The Abbott government shows its hand

The Senate debate on bills to repeal Australia’s climate change laws is revealing the Abbott government’s less-than-honourable motives. [10 December 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Government Senate leader Eric Abetz and his leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott. SYDNEY MORNING HERALD PHOTO

Fantasy has always been a core component of the operation of federal parliament, especially since 1988 when it moved to the fortress on Capital Hill.

This is party politics at work, where ideology rules over reality. And never has this been so starkly evident than in the unreal atmosphere of the past few weeks, in the debates over Tony Abbott’s plan to scrap every last piece of climate legislation enacted by the previous parliament.

When Abbott’s campaign to “axe the tax” began three years ago, I naively thought that this would eventually come down to getting rid of the fixed-price element of the Labor-Green package, bringing forward the scheduled 2015 shift to an emissions trading scheme.

After all, John Howard supported emissions trading (if reluctantly) in 2007, and Abbott himself advocated it in 2009 as his preferred policy tool. But that was before he ousted Malcolm Turnbull as leader and embarked on his long campaign to win office.

Weeks of debate on the government’s bills to repeal its predecessors’ climate laws have exposed Tony Abbott’s motives, and the news isn’t good for effective climate action in this country.

On the morning of November 13, the long, still-unfinished debate on repealing the 11 acts that make up the “Clean Energy Future” package opened with the prime minister’s statement that “the Australian people have already voted upon this bill, and now the parliament gets its chance.”

Governments must work with the parliament they’re given, so any claim of a mandate is really no more than a political posture. This one, based on Julia Gillard’s 2010 carbon tax statement, is getting tired, especially given the recent fuss about Tony Abbott breaching pre-election pledges.

Abbott ignored the content of the legislation, concentrating on the hip pocket. The repeal legislation, he said, would cause electricity, gas and grocery prices to fall, leaving households better off by an average of $550 a year.

The $550 figure is dubious; Abbott and his Coalition colleagues have consistently ignored more modest independent estimates of the carbon price’s cost. More concerning is the fact that this was the core of the government case for Australia to abandon its clean energy scheme.

Except for a single reference to “the climate change bureaucracy”, Abbott’s second-reading speech made no mention of climate, instead characterising the scheme as an unwanted financial burden. This tells us nothing. To a taxpayer, every tax is a financial burden.

Environment minister Greg Hunt also gave the financial argument top billing, but added a secondary claim that in its first year carbon pricing had not reduced emissions at all.

That’s a furphy. Official emissions data do show signs of a slow-down, though the carbon price was never going to change a nation’s habits in a year. It won’t start to bite for at least another year.

Opposition MPs argued passionately for the cost-effectiveness of a scheme that they had laboured long and hard to put in place — or rather, for the emissions trading scheme that it’s designed to become from mid-2015, incorporating a cap on total national emissions.

All to no avail, of course. The Abbott government’s massive majority saw the repeal legislation sail through the lower house.

But the Senate has been a different story. Labor and the Greens, who are in a 10-seat majority in the upper chamber until the new Senate is in place next July, were able to force separate debates on the government’s proposed abolition of two key components of Clean Energy Futures.

This shifted the focus from a discussion about carbon pricing and power bills to the rationale for abolishing the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). In the process, the ideology behind Abbott’s repeal push was exposed.

The government’s plans for the climate laws verge on the primeval, like the killing of a rival’s progeny by a victorious alpha male. This is beyond rational thought. It’s a crusade.

Like Tony Abbott, government Senate leader Eric Abetz led off the debate without a single mention of climate change, talking instead about power bills, broken promises and an election mandate.

As the Senate debate on the CEFC geared up, its chair, Jillian Broadbent, told a select committee that far from costing money, the corporation was delivering a 7.3 per cent return on investment in 37 projects, and could potentially deliver half of the Coalition’s 2020 emissions reduction target.

According to Broadbent, the CEFC has been a catalyst for investment in clean energy. In its short life it has generated $2.2 billion of private investment in renewable energy, a figure far exceeding the amount of government money invested.

The CEFC’s success has dominated the Senate debate. Opposition senators catalogued many local schemes made possible by the existence of a government-backed body able to get the major banks to support clean energy projects at the rate of $2.90 for every dollar of government money.

Labor senator Anne Urquhart highlighted a $45,000 upgrade to LED lighting for the Kingston Civic Centre that cut the building’s lighting costs by 75 per cent. She urged Kingston-based Abetz “to venture up the road to the council chambers and flick the light on”.

But Abetz won’t be flicking any switches at the Kingston Civic Centre. Highlighting CEFC successes isn’t in his interests because the CEFC isn’t his baby. That’s party politics at work.

Abbott and Abetz ask us to accept at face value their claims that the existing carbon abatement machinery is worthless in its entirety, and that their own untested, unsupported Direct Action scheme, legislation for which has yet to appear, is more effective at cutting carbon emissions.

The government’s plans for the climate laws verge on the primeval, like the killing of a rival’s progeny by a victorious alpha male. The real focus of the Coalition isn’t reducing emissions, but demolishing its opponents’ legacy, at whatever long-term cost.

This is beyond rational thought. It’s a crusade, which should trouble us all.

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