The real intergenerational theft

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey make much of their concern for future generations. Their cavalier attitude to climate policy says otherwise. [10 March 2015 | Peter Boyer]

It’s February 2010. Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme” is the key climate policy measure in play, and Tony Abbott has just been elected leader of the opposition.

Joe Hockey launches his 2015 Intergenerational Report. PHOTO Guardian Australia

Joe Hockey launches his 2015 Intergenerational Report. PHOTO Guardian Australia

On the first day of the month, treasurer Wayne Swan releases his Intergenerational Report, fully 20 per cent of which is devoted to the environment, notably the impact of climate change.

Swan’s report cites projections by economist Ross Garnaut and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics that taking no action on carbon emissions would diminish the economy by $17,000 per person by 2100 and cut food productivity by up to 17 per cent by 2050.

Swan writes about the need to make the state of the environment integral to economic forecasting in this country, an achievement that’s eluded governments the world over except Denmark. The 2010 IGR is a start but that’s still a long way behind Denmark on this important reform.

Fast-forward five years and some significant wins by Tony Abbott. Kevin Rudd is now history along with his carbon pricing scheme. So is his successor Julia Gillard and her carbon scheme, although she at least managed to put hers into effect before the Senate finally killed it last year.

Leading the charge against carbon pricing didn’t protect Abbott from his Liberal critics, but he’s stared them down and kept his job as prime minister. That means Joe Hockey is still treasurer, so it fell to him last week to deliver Australia’s fourth Intergenerational Report.

In return for the Greens’ vote in 2013 to lift the limit on government debt, Hockey promised in effect to extend the 2010 initiative with a dedicated environment section in the IGR, including the effect of climate policies on the economy and budget.

His report has a section called “Managing the environment”, with a subsection about climate change that includes a summary of the 2014 “State of the Climate” findings by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. All this suggests Hockey kept his promise. Except he didn’t.

Far from advancing the 2010 proposition that economic statements should take full account of climate change and the environment, Hockey’s “key facts” about how Australia will change over the next 40 years contain no mention of either climate or the environment generally.

The report dedicated a scant five lines to vaguely speculating on how climate change might affect agriculture and transport, leading off with the benefits. Beyond this there was nothing on the potential economic or budgetary impact of a warming/drying/wetting climate.

Hockey and the Abbott government generally have adopted a small-target strategy on human-caused climate change. While they won’t deny its existence, they won’t give it any prominence either. Wherever possible they will ignore it altogether.

In effect that’s denial, which in a government is nothing short of negligence. But negligence is harder to attack than actual missteps, as MPs found when they tackled Abbott in question time.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten asked Abbott to confirm “that the government believes that climate change may be beneficial”, and Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler asked why the report ignored climate in coming decades.

Greens MP Adam Bandt characterised the absence of climate parameters as “intergenerational theft”, the term used by Abbott and Hockey to describe overspending by Labor governments.

Abbott responded that far from stealing from the future, “we are taking strong and effective action on climate change”. He predicted that by 2020 emissions will be 12 per cent below those of 2005, and 30 per cent lower on a per-capita basis.

He went on: “We are not a government that runs around habitually blowing our trumpet, but when it comes to climate change, when it comes to actually reducing emissions, this country’s record, under the policies of this government, will be absolutely amongst the best in the world.”

Bravo, except that the government doesn’t yet have any major abatement measure in place. Any current emissions reduction is a result of rooftop solar take-up, high power prices and other things it has had little or no part in. It did, however, have a say about one abatement instrument.

The carbon tax was dragging coal-power emissions down when the Abbott government scrapped it last June. Analysis of National Electricity Market data by Pitt and Sherry shows that in the eight months since then those emissions rose at a rate of over four million tonnes a year.

But in politics, confidence counts for a lot more than facts. Buoyed by last week’s favourable polls, Tony Abbott’s body language responding to those questions showed a man well on top of things.

History, which deals with the meaning of what’s happening, won’t be so kind, but that won’t bother the prime minister. History doesn’t vote at the next election.

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