One of the most revealing things that has been said in a very shady debate thus far on the Rudd Government’s emissions trading plans was Minister Wong’s thinly veiled threat to the Greens yesterday, saying: “Some people want it to be a Ferrari, but if you can’t have a Ferrari, would you really have no vehicle at all?”

If Wong thinks a Ferrari is desirable, then she clearly doesn’t understand the environmental imperative here. However, she was obviously trying to make two points. Firstly, it is part of her campaign to convince the media and the electorate that her deeply flawed plans are better than nothing and should therefore be accepted. Secondly, she was sending out the subliminal message that the Greens are asking for something which is expensive and out of reach for the vast majority of Australians.

The Minister is wrong on both counts and her evasiveness under questioning in the Senate shows that she knows it. That fact that the Minister is now taking such a defensive line reveals that Labor knows it is bleeding support in key constituencies over the issue, as recent EMC and Auspolls have shown. A massive 37% of Labor voters, and 48% of young voters who tend to live in vulnerable inner metro seats, believe that the target should be strengthened.

Let’s take this line that something is better than nothing.

Firstly, that is deliberately framed around the Government’s preferred view that emissions trading is a silver bullet which, once in effect, can replace every other climate policy setting over time. Emissions trading sets a framework within which other policies work to help reduce emissions and transform the economy, but, in the absence of an ETS, there are still plenty of things we can do.

In the context of the global financial meltdown, now is a perfect time to be creating hundreds of thousands of high quality green jobs in manufacturing and services by investing heavily in upgrading the grid for renewable energy, retrofitting every home in the nation with state of the art energy efficiency, rolling out public transport networks and protecting our carbon forest stores.

Right now, Minister Wong has two options on the table that she could move on immediately to achieve huge emissions reductions. With the global market evaporating, Tasmania’s forestry sector is in dire economic straits. Instead of bailing them out and propping up unsustainable jobs, the Federal Government can and should step in now to protect forests, including with a restructuring package for those workers who have been dumped on the scrap-heap by the market and retrain them for new and sustainable jobs such as managing those forest carbon stores.

With many billions of dollars looking to be invested in the global renewable energy market, now is the perfect time for the Government to sign up to the gross national feed-in tariff bill that I have on the books in the Senate. With that bill, and investment in upgrading to an intelligent electricity grid, Australia could move fast towards a completely decarbonised electricity sector.

These issues and many more will now be canvassed by the broad Senate Inquiry that we expect to be referred by the Senate this afternoon. We expect to report back in May on a broad range of options for emissions reduction beyond the emissions trading framework.

Of course, because emissions trading does set the framework within which all other climate policies act, if that trading scheme is designed in such a way that it locks out the options for deep cuts in emissions, actively preventing the transformation to a new, green economy, then it will be worse than having no ETS at all.

This is not a case of nothing being better than something — it is a case of maintaining hope instead of closing off options for real action.

Briefly, it is worth addressing Minister Wong’s subliminal swipe at a strong ETS being costly.

The Government’s own Treasury modelling showed that the cost difference between meeting a target of 5% and 25% was so small as to be less than the margin of error. Treasury, against my urging, did not even bother to model the 40%+ emissions reductions that we actually need to achieve, but there is strong evidence that, contrary to the Government’s rhetoric, the harder we work, the cheaper it gets to take action. This is because we learn faster and make fewer ill-thought-out bad investments along the way — investing in lower emissions technologies, for example, instead of leapfrogging straight to zero emissions.

That’s a metaphor, really, for this whole debate. Supporting the CPRS as it stands would lead to an array of bad investment decisions, locking in a higher polluting future and making it much more expensive to reduce emissions when we get around to doing so. It is the Government’s plan, handing over so many free permits to polluters that the scheme may not even be self-funding into the future, which is the expensive model. Auctioning all permits and using the revenue wisely to invest in building a zero carbon economy is the frugal model.

Minister, nobody wants a Ferrari ETS! We don’t want something that is flash and fancy but gas guzzling, expensive and out of reach. We want a solid, reliable vehicle that will actually do the job effectively and efficiently. We want fleets of hybrid and plug-in electric cars, walking paths and cycleways, trams, buses and trains and, importantly, we want innovation to deliver us the transport of the future.