Philip Chubb – Head of Journalism in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University – recently published a new book on climate policy and politics in Australia entitled Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics Under Rudd and Gillard. In Power Failure he seeks to understand “what really happened inside the government as it grappled with climate change” and to draw lessons on what political strategies and policies might be more successful in tackling this “wicked or diabolical problem”. Today, most national climate change policies look set to be repealed by the new Federal Liberal-National Government, and the context is one in which many people are reflecting on past events and pondering what’s gone wrong. Chubb also notes that problem of climate change, and what to do about it, has been a major factor in the downfall of four key political leaders over the past decade – that is John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
In this review I draw on a sociological theory called field theory (Fligstein & McAdam 2012). This theory can be used to interpret the events and key issues that are emphasised in Power Failure.
The core approach taken in Power Failure is to draw on extensive insider interviews to examine two cases: the Rudd and the Gillard Federal Labor Governments. In particular, Chubb emphasises the leadership styles exhibited by Former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and their political strategies, whilst also considering the context in which the leaders made their climate policy efforts. Overall Chubb emphasises the agency of leaders and importance of political judgement. He tends to de-emphasise structural factors that enable and constrain the actions of such leaders.
For example, in a chapter that is dramatically entitled “The darkness at the heart of the government” Chubb argues that “the catalyst for the long slide towards a policy fiasco was Rudd’s decision to demolish Cabinet’s climate change subcommittee” (p.15). Linked with this a political adviser that was interviewed argues that Rudd “killed at birth the normal process of debate among departments and ministers” (p.17). As these quotes indicate Chubb is especially critical of Kevin Rudd.
In field theory terms, Kevin Rudd is portrayed as a poorly skilled social actor – in particular one with insufficient “social skill”. (Social skill is defined as “the capacity for inter-subjective thought and action that shapes the provision of meaning, interests and identity in the service of collective ends” [Fligstein & McAdam, 2012 p.4], or more simply as “the ability to induce cooperation by appealing to and helping to create shared meanings and collective identities” [p.46]). For example, social skill is deployed by strategic actors when creating political coalitions through framing activities and by creating attractive new identities for actors. In Power Failure Julia Gillard is portrayed as the far more socially skilled actor, but also as one who made many serious strategic errors.
One critique I’d make is Chubb doesn’t seriously enough address the social skill exhibited by Rudd in rising to the leadership position and winning a Federal election. Rudd positioned himself as an anti-factional figure, an independent politician who is not beholden to the usual interests. This may have cost him later when he needed to maintain party support during difficult times.
More substantively, in the first few chapters Chubb outlines what some field theorists term an “episode of contention”. These episodes are characterised by “emergent, sustained contentious interaction between field actors utilising new and innovative forms of action vis-à-vis one another” and a “shared sense of uncertainty/crisis” regarding ‘field’ rules and power relations.
Clearly, an “episode of contention” developed in the ‘field’ of climate policy and politics in Australia during 2008-09 and was later expressed in forms of anti-climate action activism that contributed to the election of Tony Abbott. It is one of the key developments charted in Power Failure.
For example, Chubb recounts the anti-emission trading scheme (ETS) campaigns of the power generators, the collaboration of local councils that have coal power generators or coal interests in joint lobbying efforts (called the ‘Coals Councils of Australia Alliance’), and new pro-ETS coalitions that emerged to challenge anti-ETS campaigns and push for reduced industry assistance. This led to “contentious interaction between field actors utilising new and innovative forms of action vis-à-vis one another” consistent with the general definition of an ‘episode of contention’.
He also notes that Labor party figures and candidates in regions like the Latrobe Valley often had links to the coal power generators or unions representing their workforces, or worked for them. Job concerns and economic interests became central during the global financial crisis.
Incredibly, Chubb seems to argue that poor communications, inadequate stakeholder consultation, and Rudd’s personal leadership style were the major causes of the governments’ problems!!
A field theory perspective suggests a much, much broader view of social change and social conflict grounded in “a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012, p.8). A ‘strategic action field’ is formally defined as “a constructed mesolevel social order” (p.9); they are socially constructed and circumscribed arenas “within which actors with varying resource endowments vie for advantage” (p.10). A simple example is a professional sporting league (e.g. the Australian Football League); more complex examples are policy domains and, within the economic realm, well-defined markets. A ‘field’ is simply organised social space.
Relevant ‘field’ examples include the major political parties themselves and their links to other actors (e.g. unions, big business, and so on), the ‘Russian doll’-like governmental system in Australia, and regional (State) and national electricity markets. Additionally, all collective actors (e.g. Federal government, organisations such as electricity generators and retailers, social movements, etc) “are themselves made up of strategic actions fields” (p.9). We have seen that new ‘fields’ emerged during the crisis in the ‘field’ of climate policy, such as the field of Australian “coal councils”.
A crucial aspect of field theory is the interdependence of strategic action fields (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). Such links and, often, interdependencies are argued to be one of the main sources of change and stability in all fields and social life more broadly. For example, as fields develop savvy incumbents seek allies in State actors and vice versa; which can become important resources. For instance incumbent actors can call on their allies within State actors for assistance.
Coming back to the events charted in Power Failure Chubb notes – almost in passing – how incumbent generators called on key allies in energy departments (both State and Federal) who then acted as strong advocates. He writes that generators “spent a lot of time talking to public servants” and “generators and their backers in the bureaucracy believed that opponents such as Garnaut were risking the country’s future energy supplies in an ideologically based free-market crusade” (p.49). Conflict emerged between the Federal energy minister (Martin Ferguson) and the climate change minister (Penny Wong) and in latter 2009 “brought policy-making to a standstill” (p.59).
From a field theory perspective this is actually quite important. Fligstein and McAdam (2012) point to the many advantages that incumbent actors typically have and point out that they “can be expected to resist significant change in the field” (p. 106), often successfully. This is very clear in the climate story. They also contend that many fields have “internal governance units” (e.g. industry umbrella bodies, such as the National Generators Forum representing power generators) that “can be expected to serve the defenders of the status quo” (p.14). And this is indeed what occurred.
Proximate fields are also ordinarily a crucial source of stability and change. In this case, many were influential and are barely touched-on in Power Failure. Destabilising events and changes in many such fields undermined support for climate action in Australia – such as destabilising changes in: the international climate policy field (e.g. the controversies of the Copenhagen Summit and related issues in the UNFCCC process); rising electricity prices in Australia, which doubled between 2007-2014; the attacks on climate science and the rise of climate denial movements (charted in-detail here), including ‘Climategate’ and anti-climate science campaigns in Australia (such as the campaign in The Australian newspaper which has been well documented by Robert Manne).
Again to come back to the events charted in Power Failure, eventually some stability in the field of climate policy was re-established especially with respect to industry assistance (e.g. compensation packages for power generators) and the necessary support from then the opposition Liberal party to pass the legislation in the lower house of parliament. In field theory terms a ‘settlement’ was eventually achieved to end the field crisis. However, before the legislation could pass the senate a crisis in the leadership of Federal Liberal party led to major shift in their climate policy, and the Greens party refused to help pass the legislation despite having sufficient votes to do so (as two Liberal senators crossed the floor) due to the industry assistance and its weak emissions targets. As we know, the fall of (then) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd soon followed these events.
The key chapters of the remainder of the book chart the rise and fall of Julia Gillard, with a particular focus on the negotiation and passing of the Clean Energy Future (CEF) legislation. In my view the key fact needing to be explained is why the Greens agreed to legislation with the same targets as the legislation they rejected, with reduced emissions coverage (transport fuel was taken out) and, in many ways, more generous industry assistance. Chubb’s explanation of such events is weak. He strongly – and I think, on balance, correctly – argues that the Greens made a major error in blocking Rudd’s legislation. It’s a fascinating ‘what if?’ to consider where we’d be now if they hadn’t.
With respect to key details of the CEF legislation Chubb simply states that the options available to negotiators “were restricted by the aftermath of the chaotic approach of Rudd. This applied particularly in the case of the generators’ compensation. What had been given could not be taken away” (p.219). Field theorists note that if a settlement creates an ‘arena’ advantageous to those who fashioned it will likely prove highly resistant to challenge. Chubb also doesn’t examine why Tony Windsor insisted on the coverage of the scheme being reduced (excluding transport fuel).
In summary, the analysis and reportage in Power Failure focusses too much on leadership styles and the strategies of Rudd and Gillard. Theories of fields, such as the theory developed by Fligstein and McAdam, suggest that a deeper analysis would need to do three key things. First, it would need to consider agency and the potential for strategic action in more sociological ways. Fligstein and McAdam note institutional theories which show that established fields are powerful systems that reproduce themselves, and argue that related processes make incremental change the norm and truly transformative change a rarity. They further summarise: “The theory of strategic action fields is about how once in place, the mesolevel social orders that structure our lives [i.e. fields] offer us anchors as to what to what, when to do it and, of course, how to do it” (p.178).
Perhaps Kevin Rudd and his government underestimated the complexity of, and barriers to, major structural change to decarbonise the Australian economy. Certainly, Power Failure tends to focus on micro issues and to inadequately consider meso-level and macro factors shaping climate action.
Second, and linked with the above, to understand field crises we need to consider both internal dynamics (e.g. within the Labor government and cabinet processes) and events and processes external to the field. Power Failure tends to focus on internal dynamics. As noted above I would argue that destabilising events and changes in many proximate fields (e.g. in the national energy market, in international climate policy, etc) undermined support for climate action in Australia.
Finally, there is a need to inquire a more deeply into the motivations and needs of individual human actors. Little consideration is given as to why so many people in regions like the Latrobe Valley acted the way they did, or why climate skepticism grew in Australia. For example, Chubb discusses a young power station worker who is angered by the prospect of change (and therefore is against Rudd’s proposed ETS). Sociological research indicates the answer is not just material interests (and perhaps this is usually not the main answer); issues of identity, meaning, and membership are also important. Existing fields define predictable, stable worlds that provide sources of meaning.
Chubb’s Power Failure is a revealing reminder of the events that unfolded over 2007-2013. However, it fails to adequately consider or explain why the climate problem is proving to be highly resistant to a solution, and Chubb outlines corresponding shallow lessons for future policy-making.
Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2012, A Theory of Fields, Oxford University Press, New York, New York.
Manne, R. 2011, Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (Quarterly Essay 43), Black Inc.