There can be only one winner in the carbon-pricing endgame being played in Canberra. [5 October 2010 | Peter Boyer]
We’ve learned to lower our expectations when it comes to getting carbon pricing in place. It’s exaggerating to say Julia Gillard’s “Multi-Party Climate Change Committee” comes as a breath of fresh air, but after all we’ve put up with it sure seems like it.
There’s a lot of promise that the committee might at last foreshadow a new start to this vexed process. But we shouldn’t let a sense of relief blind us to the reality that there’s a long and uncertain road ahead before we can claim any success.
We need to be clear about what the committee isn’t:
• While it may have been Gillard’s intention that this be “multi-party”, Tony Abbott’s decision to keep the Liberals and Nationals out is an important limit to its effectiveness. You can’t get parliamentary consensus when half the MPs exclude themselves from the discussion.
• The committee doesn’t signify a clear path to a pricing mechanism. Cynics will see it as just an extension of the endless Canberra talkfest. Its role is to advise, and while it will have influence, the authority to determine outcomes remains firmly in the hands of the Gillard cabinet.
• It will not be an open forum. The government has determined that to resolve complex questions the committee members need to keep their deliberations to themselves. As Bob Brown sees it, “a bit of secrecy or confidentiality” is a reasonable price to pay for a good result.
• It’s no speed demon. The committee begins its deliberations this month, but if it follows the Gillard timetable it won’t be reporting back till the end of next year — six months later than when Labor’s original “carbon pollution reduction scheme” was to have been up and running.
All that said, the committee is a step in the right direction. It will include in its six parliamentary members both the prime minister and her deputy, Wayne Swan, with climate change minister Greg Combet making up the Labor numbers. That’s a fairly weighty government presence.
The other members are Greens Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne, and one of the independent MPs supporting the Government, Tony Windsor. This non-government element will help to keep things moving and make it harder for the government to reject the committee’s advice.
That would seem to put him outside the government’s criteria for membership. Gillard said that candidates for the committee must acknowledge that climate change is real and that a price needs to be put on carbon pollution. But no-one in the government has questioned Windsor’s membership. Maybe the conditions aren’t quite as cut-and-dried as they seem.
In any event, both criteria are sticking points for Abbott. He’s hasn’t repeated his statement of late last year that “the science [of climate change] is absolute crap”, but he hasn’t repudiated it either. His declared reason for directing coalition members to stay away from Gillard’s committee was opposition to a carbon tax or emissions trading, both being “a tax on everything”.
The committee’s task is to explore options for introducing a carbon price (which could be either a market mechanism like emissions trading or a direct tax on emissions) “to reduce carbon pollution, encourage investment in low emissions technologies and complement other measures including renewable energy and energy efficiency”.
Through Combet, it will advise Cabinet on possible policy positions that have been “informed by discussions with independent experts, the public and industry”.
The committee will retain four independent experts as advisors: economist Ross Garnaut, who led the government’s 2007-08 inquiry into climate change and its economic impact, scientist Will Steffen, who heads the ANU Climate Change Institute, Sydney business consultant Rod Sims, and Patricia Faulkner, chair of the Australian Social Inclusion Board.
It will be supported by a group of departmental heads, chaired by the secretary of Combet’s department, Martin Parkinson, and further advised by two “roundtable groups”, one representing business and the other environment, union and non-government organisations.
The committee is also required to “play a role in establishing community consensus on climate change”. How it’s to go about this hasn’t been stated, which probably means no-one knows.
But as Gillard has said many times, widespread support from the Australian community is crucial to the ultimate outcome. A carbon pricing scheme is a major policy step with potential for serious repercussions if it’s badly handled.
If the committee’s mission is to get public consensus, it will need strong support in the Parliament. Labor and Green members seem to be firmly on board, with independents generally supportive, but Abbott’s loud censure of the committee has so far been unchallenged among Coalition members.
But while the last election has given Abbott cause for hope, it also signalled voters’ unease about climate inaction. The tone of Gillard and her colleagues suggests a new-found determination to get the pricing inquiry moving and to reach a successful conclusion.
The debate about a carbon price will play a big part in the future of both Gillard and Abbott. The big sleeper issue of the election is now a high-stakes game that only one of the two leaders can win. Watch this space.