Anthea Harris has arguably been more involved in pricing carbon pollution than anyone else in Australia. How does the Climate Change Authority chief and veteran carbon adviser get things done in this fraught, controversial field? A background in consulting helped.
The Climate Change Authority, a newly formed body created out of the carbon pricing legislation, is a bit like a mixture of the Productivity Commission and the Reserve Bank. And it’s CEO Anthea Harris who stirs the mix.
She’s tasked with advising (rather than directing) the government on how fast it should reduce emissions, and the kinds of policies it should implement to do so. Ultimately the government can choose to ignore the advice. So much like the Productivity Commission, Harris’ power only derives from how well she and the CCA board can argue their case in public, and the credibility which others attach to their advice.
There’s an unusually unanimous view across industry, government and lobby groups that she is the “natural”, the “obvious” and the “perfect” choice for the job. Why? There is no other person in the country that could claim to have been as heavily involved throughout almost all the various initiatives that have sought to design and implement a price on carbon pollution.
Back in 2002 as a consultant for Frontier Economics, she was commissioned by the New South Wales government to review its next-to-useless Greenhouse Benchmarks scheme. Then Bob Carr decided he wanted it replaced with an emissions trading scheme in less than 12 months. Harris has been working on emissions trading pretty much ever since.
Her next role was working for a coalition of the state and territory governments on the design of a national emissions trading scheme that could be implemented by the states, a task she says was like “herding a pack of cats”. Nonetheless, the design was picked up almost entirely by the Howard government’s Peter Shergold-led taskforce on emissions trading. At the time, then-Department of Climate Change head Martin Parkinson freely acknowledged they had borrowed extensively from the framework Harris helped design, saying “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Naturally, Harris got the job to help design a federal scheme.
One long-time player in the clean energy sector observed “she is probably the single most instrumental person in the creation and introduction of a carbon price in Australia … people forget just how important the NSW Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme was. It, in conjunction with the Renewable Energy Target, gave other governments the backbone to implement market-based measures to reduce emissions.”
While Harris has dedicated a decade of her career to implementing a price on carbon, she isn’t some climate change crusader. In an interview, she said she ended up working on the NSW benchmarks review largely by chance; she was working on more conventional economic issues at Frontier like trade practices and airport regulation. And she made her start working for six years on the Productivity Commission’s predecessor, the Industry Commission.
So how has Harris managed to survive and thrive in what is an incredibly politically charged and bruising area of policy? “Disarming pleasantness, but with an analytical sharpness that can take people by surprise,” one energy sector veteran explained.
In my own experience, it’s almost impossible to get her angry, even when there is significant disagreement. What would become a heated argument with say a Richard Bolt (formerly secretary of Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries and now Education) is an exchange of ideas with Harris. Through a series of what come across as light-hearted questions she subtly forces you to consider and address the problems from your own point of view.
One source puts it down to her consulting background — clients can’t be told what to do but need to be persuaded what’s in their best interests and taken on a journey to appreciate the best solutions. Harris points out in her work to develop an emissions trading scheme for the states there was no other way of getting things done than to get them to each transparently, methodically work through all the various options.
Another senior energy policy player has a different and less complimentary take, suggesting she uses feminine charm to deflect and avoid areas where her argument is weak: “With [Resources Department secretary Blair] Comley, Parkinson and Bolt you have to work hard to keep up with them, and you know where you stand at the end of an argument. It’s not the same with Anthea. She’s good theoretically, but not so good on appreciating the real-world commercial realities.”
Others see it differently. Because she’s been in the game for a long time she knows where all the bodies are buried and has heard most of the arguments several times over. Another player in the clean energy sector puts it simply: “You can’t bullshit her.”
An energy market analyst says “she’s a dry economist at her core and very analytically rigorous. She’s respectful but driven by the evidence.” At the same time, the analyst says rigour is coupled with political pragmatism — “she has a good eye for what can and can’t fly politically”.
Working on the development of a price on carbon pollution has been an incredibly tortuous and drawn out process, with a number of false starts. And it could all come to nought if Tony Abbott is elected and successfully rescinds the carbon price. Harris could suddenly find herself out of a job.
How on earth does she keep at it? Surprisingly, she says she’s never really thought too much about where her career will go next.
Another person who has worked closely with her over the years told The Power Index there’s a tough and resolutely determined person sitting beneath the bubbly and well groomed exterior. They asked her whether she was getting tired of it; she replied: ”I need to see this thing through.”
One wonders whether she will keep at it if Abbott manages to unwind all her hard work.