandemic.

“I hope, and I think there’s a chance, that elevation of the respect for knowledge in health can follow through into other important areas like climate and management of the economy,” he said.

Placing greater value on the facts and wisdom can also benefit Australia in this new era of strategic competition. Garnaut argued that whether Australia’s prosperity survives in this era depends on how well it manages itself as a democratic community.

“We’ve got to do a lot to elevate the role of knowledge in policy-making,” he said.

“We will survive as a prosperous democratic community if we do well ourselves. We’re not going to lose our democracy because someone invades us, we’ll lose our democracy if we don’t do well and we lose our standing in the international community, if we lose our cohesion as a society that is prepared to act in defence of our essential values. So, the reset story is the essential story in preserving democracy against systemic competition.”

Australia should become a renewable superpower, says Garnaut

Australia is facing increased international pressure to reduce its emissions. Garnaut told Mandarin Talks that while effective policies will have the biggest impact, the voluntary actions of individuals can also make a difference in cutting emissions.

“Individuals can affect what they put into the atmosphere, so that’s the first thing. And when you really think through the ethics of climate change you realise we’ve actually got a personal responsibility,” Garnaut said.

“Already we are actually having some effect, the voluntary actions of Australians. The rooftop solar and other measures have already had a noticeable effect, but the really big ones are the results of policies.”

Voting is another way to make a difference.

“We are in democracy. It’s us, and not people in Canberra, who have got to take responsibility of our government that makes decisions that are not in our interest,” Garnaut said.

Collectively, a community of people can also make a major impact. During the pandemic, Garnaut and his wife spent nine months in Barcaldine, Queensland. There, and in other regional places, they identified opportunities for local communities to establish a base for zero emissions industry.

“Making things with zero emissions competitively with inputs that together could very substantially increase employment in the town but also substantially reduce carbon emissions for Australia as a whole,” he said.

“So, in provincial and regional Australia, there is actually a very big opportunity in precincts of that kind and joining rural and provincial towns into local grids. You can lower costs at the same time so it’s good for economic development.”

READ MORE: Morrison says reaching net zero emissions by 2050 preferable, but doesn’t commit to target

Australia’s politicians also need to act. Garnaut argued that it’s no longer “plausible” for the Australian government to put off actions to reduce emissions, as the past year has seen many countries commit to net zero emissions by 2050, including Joe Biden’s America.

“Apart from anything else, the US and the Europeans will cut us out of a lot of trade opportunities if we don’t join them. And they will be pretty tough about it,” he said.

“They think the future of our political system and economic system depends on the world getting there, they’re not gonna let us get in the way. They’ll run over us if we do get in the way, and they’ll think they’ll be running over us in our own interests.”

However, he noted Australia has come “a long way” from then-treasurer Scott Morrison bringing a lump of coal into parliament, and it has even progressed since promoting the gas-led economic recovery from COVID-19 last year.

“At the time of the last election the government was saying it would be irresponsible in the extreme and hugely damaging the economy to commit to zero emissions by 2050, now the prime minister’s saying we want zero emissions as soon as possible,” Garnaut said.

“It’s not viable for us to stand outside the consensus. We will get there. The only question is whether we will embrace the objective, or scuttle sideways into it like a crab on the bottom of the ocean.”

Garnaut referred to Oxford University professor of ethics John Broome, who has pointed out that the impacts of climate change are already causing damage — and even killing people — and has argued that people have a moral responsibility to prevent that.

“[Broome] says it’s not a get-out-of-jail card to say that the damage will [impact] the people mainly in the future, or the people [who are] a long way away who we don’t know. He says that’s morally the equivalent of firing a rifle into a distant crowd,” Garnaut noted.

“You don’t know who it will hit or exactly how much damage it will do, but he says we’ve got a moral responsibility to reduce to zero through offsetting or our behaviour, our mission.”

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