As the PM’s task force charged with looking into a carbon cap and trade system in Australia looks set to be dominated by industry figureheads (see Steven Mayne’s article today), John Howard will inevitably be charged with toadying to industry again.

It may be that, as the ABC’s “Greenhouse Mafia” piece on Four Corners asserted early this year, the fossil fuel industries in particular have a democratically unhealthy level of access to the PM’s ear, but the fact that his decisions have the general effect of safeguarding their interests simply illustrates the similarity of opinion they share: that these industries will be central to the nation’s future prosperity.

Thus the PM has said repeatedly that he has no intention of taking steps to address climate change that may disadvantage the global competitiveness of Australia’s energy and energy-intensive industries. The nation’s recent economic good fortunes – and given the coalition’s willingness to take credit for it, in good part his political fortunes – are built on the resources boom.

In this context it makes sense to stack the taskforce with people who treat the maintenance of resource interests as the main game, and the environment as a secondary consideration.

In broader scope, it’s about paradigms. Many argue that if we are to come to terms with climate change, we need nothing short of a new vision of what Australia is and what it does – to wit, one that doesn’t involve fossil fuels. Certainly the world has more than enough accessible carbon in the crust to wreck global climate many times over, and Australia a good share of it.

But the climate change threat doesn’t really seem to resonate with the PM – you get the sense that when he’s out watering his garden and he looks up at the clear blue sky on a pleasant morning, he just can’t imagine it. Thus the idea that we should – or by now, given the established domestic interests and infrastructure involved – even realistically could leave energy resources like coal in the ground is utterly beyond comprehension.

And this is the reality from which he will always proceed. We can decry that reality as being environmentally myopic, but on the specifics, the PM is nothing if not consistent.

But given the widespread level of public – and in some sectors, business – support for effective steps to address climate change, whether his outlook is one that is still adequately representative of public opinion is another question. It is becoming clearer by the drought- and bushfire-ridden day that the climate change issue is set to swing significant votes at the next poll.

If the case were otherwise, there would of course be no taskforce. Weeks ago The Age reported that an emissions reduction plan involving a carbon trading system was dumped by the PM in 2003 despite the majority support of cabinet. Public opinion has made its resurrection necessary. But it is hard to imagine an environmentally adequate outcome that would keep the big players in the resources industry happy. My prediction for the taskforce’s recommendations: consistent.

Peter Fray

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