Australia’s slide into climate policy obscurity

The unhappy coincidence of the Warsaw climate meeting and Tony Abbott’s drive to repeal Australia’s carbon price [12 November 2013 | Peter Boyer]

These prefabricated structures, placed on the pitch of Warsaw’s National Stadium, are the venue for the 19th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. PHOTO ALIK KEPLICZ, AP

Today, at long last, we’re to get a look at Australia’s new order. As federal parliament begins its final sitting for the year, the assembled ministry of Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National government will be seen in action for the first time.

In all the changes of government since Gough Whitlam first stood at the dispatch box in the old Parliament House, I can think of nothing remotely like this one. In the past we’ve always had some idea of what to expect. Not this time.

As soon as he was elected, publicity-hound Abbott suddenly became media-shy. The din of the last months of Labor gave way to an eerie silence as a new regime required ministers to inform the prime minister’s office before making any public statement to journalists.

Misspent MP allowances, a scandal when Peter Slipper was speaker, were redefined as indiscretions. Refugee boat arrivals, so much in our faces before September 7, became military affairs. Events at sea and in detention centres are now “operational”, code for secret.

The pre-election budget emergency has vaporised, opening the way for treasurer Joe Hockey to provide the Reserve Bank with an $8.8 billion buffer against hard times while raising the country’s debt limit by $200 billion.

And then there’s climate policy, or its absence. Tony Abbott and environment minister Greg Hunt are demanding that Labor’s pricing scheme be repealed before they’ve drafted legislation to replace it or provided any useful detail on how their “direct action” policy will function.

Hunt calls the current scheme an “electricity tax” and talks about power bills, insisting that repeal will bring down electricity prices by an average of 9 per cent. Joe Hockey hasn’t nominated a figure, but says there’s “no doubt” they’ll come down.

No doubt? The fact is, nothing can be guaranteed in the labyrinth we call the economy.

Now the cat’s escaping from the bag. The energy industry says it can’t guarantee a fall in domestic power bills, while both the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia advise that price falls for other goods and services may be delayed, or be smaller than expected.

“There will not be an across the board reduction in food and grocery prices once the carbon tax is repealed,” was the blunt assessment of the Australian Food and Grocery Council. It advises that long-term electricity contracts could see the carbon price remain in bills for up to 18 months.

Here’s a devious thought: some government MPs don’t really want Labor’s scheme to disappear. While it’s there, they can continue to use it as a whipping boy for every price rise, every economic problem. If it goes, that excuse will go with it.

And if the scheme is abolished and, despite the best efforts of the government and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, prices stay put or rise further, then the government heads into the latter part of its term saddled with an unhappy electorate.

But Abbott is locked in by his “axe the tax” rhetoric. Lacking a Senate majority, he needs Labor Senators to vote for repeal before 30 June next year because he knows that repeal legislation passed after that date will have to address some very tricky retrospectivity issues.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten says that Labor will vote for repeal when the Abbott government details an effective alternative to the existing scheme. That’s a vacant space which the world is keen to see filled. Which brings us to the Warsaw meeting that started yesterday.

In 1995 Senator John Faulkner, minister for the environment under Paul Keating, led the Australian delegation at the first meeting of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Senator Robert Hill, John Howard’s first environment minister, led the delegation in 1996.

The pattern was set. In the plenary sessions of all 18 UNFCCC meetings to date, under Keating, Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Australian delegations have been headed by a senior government politician.

There’s nothing especially amiss about Greg Hunt not going to Warsaw. The carbon tax repeal bills are after all his responsibility. But no other elected representative of the Abbott government will be there either. Australia’s delegation is led by Justin Lee, a senior diplomat.

Perception plays a huge role in the delicate balancing act of international climate diplomacy. Governments and peoples around the world judge their own policies and actions against those of others, keeping a constant eye on what’s happening around them.

With economic thinking around the world strongly in favour of carbon pricing as the most cost-effective way to cut emissions, the 2011 passage of Australia’s Clean Energy Future legislation was celebrated in UNFCCC circles as an important advance in the global effort.

That was then. Now, Tony Abbott believes that getting rid of these laws is so vital that every government MP must be in Canberra this week and next. So he has the dubious distinction of leading the first Australian government not to have one of its own at the UN climate talks.

Other countries will conclude either that Australia thinks that such meetings serve little purpose, or that curbing carbon emissions isn’t important, period. Either way, Australia is delivering a resounding vote of no confidence in a global effort that needs all the help it can get.

Whatever decision is made at the Warsaw climate conference, the Australian government won’t be owning it, and Australia will be one more step removed from the quest for an effective world agreement on emissions. This is Tony Abbott’s one-finger salute to the world.

NEXT Sunday, 17 November, street marches and rallies around Australia will focus on the climate crisis and the need for stronger action to cut emissions. Rallies will begin at Launceston’s City Park at 11am, and at Parliament House, Hobart, at 12 noon.

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