Why The Climate Council Should Be Funded By People, Not Government

Last week we published a piece arguing that a service like the Climate Council shouldn't be crowdfunded. Here is a reader's response.

Last week we published a piece by Chad Parkhill called ‘The Problem With A Crowdfunded Climate Council‘. This is a response.

After he became Prime Minister, one of the first things that Tony Abbott did was axe the Climate Commission and sack its head, Tim Flannery. The Commission’s supporters despaired at Australia drifting away from science and were outraged at the Government being so forthright about climate change not being a priority. Meanwhile, Flannery’s critics were elated to see the end of a “multi-million dollar, allegedly ‘independent’, propaganda outlet”.

Flannery himself was defiant. His work was going to continue, with or without government support. He resurrected the Commission as his own private, independent organisation: the Australian Climate Council was an overnight sensation. On Sunday, the Council announced that it had reached its $1 million target, the minimum amount needed to fund it for a year.

There were few complaints about that state of affairs. Flannery gets to keep his job; the taxpayers save their money; people who believe in Flannery get to put their money where their mouths are; and the Government frees up some of its already-stretched resources.

The government was happy about that. Flannery was happy about that. Flannery’s supporters were happy about that. Everyone was happy — except they weren’t. From Chad Parkhill’s perspective, elucidated in an opinion piece published to Junkee last week, everyone isn’t allowed to be happy at once: “one side ultimately has to be wrong”. I couldn’t disagree more.

Parkhill assumes that “the ‘consumers’ of the Climate Council’s services” are the crowdsource supporters, who would generally be “concerned about the impact of anthropogenic climate change”. As he sees it, they need the services of the Council the least. Who needs it the most? The Abbott Government, and Andrew Bolt-reading coal miners with ‘extravagant’ energy consumption.

According to Parkhill, that is the tragedy of the Commission’s abolition. “Will the Federal Government feel obliged to listen to the Climate Council now they no longer pay for it?” he asks. “Will anyone else who hasn’t signed up to ‘consume’ the Climate Council’s work listen to it?”

But he does not explain what service the Council actually provides.

What Does The Climate Council Do Exactly?

The Climate Commission was established by the Gillard government in 2011. Its mandate was to “inform Australia’s approach to addressing climate change and help build the consensus required to move to a competitive, low pollution Australian economy”.

Translated from politicalese, that means “to convince Australians to agree with the government on climate change”. It’s like if Coke was trying to inform Australia’s approach to cola, by helping to build the consensus required to move to an optimal cola economy (probably one with a little less Pepsi). In other words, the Commission was designed to sell the government’s policies.

Tim Flannery is a palaeontologist, not a climate scientist. In fact, his record on informing Australians about climate change has been less than stellar.

Flannery’s appointment as Commissioner provides further proof of that. He is a palaeontologist, not a climate scientist. In fact, his record on informing Australians about climate change has been less than stellar. Remember the drought in Australia for most of the last decade? Flannery not only tried to pin it on climate change, but repeatedly predicted that our water was going to run out for good, only to be proven embarrassingly wrong each time — especially since the drought was caused by a few years of strong El Niños and no La Niñas, which have never been conclusively linked to global warming.

Those drought comments happened before Flannery became the Commissioner. He has been a prominent commentator on climate change for over a decade. In 2011, the government started paying him $180,000 each year to sell its policies.

So what services does the new Climate Council provide to its funders? The same services as its predecessor provided to its funder: climate-related political advocacy.

That is why it was bizarre for Parkhill to say that the supporters were “giving away nearly a million dollars that could have otherwise been spent fighting the Coalition’s policies”. That’s exactly what the Council is doing. It’s what the Commission was doing — and judging by the election results, it wasn’t doing it very well.

Careful What You Wish For

It’s true that the people who disagree with the Council will not feel obliged to listen to it. What is not clear is why that would have been any different if it were still publicly funded. Bear in mind, recommendations from public bodies are often ignored by politicians. If Tony Abbott was perfectly capable of ignoring Tim Flannery as Leader of the Opposition, why would that change at all when he became Prime Minister?

In fact, no government would ever fund a political body to advocate against its own policies. That would just be stupid. Most governments would have sacked Flannery and appointed someone more friendly to advocate in favour of their policies instead. Think Climate Commissioner Andrew Bolt, for example.

No government would ever fund a political body to advocate against its own policies. That would just be stupid.

It is to Abbott’s credit that he did not go down that path, instead disbanding the Commission to save the tax dollars. Decisions like that are all too rare: there is a long history of government bodies being established with the best of intentions, which end up doing exactly the opposite of what they were supposed to — such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which was abolished in 2005 amid corruption scandals and allegations that it was doing much more to hurt Indigenous Australians than to help them; or the Australian Human Rights Commission, which has been criticised for policies which allegedly violate freedoms of speech and association.

Given that Parkhill clearly doesn’t much like the current Government, I don’t understand why he is so in favour of them running the Climate Commission. I would assume that he would prefer for the Council/Commission to answer to its new donors rather than to Tony Abbott.

Public Funding Is Very Taxing

The hijacking of statutory bodies is not the only problem with government muscling in on what was not-for-profit turf. Once something is ‘the government’s job’, people are less inclined to donate their own time and money to doing it. Civil society is effectively suffocated.

For example, I was dismayed by the recent reactions when the Government announced cuts to the projected increase in foreign aid. Some charities went a little overboard trying to save their funding. Some commentators slammed the government for not making needy people overseas a priority, whilst others praised the more “rational approach to foreign aid”. But for all the supposed outrage at failing to grow our foreign aid contribution, not one person I came across took the opportunity to start volunteering with Oxfam, or donate money to World Vision, or plan a trip to India with 40K. My friends and the commentariat seem to only care about foreign aid when other people are paying for it.

Parkhill for his part does not seem to believe in paying for things himself: “Would you care to chip in to save the National Broadband Network, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Research Council, Medicare, or Centrelink? At what point will you stop opening your wallet for organisations that should have been funded through taxation revenues?”

Ironically, you are opening your wallet either way, but one – donations – is voluntary, and the other – taxation– is not. Tax revenue is not magical money that’s conjured out of nowhere; it’s conjured out of your pocket. If less things were funded through taxation revenues, there would be a larger pool of money overall for funding valuable services.

Think about what it takes for the government to fund not-for-profits through grants. That process is expensive and time consuming, and it does not involve anything useful getting done.

Think about what it takes for the government to fund not-for-profits through grants. First, taxes need to be collected. Generally, collecting an extra dollar in tax incurs a ‘deadweight loss’ (the cost from the change in behaviour that the tax causes) of somewhere between 30 and 40 cents. Second, not-for-profits need to apply for the grants — and remember that the grants fund their administration, including grant applications. Third, the government needs a bureaucracy to review the applications, award the grants, then audit the subsequent programs. Establishing a statutory body involves a similar level of bureaucracy and administration.

That process is expensive and time consuming, and it does not involve anything useful getting done. It also means that bureaucrats in Macquarie Street or Canberra choose what services Australia provides, with all of the problems that flow from that: everything becomes uniform and centralised as it is forced to comply with a strict set of bureaucratic standards. Resources tend to be allocated to already-established groups who can afford to hire lobbyists and who know how to work the system, meaning that the people who most need help have the least say. The process kills the diversity and vibrancy of civil society, and makes public debate more costly and less interesting.

Of course, this is not to say that government should never do anything. There are certain services that private individuals will never be able to provide alone, the most obvious being national security, defence, and law enforcement; and others including — to varying degrees — things like healthcare, education, and welfare for those unable to look after themselves.

Quit Passing The Buck

The story of the Council/Commission was not the first in which an initiative was knocked back by a government, only to be embraced by civil society. When Campbell Newman scrapped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, it was very quickly replaced by the privately-run Queensland Literary Awards. Another example happened earlier this year, which I discovered when I read Kathryn Wicks berating NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell in the Sydney Morning Herald for not giving Autism Awareness — a not-for-profit advocacy group she was involved with — the $40,000 they needed to make the Sydney Opera House blue for six hours.

Wicks was not writing about a failed project, though. The Opera House was blue that night. After O’Farrell sent them packing, Autism Awareness had launched a crowdsource campaign and successfully raised the $40,000 themselves. Assuming a deadweight loss of 30% and a further, say, 10% being lost in bureaucracy, that would be the equivalent of around $63,000 of public funds.

I have made the point that every dollar spent by the government is a dollar not spent by someone else. Similarly, every hour spent lobbying the government is an hour not spent making a difference. It is all too easy to see a problem and complain that not enough is ‘being done’. What is much harder, but much more meaningful, is asking yourself a simple question: “if not enough is being done, could I be doing more?”

Daniel Katz is a Sydney-based writer, law student, and supporter of a free society. He has worked for, volunteered with, and been a director of several not-for-profit organisations.