Best of 2010: Gillard's climate coup


Julia Gillard

First published in Eureka Street on 29 September 2010.

If the Gillard Government manages to serve a full term — if it survives the random risks of MP health and mortality, and Tony Abbott's determined wrecking program — there is a good chance that Parliament will pass a well-designed, effective national carbon pricing policy into law in 2012.

Such an achievement would be a major policy success that Gillard could legitimately boast of, going into a 2013 full-term election.

Certainly the new Cabinet climate change advisory committee (announced on Monday) is unusually well-conceived, in terms of both mandate and membership.

It starts with the premise that some form of national carbon pricing is needed soon, in order that Australia not fall behind its international trading partners and competitors. This premise cuts the ground from under the feet of climate change deniers, making their arguments irrelevant.

Second, it breaks the destructive 'the best is the enemy of the good' Labor-Greens disputes of the Rudd years. The Greens are firmly in the tent, effectively co-chairing this committee. They have had to give up something important: the committee's mandate is to advise on the best method of carbon pricing — a carbon tax, or emissions trading scheme — not on what national emissions reduction targets to aim for.

But Labor has had to give up something important too. In opting under Rudd for an ETS, and discarding a carbon tax as politically impractical, Labor went a long way down the road of making politically necessary but painful compromises with industry special interests, in order to build broad industry support for their ETS approach (thereby losing the Greens).

All that hard-won achievement is now back in the melting pot. Business will be loath to lose the concessions and profit opportunities it had won under the Rudd ETS.

But Greg Combet made clear that the new committee is going back to the drawing board on whether an ETS or a carbon tax is the best way to go. In the post-Copenhagen international environment, all policy bets are open. Though the influential insider publication Climate Spectator opines that the ETS is likely to prevail, I am not so sure of this. It will be a real policy argument now.

The important thing is that by the end of 2011, there will be a broad-based recommendation as to the best means of carbon pricing. The committee will not have done its job if it sits on the fence.

Its membership is well-chosen. Gillard as Chair won't have a strong initial view. Her two deputy chairs are Milne and Combet. Milne may favour a tax now, but Combet, I would guess, still has an open mind.

There are four other current members. The Treasurer may be swayed by Treasury's preference for emissions trading over taxing (we know the Treasury view from their published Red Book of advice to the incoming Labor Government).

Independent Tony Windsor, on the other hand, is alert to the risk of perverse market rationalism-driven outcomes of a broad ETS embracing agriculture. He is concerned that food production may fall if farmers are market-driven to growing biofuels or to sequestering carbon in forestry.

Significantly, there are three vacant seats on the committee: one for Rob Oakeshott or Andrew Wilkie as Independents, and two for the Coalition if it should rethink its present boycott of the committee.

The committee has four expert advisers: Ross Garnaut, who seems to incline to a limited carbon tax now, leaving open the transition to an internationally linked ETS later on; Professor Will Steffen, who will keep current global climate science accurately before the committee; Rod Sims, who represents an industry pro-ETS view; and Patricia Faulkner who will represent the consumer interest in keeping energy costs down.

Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, while not on the committee, will be a key offstage voice (and trusted conduit to and from the coal mining and energy industries). Importantly, he now favours some form of carbon pricing, for international trade competitiveness reasons.

But he says the paramount interest here should be Australia's national interests in mining and manufacturing — not in creating profit opportunities for the financial services industry. This suggests he might favour a carbon tax or a simple tax-ETS hybrid scheme.

The committee will function in secret as a Cabinet committee. This is good: it limits the opportunities for powerful special interest lobbying, until the committee has agreed on and submitted its recommendations to Government.

There will be limited opportunity for public consultation: not enough for climate change deniers to distort the process, as they did under the Rudd Government. The tide of public climate change knowledge and opinion in any case is now moving in the direction of accepting the need for Australia to have some form of carbon pricing, and soon.

Despite The Australian's persistent rearguard action, voices like Marius Kloppers of BHP and Grant King of Origin Energy now have the public's ear.

If the Coalition were smart, they would quickly review their position on climate change policy. They will find the business sector leaving them behind as irrelevant, if they do not get on board this committee process. But this would require Tony Abbott to change his stated views.

The above optimistic prognosis assumes the Gillard Government can go to full term. If not, it could all fall in a heap again as it did under Rudd. The game is not yet won. 

Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of A Certain Maritime Incident, about the fate of the Indonesian fishing boat SIEV X.

Topic tags: tony kevin, carbon price committe, gillard, climate change, ross garnaut



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Existing comments

"An ETS or a carbon tax (which) is the better way to go?". Let me get this straight - if Australia produces 30 million-plus tonnes of coal per annum and exports most of it to gigantic industrial economies, isn't that consistent with manufacturing weapons and exporting them to rogue states? This is then like saying "we gave you the guns but we didn't shoot them, so we are not responsible for the damage". If we burn 10% of the coal we produce, then under an ETS or carbon tax we would be penalised accordingly. Yet we are primarily responsible for the carbon emissions from the 30 million tonnes of coal we export annually. Shouldn't Australian coal exports be caron taxed at source?
Claude Rigney | 12 January 2011

May ETS and carbon taxing not happen!' 30% of scientists in the field, including Australians Bob Carter and Ian Plimer, assert that it is not possible to identify what proportion of global warming is caused by anthropogenic CO2 emissions when so many natural factors are at work. Man's CO2 impact is likely to be very minor! Let us not over react.
Gerard Tonks | 12 January 2011

Gerard Tonks, I find your comments extremely unhelpful and misleading. I'm sure it is difficult to gauge the full extent to which humans are impacting on the climate though I doubt your figure of 30% of climate scientists (where ever you pulled that from) believe that the CO2 inmpact from humans is likely to be very minor. 97% of climate experts agree humans are causing global warming. That humans are causing global warming is the position of the Academies of Science from 19 countries plus many scientific organisations that study climate science. More specifically, around 95% of active climate researchers actively publishing climate papers endorse the consensus position.

I think it is very clear to anyone who remains informed of such issue, that human induced climate change is indeed occuring and there is hardly the possibility of overeacting.
Desmond | 17 January 2011

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