With the conservative side of politics locked in battle over climate and energy policies, the rest of us can only look on in dismay.
When Tony Abbott first took aim at Julia Gillard’s carbon tax all those years ago, he set in motion a chain of events which still reverberates through the Australian political landscape.
Now, long after Abbott’s angry, divisive campaign to discredit “Ju-liar” and her tax, the Coalition faces its own credibility demons. It is now bitterly divided over how to stop what little remains of its tattered energy policy from going the same way as the carbon tax.
Last week’s party-room debate over the National Energy Guarantee – which the Labor opposition thinks it may support to help put some sort of price control on carbon pollution – would be hard to imagine in democratic governing circles anywhere except Donald Trump’s America.
Australia had this same debate in 2008 and 2009, in what now seem more rational times when European democracies including the UK, appreciating the scale of the challenge ahead, tackled economy-wide controls over fossil-fuel pollution.
Now, according to the World Bank’s Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, 42 national and 25 subnational jurisdictions are pricing carbon or have legislated a schedule to do so. In our own part of the world that includes China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.
When the carbon tax passed in 2011, I thought that this big economic shift would eventually prevail despite the lack of Coalition support, but I underestimated the skill and determination of Tony Abbott as opposition leader.
If we want to know how things are now at this pretty pass, we need go back no further than Abbott’s deeply sceptical comment on carbon pricing – “a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one” – just before he became prime minister in 2013.
This is the thing: many conservative politicians, including MPs Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Senators Ian Macdonald, Eric Abetz, Jonathon Duniam and pretty well all National MPs and senators, see human-induced climate change as a plot to scare people.
Ignoring science, they base their belief on ideology, religion, distrust of expert knowledge and “gut instinct”. In turn they can influence colleagues who are just tired of the constant background pressure around climate change.
Hardly anyone now seriously believes in “direct action”, the narrative crafted in opposition by Abbott and his climate policy spokesman Greg Hunt as an alternative to carbon pricing, and continued now by Hunt’s successor as environment minister, Josh Frydenberg.
That narrative says that the carbon tax and support for renewable energy were responsible for all our electricity price woes. In reality the carbon tax added about 10 per cent to power bills, but that pales into insignificance when compared to other market factors over the past decade.
The head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, told a forum of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia last week that the main cause of rising power prices was the cost of the network, while the carbon tax was simply a victim of poor timing.
Both Hunt and Frydenberg have said repeatedly that the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), which draws from a limited revenue pool to fund land carbon schemes, mostly to do with trees, has been less costly and more effective than the carbon tax.
Most scientific and economic opinion, and the government’s own emissions data, say otherwise. So did Malcolm Turnbull himself in 2010, telling parliament that direct subsidies to cut emissions were “a slippery slope” leading to “higher taxes and more costly and less effective abatement”.
But this is about party-room politics, not evidence or expertise.
The irony is that recent and planned land clearing operations, mainly in Queensland, are more than neutralising the 124 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions that the government claims to have saved as a result of ERF-supported tree carbon schemes since 2015.
The government’s emissions projections for this year indicate that 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be emitted from land-clearing this year alone, on top of over 160 million tonnes released since 2015.
The contradictions are everywhere, including in Tasmania. The Hodgman government’s claim to lead the world in making Tasmania carbon-neutral depends entirely on a low level of forest harvesting.
Meanwhile resources minister Guy Barnett wants to open up 356,000 hectares of native forest to logging. If business-as-usual resumes when that moratorium is lifted or expires, Tasmania’s tenuous climate leadership claims will vanish in the smoke from the clear-fell burns.
Contradictions are irrelevant in these political games, played by people in an alternative universe who think climate change is nothing to worry about. The constant question for those of us who do take this seriously is, what on earth will awaken them to reality?