I must confess to some apprehension about interviewing Dennis Jensen. Having done some research on him and followed his Twitter account, I was a little concerned he would be as aggressive in person as he seems online.
Dr Jensen is a big user of social media, openly dismissive of those he counts as ”lefties”, and is belligerent and fairly controversial in his beliefs on climate change, the Stolen Generation and nuclear energy. I was determined not to be confrontational about these well-known stances.
I was reassured, in making the appointment for our interview, when his very personable policy adviser Sean Conway noted that Dr Jensen had read my scene-setter piece and thought it quite balanced. On attending the interview, however, I noted that Conway was determined to sit in and wondered about his role.
Jensen: I tend to say things at doorstops which are not the scripted message. Things that I think are important I will say.
Hall: Wouldn’t it be nice if all politicians could say what they actually think, rather than have to toe the party line?
Conway: Guinevere, I note the way you look at the adviser in this situation.
Jensen: The thing is, it is a matter of nuancing stuff and being aware that not everything is worth the fight. I have had a different view to my party on a few things and I have gone out and said it, because I think that they are things that are important. I’ve got differences with other things where, ‘Is it a big enough thing to make a stand and fight over? No.’
Hall: An example, if 90 per cent of people in your electorate supported same-sex marriage and your party is opposed, what do you do, who are you representing?”
Jensen: It’s actually quite complicated because you are voted in as a member of that party and that is where a lot of your votes have come from. The other thing is the view of your electors on any specific issue. Then there are your thoughts on it. What we have is a representative democracy where I am representing the electorate and being paid hopefully to be thinking of issues a little bit more deeply than most of my electorate are. I am not saying that in a denigrating way. This is my job. They have jobs and they can’t afford to spend the amount of time that I have got thinking about various issues. I may have a different view to them, but maybe I have a certain amount of information where the electorate doesn’t have access to this information or haven’t had time to think through the issue.
On the gay marriage thing, I am personally opposed to it, as well as it being a party position. If you had asked me 20 years ago I would have been in favour of it. It concerns me of the implications you have on the structure of your society.
The same thing on climate change. If you had asked me 15 years ago I would have accepted the consensus position. But … before I got into politics, I came across this website by a guy who has since passed on, where some of the stuff he had there was wrong, but I thought he is asking some really interesting questions. When I went and started looking through that with my background as a scientist, the more I thought this is really not adding up …”
(When the interview began, I was determined not to go with a rendition of Dr Jensen’s pet subject of climate change. It seemed to be a very well-practised speech and my eyes started to glaze over. I was determined to butt in and get back to the questions that I had prepared. He is very passionate – interspersed with names and articles that I have no idea about, he blinded me with science!
(Source: ABC 730 – 21 March 2011)
Hall: Say you are correct, what is the worst thing that can happen if we reduce our carbon emissions?
Jensen: Same thing that has happened with Spain and California, basically sent themselves broke. Both have massive renewable energy generation capacity and both of them have suffered enormous economic costs as a consequence, and both of them are actually electricity generation capacity poor and having to import a lot of their electricity. If you do that globally, you are headed for a real problem. I’m on the same page as Bjorn Lomberg on this, and that is if it is not economic it’s not sustainable, and at the moment they are not economic. Trying to ram the renewables down people’s throats before they are economically or technically viable in terms of base load, you are condemning quite a lot of people to unemployment.
Hall: Why don’t you use that as an argument? A lot of people are opposed to the way you approach climate change based on the denial. Why don’t you focus on the economic argument?
Jensen: That is part of it. Part of it is, me as a scientist, is I find very disturbing that this way is going about and way it is damaging science more generally. I can tell you in my experience with parliament, the esteem with which scientists are being held … is decreasing. Scientists are increasingly being seen as a bunch of carpetbaggers going to parliament looking for money, which is a big problem. Part of that has got to do with that way we are funding science. It’s not only the global warming fraternity that are causing the problem here, it is deeper based than that, but they are making the situation worse.
Hall: I read somewhere recently that politicians mainly have backgrounds in law and business. There are very few other professions, like scientists, historians, mechanics …
Jensen: It is bringing a different way of thinking. Lawyers are trained to think in a certain way, lawyers are trained fundamentally to make an argument. Scientists are trained to analyse data and look at trends and make recommendations based on that.
Hall: So what is your scientific background?
Jensen: PhD in physics, material science.
Hall: What did you do before you entered politics?
Jensen: I worked at CSIRO in Geelong as a research scientist in textile physics, looked at the physics of things like yarn making, how to actually improve the material properties of that. Then I moved on to DSTO, I was doing submarine operations research.
Hall: What bought on the great shift?
Jensen: Textile physics didn’t greatly excite me. It was predominantly wool work. I saw wool as a dying industry, so I thought I better get out of this, so got the job with DSTO. I had been interested in defence as a kid, was there from 1999 until elected.
Hall: What drove you to enter politics?
Jensen: First thing is, I am an ex South African. When I was young, Apartheid was in and obviously it was a major battle. I supported a party called the Progressive Federal Party, who is the current official party now and then. They have renamed themselves the Democratic Party. The view that they had was to have a federal system but also to belay people’s fears, have in effect the veto right for different minority groups as far as certain pieces of legislation might be concerned which would adversely affect a minority group. Obviously it didn’t happen, as they never did get into power. That was a big issue for me.
In South Africa at university I was interested in politics. In Australia I wasn’t particularly involved in student politics. To be frank when I first got to Australia, Australian politics were boring. You were arguing about huge social, economic, ethical, moral arguments on the issue of Apartheid and came here and in comparison you were arguing minutiae.
We are fortunate that we have a very stable democracy and that in terms of the really broad moral and ethical questions, both sides of politics agree. And so what you do have is argument about the detail and that is healthy, and although sometimes I don’t like it, some of the attacking of detail that you get in the media is actually healthy because that is a way you ensure that what is a small problem doesn’t become a big problem.
Second part was my wife – this is while we were still in Geelong. She said, ‘You have all these ideas and all these criticisms. Why don’t you get in there and do something about it?’ It had always been an interest, but I had never really thought about it as a career option until she mentioned it.
Hall: Were you a member of the Liberal Party then?
Hall: So what made you think Liberals were the ones for you?
Jensen: Two fundamental issues. For me, I believe in the individual over the collective and I believe in equality of opportunity over equality of outcome. In 1997 I joined the party and in 1998 I was asked to stand for the seat of Corio, which was a dead red Labor seat. Then I came to Perth with DSTO and then I rejoined the Liberals a couple of years later.
Hall: What do you think the voters of Tangney see as the issues in the upcoming election?
Jensen: Cost of living, mainly. Energy prices going up. People are very worried about boats, very much a live issue. The carbon tax has diminished as an issue but will probably become an issue closer to the election.
Hall: Do you feel some of the decisions that Kevin Rudd has made recently are purely for electioneering purposes?
Jensen: This is the problem that you have with this PNG solution. In my view what has happened there is that Rudd has come to the understanding that he made a mistake in 2008; he will never say so. I think he implicitly acknowledges that TPVs were a critical part of the suite that made up the Pacific Solution that actually stopped people from coming on boats, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it to the point where he actually reintroduced TPVs. I think Rudd thought, ‘What is the fundamental element about the TPVs that made that an important component?’ The important thing was that the people knew that they would not get permanent residence in Australia.
He has a potential huge problem with the High Court. The thing I find distasteful about it is, yes, it is a problem of people coming from Indonesia in boats, so Indonesia certainly has a part to say in it. I think we should probably have the AFP with agreement with Indonesia being far more active in going after the people traffickers. That is the Indonesian side. On our side it is a problem that we have caused in large part as a result of our change of policy settings, but it is a problem that we have created.
Hall: The reason people want to come here is we have a good lifestyle. You and I both moved here for that reason. We are an attractive destination due to this.
Jensen: But there was something about Australia prior to those changes in 2008 that made us less attractive to boat people, and that was the suite of policies including TPVs.
Hall: I can accept there are more people now than at that time. There is not one factor because of the policies of the Australian government. Can’t you see the push factors behind that that are also affecting the rest of the world?
Jensen There is nowhere in the world that has had anywhere near the increase in people attempting to get in than Australia.
Hall: It seems very simplistic to me to say it is just because of the policy.
Jensen: If they don’t have the sugar on the table, an expression used by the Indonesian president to Phillip Ruddock …”
Conway: Can I just butt in here, Dennis? This is getting a bit circular, to be honest, and I am just trying to move Dennis …”
Jensen: What we have is a very wealthy first-world country in Australia. We are going to push the problem onto PNG and effectively try to bribe them to do it. At least with things like Nauru and Manus Island we were in charge of the process. With PNG, once they go there we are not in charge of the process any more.
Conway: When we are talking about this debate and you use throwaway lines like “sugar on the table” and it is just so juvenile, infantile and doesn’t really reflect the deep-seated complex problem it is, and across the coalition they agree. If you read the coalition proposals, they talk about holistic solutions and what was actually implemented was a holistic solution. There is no point having these inflammatory discussions.
Hall: What does Dennis Jensen see as the main issues facing Tangney?
Jensen: The economy. You can only afford to tackle the social issues if you have the money to do it. When we left government there was $75 billion in the kitty. Now debt limit has been raised to $350 billion. Equates to $15,000 in borrowing to every person in Australia. How long can we sustain this? That is why you are not going to find any big spending promises from us.
Hall: (to Conway) You are taking notes! It’s like having the secret service sitting here!
Jensen: (laughing) Now you know what it’s like!
Hall: “What is your biggest achievement in parliament so far?
Jensen: I think I have had a couple. On this issue of ETS/carbon tax, I was very instrumental in killing that one off from a coalition perspective. Still a work in progress is the joint strike fighter. It doesn’t get big press and doesn’t get me any kudos in the coalition party room. They see me as just muddying the waters, but I see our defence capability as critical and should be looked on as more than just political convenience.
Hall: You have been in parliament a while, nine years, and you are in a very safe seat. Is there are reason why you haven’t been given a portfolio?
Jensen: (laughing) You would have to ask the leaders that.
Hall: Do you think you should be getting a more senior role?
Jensen: Obviously I would like to have a more senior role and I have skills and abilities to offer.
Hall: If everything was open to you, you would you choose?
Jensen: Defence, education, science, those areas.
Hall: Preselection. Twice you were not preselected for Tangney as the sitting member? Do you have any comment on that?
Jensen: Not really.
Conway: What it really demonstrates is the health and vigour and competition in our division and in our party.
Jensen When it happened the media focused on it, not realising in WA it is a two-step process and I won the second stage. There were some local things that went on that I don’t want to get into too much detail.
Hall: Who do you think will win the election?
Jensen: Narrowly at the moment Liberals ahead.
Hall: Do you think it will be a hung parliament again?
Jensen: God, I hope not. Fortunately, two of the independents and the Greens likely to be voted out.