My Research Journey with the Sydney Environment Institute

Akash reflects on his Honours Research Fellowship with SEI and discusses how his findings changed the way he views politics.

In early 2016, I was fortunate to receive the Honours Research Fellowship for the Sydney Environment Institute. So began my journey as a young researcher. The research question I wanted to answer was: what factors led the Second Rudd Government to shift policy from a fixed to floating carbon price before the 2013 federal election? Given the success of the fixed carbon price in generating government revenue and lowering carbon emissions, I was puzzled at why Prime Minister Rudd would alter the government’s policy position. As it turns out, bad policy can often be the result of some great politics.

I argued that Prime Minister Rudd was a policy entrepreneur who used climate policy as a metaphorical ‘political paddle’ with which to couple the multiple streams of problems, politics, and policies that emerged before the election. In addition, I illustrate that he coupled the streams to maximise his chances of political survival, which would prevent the dreaded outcome of re-election failure.

The most important of my research findings were the interesting ways in which the Prime Minister strategically crafted communication with the electorate in defining the climate policy problem, to his own ends. The research is highly relevant as it illustrates how complex public policy problems can be wielded as tools for political survival. Reviewing the literature, the Honours thesis was also unique as it was a pioneering study into the climate politics of the Second Rudd Government.

These arguments and findings deeply changed the way in which I view politics. They upended traditional narratives of why certain policies come into effect. They challenged the conventional story of how politicians interact in the theater of democracy. They replaced some of my basic understandings of the nature of politics. These are dangerous ideas. Surprisingly, this research journey turned out to fundamentally change my views.

I thank my supervisor, Dr. Christopher Neff for first sparking my interest in public policy and then continually challenging these arguments in my research. His excellent supervision, combined with the incredible support of my parents and friends throughout the year was remarkable.

I also thank the Sydney Environment Institute for providing the atmosphere to raise such thought-provoking ideas and the community to support my exploration of them through the year.

The little family of staff and researchers created a great environment for learning. From the beginning to the end, I thank Communications Coordinator Rebecca Simpson for helping me narrow my research question to Executive Administrator Michelle St Anne for organising a calendar packed with thought-provoking events and research mentoring sessions. From Co-Directors Prof David Schlosberg stoking my interest in undergraduate studies in environmental political thought to Prof Iain McCalman debating with me the place of time in politics. From researcher Luke Craven’s lessons on the interlocking concepts in social sciences research to fellow SEI Fellow Anastasia Mortimer’s detailed and feedback at the most critical times. I am also grateful to SEI’s associated researchers Dr. Lisette Collins, Elisabeth Wale and Marie McKenzie for their research tips and guidance throughout the year.

While I have a deep sense of gratitude for everyone at SEI for their help, I also recognise the responsibility I carry from having received this opportunity. This means continuing to work, research or contribute to progressive causes redressing injustice. I’m not sure what’s next for me in my journey – research, work or otherwise. But I’m sure I’ll treasure the lessons I learned from this amazing opportunity, for whatever comes next.

Akash Bhattacharjee is a 2016 recipient of the Honours Research Fellowship at the Sydney Environment Institute. His Honours thesis focused on the politics behind Australian climate change policy and Akash was awarded First Class Honours. He is a Student Ambassador at the University of Sydney and co-leads international law submissions at NSW Young Lawyers. He was recently a sustainable energy advisor to Pollinate Energy, a UNFCCC-recognised Australian social enterprise working to create viable solutions to energy poverty in India. In this work, among other things, he secured a deal to transition 600 people from kerosene and wood-based fuels to the less environmentally-harmful LPG source for cooking.

Akash Bhattacharjee: akashbglobal@gmail.com