The winter session of the 2008 Parliament opened on Budget night and draws to a close tomorrow. For climate politics there have been some long dark nights and plenty of chills for those who recognise the urgency of the challenge of climate change.

Budget week was extraordinary. The Government lost their climate mojo, fumbling clean energy funding, and the promising climate policy maturity of Coalition careered down a low road of petrol price populism. The fog then really set in over following weeks with Government suggestions of GST reductions, days and days of argument on FuelWatch and similar diversions.

Monday’s release of the Climate Institute’s report into energy affordability seems to have triggered, or coincided with, divergent responses. The landmark report from CSIRO and ANU economists engaged with the oft forgotten reality that almost all economic models show that we will have continued strong economic growth even with significant greenhouse emission reductions. Rather than looking at stand-alone costs, we need to consider the extent to which wage increases outstrip those costs.

The report introduced the concept of affordability, the proportion of the growing incomes spent on energy services. It showed that energy affordability improves for most households and for all households with a smart policy mix of targeted affordability payments and decisive energy efficiency programs.

Clumsy efforts by some in the Coalition to simplistically draw out the cost figures seem to have rebounded with the Government rediscovering something of their climate mojo and engaging in a spirited defence yesterday of the need for action.

Just how credible or sufficient the Government action will be, of course, needs to wait for the coming Spring session of Parliament, by the end of which we are promised draft legislation on emissions trading and other policies including indications of their emissions reduction target.

Helping avoid the worst costs of dangerous climate change requires policies that boost investment in clean technology and put a price on greenhouse polluting technology. Australia needs not only to help forge an effective long term global agreement but also to ensure it is competitive in the low carbon, clean energy global economy we must create in the 21st century.

On comparably significant reforms such as removing tariff barriers and competition policy both major parties ultimately established if not a consensus then a workable arrangement. It remains to be seen just how critical it is that the Coalition emerges from its current policy confusion and gets back on track. This will be a function of the strength of Government policies, the position of the Senate cross benches and the desire of the Coalition to be relevant to this challenge.

It is clear that climate change will require a new kind of leadership with a clear and clean vision of the future and the details of how we are to get there. It can only be hoped that all our politicians shrug off their winter lurgies and return in Spring with the vigour needed to sustain this leadership.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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