Who will influence Tony Abbott on climate policy if he claims the Lodge? The Coalition vows to ditch the carbon tax but its Direct Action alternative needs resourcing. The Power Index examines the field and finds ex-minister Robert Hill could be in the box seat.
It’s all very well to profile the most powerful people in Australia’s low-carbon economy under Julia Gillard. But come September 14 — perhaps earlier — there’s a strong chance of a new sheriff in town. The climate sector would be deeply affected by a Coalition victory, because it’s a key area of difference between the major parties. Powerful figures would be sacked or quit; some would leave the country. A fresh crop would rise to influence.
At No. 9 in The Power Index list of carbon influencers are the understudies waiting in the wings for a Tony Abbott government.
First, the losers. Abbott’s mantra is he thinks human-induced climate change is real — both parties promise to cut emissions by 5-25% by 2020 — but doesn’t want a carbon price. Anyone who has nailed their colours to the carbon-pricing mast won’t be in his carbon coterie. Rob Fowler, industry watcher and local rep for the International Emissions Trading Association, reckons “these are people who are going to be kicked to the kerb”.
Some changes will take time to filter through, some may struggle to pass the Senate, but Abbott’s approach spells trouble for climate heavyweights like Tim Flannery, Anthea Harris, Bernie Fraser and Heather Ridout. It means less influence for mandarins (and carbon price enthusiasts) Ross Garnaut, Martin Parkinson and Blair Comley.
The Climate Change Department — full of young, smart people and economics wonks — would be dramatically cut back and folded into the Environment Department. Fowler describes “very real concern” among bureaucrats who may lose their jobs; “we all march towards September 14”. There was a staff exodus under John Howard and it may happen again.
But there would be winners, too. The Coalition would need supportive figures to advise on and implement climate policy and lead reviews, agencies and statutory bodies (Abbott’s “Direct Action” policy will buy back emissions, largely from the land sector). While Labor’s climate stable is stocked with scientists, bureaucrats, economists and environmentalists, the Coalition listens to business.
One carbon insider says “the browner end of industry” — especially electricity generators — influences the Coalition, although manufacturers may be on the outer (some profit from the carbon price). Outspoken climate sceptics will be treated with caution, as they muddle Abbott’s message.
To name-check some winners, Liberal luminary Robert Hill is well-placed to be the new Garnaut. Hill has the expertise; he negotiated the Kyoto Protocol as Howard’s environment minister, then became Australian ambassador to the UN (useful for climate negotiations). He led the government’s Australian Carbon Trust (which became Low Carbon Australia, then the CEFC), promoting energy efficiency among businesses. Hill remains chairman of the CRC for Low Carbon Living.
Climate analyst Erwin Jackson says Hill is “thoughtful and considered”. Other industry figures describe him as knowledgeable and methodical, with a spark — he’s not afraid to debate a controversial climate topic in private. “He tends to ask a lot of questions until he’s comfortable with an issue,” an insider said. He’s not associated with carbon pricing and has supported Direct Action, telling journalists “on the Coalition side its focus has been on Direct Action and that’s perfectly legitimate. The advantage of Direct Action is you can actually contract to buy an outcome …”.
“Robert Hill may pop up as a senior adviser or agency chief under the Coalition.”
A bashful Hill didn’t want to be named by The Power Index and tried to scotch rumours he may slot into a carbon role under the Coalition. He said via email:
“[I] haven’t been sounded out and [am] not expecting any offers presuming a Coalition victory. Busy doing what I do now in public policy (sustainability and defence), higher education and international business. Certainly would not rate on any ‘Power Index’.”
Hill is getting increasingly interested in international governance issues, which could pull him away from carbon. But don’t take those denials as gospel — Hill may pop up as a senior adviser or agency chief under the Coalition.
There will be other winners. Sympathetic consultants will be needed to polish up Direct Action: think Danny Price from Frontier Economics and Stuart Allinson and Adrian Palmer from Exigency Management. The Coalition might like ANU economist Warwick McKibbin on board, but his carbon tax criticism may not convert into support for Direct Action.
The Institute of Public Affairs may find its star rise on agenda-setting. The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell may wield greater influence over policy.
The Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott and Maria Tarrant have the ear of senior Coalition figures. An insider suggests miners would have more influence; some strongly oppose carbon pricing, and miners’ direct emissions are growing. Will Mitch Hooke from the Minerals Council of Australia — alongside BHP, and David Peever from Rio — dominate Coalition climate policy?
Electricity generators like Origin’s Grant King and AGL’s Michael Fraser are likely to be powerful.
While Abbott wants to close the CEFC, could there be a new role for CEO Oliver Yates? The ex-Macquarie banker unsuccessfully sought Liberal preselection for federal NSW seats in 2009. When asked about Abbott closing the CEFC, Yates replied: “I believe in the democratic process.” Yates has financial nous — but he does express support for carbon pricing. He thinks the cost of carbon will be factored into the future, “somehow, somewhere”.
People reducing emissions through storing carbon in trees and soil may thrive under the Coalition. Andrew Grant has made good money from carbon farming and may influence policy. Grant has criticised Direct Action but acknowledges it may work for his business. He told The Power Index he’s not worried about a change of government and has been preparing for it. Biochar expert Jane Sargison may be picked up by the Coalition.
Of course, it’s possible the Coalition wins government but doesn’t dismantle the carbon price (nor the CEFC nor CCA), meaning more continuity in the carbon sector. Scrapping Labor’s policies may not pass the Senate, and Abbott may back away from a risky double-dissolution election. Or Joe Hockey or Malcolm Turnbull may wind up PM — neither shares Abbott’s deep-seated opposition to a carbon price.
It wouldn’t be the first time the climate sector has been surprised by a political shock the commentariat didn’t see coming.