So what is the Coalition’s position on an emissions trading scheme? There was more confusion today with moderates urging “leadership” from Brendan Nelson on the issue and hardheads appearing to endorse Brendan Nelson’s view that the Coalition didn’t support starting a scheme until the likes of India and China had signed up.

The G8 agreeing to long-range carbon reduction goals yesterday appeared to be a timely reminder that the world was moving on without the Coalition.

This is what Nelson said:

JOURNALIST: Are you saying there should be no emissions trading scheme until the post Kyoto arrangements are hammered out and China and India are committed?

NELSON: We must be ready to implement an emissions trading scheme as a market-based solution to address climate change and Australia’s contribution to it. We must be in the process and be well developed in advancing an emissions trading scheme. We have got to have a clear understanding as Australians of how it will work, what it will mean and have a reasonable timeline for its introduction. But we have got to do so making absolutely sure that we’ve got the big countries of the world signed onto this.

And later in the same doorstop:

JOURNALIST: Dr Nelson [inaudible] clear, regardless of when the start date of am emissions trading scheme would be, if we got to it and China, India and the US were not signed on, you would say that we should not start the scheme?

NELSON: We should not start an emissions trading scheme in Australia until we are absolutely confident that it is ready to commence and also that the rest of the world has a start date for dealing with climate change itself. For Australia to go it alone well in advance of the rest of the world will do irreparable damage to our economic future and not do a darn thing to address climate change and an environmentally sustainable future for the planet.

Love the “darn”. That’s so you, Brendan.

So, in total confusion, we called opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt, and while Hunt did not reflect in any way on his leader’s communication skills, it appears that the Coalition remains committed — “rock solid” — to a 2012 start-date for an ETS, at the latest, regardless of what the big emitters do. According to Hunt, who has discussed the issue with the Coalition leadership group since Nelson’s remarks, that remains the Coalition’s position.

So it seems Brendan was off-message on Monday. Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt have been trying to clear up the confusion ever since, while avoiding any suggestion that their leader might have “mis-spoke”.

However, there’s an important nuance here that has been lost in coverage — including our own — of the ETS. Hunt argues that it’s the carbon emissions level under the scheme that is the real issue. An ambitious level, set well below current levels and accordingly generating high-cost permits, should not be adopted by Australia without an international agreement that brings in the big emitters.

This isn’t a significantly different position from that of Garnaut, who argues that the trading scheme should adopt Kyoto emission levels initially, then targets based on international agreement, before moving on, in the long-term, to a genuinely ambitious target that will eliminate most of our emissions by mid-century.

It may also have been what Nelson was trying, with signal lack of success, to get across on Monday. Given that was the press conference in which he urged Kevin Rudd to become, rather in the manner of the Fantastic Four, a “human blowtorch”, perhaps Nelson was having a bad communication day (the bad hair days are, alas for the Leader of the Opposition, permanent).

Hunt, while resisting the opportunity to comment on what other shadow ministers have been saying, also stressed that he and Malcolm Turnbull are running the Coalition’s ETS policy. Yes, he admitted, Nick Minchin — who appears to have licence to comment on any issue that takes his fancy – has a different view on climate change and an ETS. But it’s his and Malcolm’s show, and they’re both absolutely committed to addressing the historical challenge of climate change, through an ETS and supporting measures such as energy efficiency and alternative energy technologies.

Hunt is rated highly by many but isn’t that senior in the Coalition’s ranks. He was a Parliamentary Secretary in the former Government, and finds himself at the moderate end of a party that is desperate to get some traction — and a leader to match. Let’s see if he or Nick Minchin are the Coalition’s guiding lights on climate change.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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