Those with memories longer than most in the big old parties will remember that one of the Howard Government’s favourite strategies in the climate debate, from the late 1990s right through until their Emissions Trading Task Group report last year, was to state the costs of action in absolute terms while ignoring business-as-usual economic growth.

Ably assisted by ABARE, Howard and his ministers turned the costs of climate action into a bogeyman when a simple comparative analysis showed that the costs would be dwarfed by the rate at which we are all getting richer.

This analysis, shouted from the rooftops by the Greens, Greenpeace, Clive Hamilton and many others, was lost in the populist fray.

The Climate Institute’s report yesterday, written by two leading economists in the field, former Greens staffer Richard Denniss and the CSIRO’s Steve Hatfield-Dodds, is one of the best contributions to this debate yet. But you wouldn’t know it from the Opposition’s dishonest and disingenuous abuse of it in Question Time. The report demonstrates very clearly that, while the cost increases that will come down the line with an effective emissions trading scheme are quite substantial, they are still smaller than expected increases in wealth for all income brackets and for all carbon prices modelled.

In other words, even with a high carbon price, energy will actually decrease as a proportion of household spending.

The report goes on to say that, with investment in energy efficiency or cash compensation using the vast revenue accumulated through emissions permit sales, there will be very significant savings to all brackets for all carbon prices modelled.

Energy affordability comparisons are undeniably tricky and complex, but that is no excuse for the Opposition’s return to Howard Government form, quite deliberately misrepresenting the report, taking figures out of context and using it to say the exact opposite of what it actually says.

I’ve been shocked by Brendan Nelson’s populism on petrol, but, just when I thought the Opposition could go no lower, they managed to achieve it. Cory Bernardi led the charge in the Senate, citing the report as demonstration of the unfair imposition on families of emissions trading.

The Government, tragically, made a ham-fisted attempt to defend its position. Instead of calling the Opposition to task for deliberately abusing and misusing the data, they fell back on first principles — that the cost of inaction will be greater than the cost of action. That is, of course, true. But when given such an opportunity, surely it would have been better to use the details of the report itself and expose the Opposition on the issue.

This whole episode is symptomatic of the hijacking of the climate debate once again by those who would rather lie and suppress the truth than face up to the challenge. On Insiders last weekend, George Megalogenis’s valiant attempt to discuss how petrol price is actually declining as a proportion of household expenditure was shouted down by Andrew Bolt.

It is very clear that, if we are to have a sensible climate debate in this country, that debate needs to be between the Government and the Greens, leaving out the Opposition until it is willing to engage sensibly and with intellectual rigour.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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