With the Federal Government failing to act on climate policy, it could be up to our billionaires to save the world, writes Professor Carl Rhodes.
THE BID BY Mike Cannon-Brookes to take over AGL to accelerate decarbonisation in Australia has been hailed as an exemplar of the great “megatrend” of billionaire political activism. He planned to bring the energy giant’s carbon dioxide emission to net-zero 12 years ahead of schedule and replace its coal power stations by 2030.
Given the Australian Government’s woeful ineptitude in addressing climate change, Cannon-Brookes’ bid appears as a breath of fresh air. “On a global scale, this is a massive decarbonisation effort,” he said, spruiking the deal. This comes at a time when the Australian Government is discredited as an international pariah because of its failure to take meaningful action.
While AGL rejected the bid at an emergency board meeting on Sunday, what it says about the state of Australian democracy is as profound as it is disturbing. While billionaires are prepared to take on some of the most significant political challenges of our time, the Government is not, choosing instead to spend $31 million on an ad campaign to drum up public support for its widely disputed climate plan.
Billionaires to the rescue?
It is a sad state of affairs if our capacity as a nation to address our most urgent problems comes down to the voluntary actions of billionaire business owners. Meanwhile, politicians appear more interested in posing as members of the working class in vote grabbing photo shoots.
Cannon-Brookes is nothing if not consistent. His billionaire activist position against climate change is steadfast. Back in 2018 when Prime Minister Scott Morrison renewed his support for coal power, dubbing it “fair dinkum energy”, Cannon-Brookes retorted: ‘Argh! Bullshit mate... you’ve made me mad and inspired me. We need a movement.’
This is not so much about “can-do capitalism” as it is about “won’t-do government”. As our elected politicians kick the problem of the climate crisis into the long grass, private organisations are stepping in using their significant financial might to try to fix it.
All well and good for the climate if Cannon-Brookes can make positive change. Those of us who despair over government inaction might well be happy to see someone trying to do something, but it comes at a price.
Just more bullsh*t?
Fixing the operations of AGL – the single largest polluter in Australia – is central to Australia pulling its weight in the global effort to address climate change. Cannon-Brookes sounded about right last year when he reiterated that the Morrison Government’s climate policy was “just more bullsh*t”.
The dangerous trend we are witnessing is that under the guise of CEO activism, we are increasingly coming to rely on the ultra-wealthy to take political action. Billionaires have even been touted as the “superheroes” that the world needs.
The rub is that so long as there is no conflict between billionaires’ espoused political convictions and the hard realities of what it means to operate a large corporation, then we might be okay. If recent history is anything to go by, this is rarely the case.
A new political imagination
The bigger political question is whether Australia should rely on the commercial and political interests of the wealthy to address its most severe political problems. If our political future lies in the hands of the wealthy, even when we agree with them, we are on a dangerous path back to feudalism.
Cannon-Brookes’ attempt to find a way for Australia to contribute to the global effort to address climate change is commendable. The fact that this responsibility has fallen into the hands of a private individual is deplorable.
The success of billionaire activism is the failure of democracy.
Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney; you can follow him on Twitter @ProfCarlRhodes.
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