Greg Combet has learnt quickly in his new role as Parliamentary Secretary to Penny Wong — no matter what the question is, the answer involves the Liberals. Listening to Combet on Radio National this morning, you could almost hear him turning the page to his Talking Points on why the Liberals need to reveal their position, why the Coalition is divided, why this is the real question that Malcolm Turnbull needs to answer.

Neither Wong nor Combet have yet explained exactly what additional certainty business will get if the legislation is rushed through this year, given they’ve now delayed the whole emissions trading scheme a year, and extended the target range from 5-15% to 5-25%, and won’t be narrowed down until after the Copenhagen meeting. But that’s all politics and no one can complain too much about that. We all know the Government’s main ambition in this exercise is to attack Malcolm Turnbull.

It’s a bit different when Greg Combet resorts to outright deception. This morning he had a Talking Points moment and shifted mid-answer to bagging the Opposition.

“Greg Hunt was out yesterday canvassing a carbon tax,” he told Fran Kelly. “I mean, these debates have been had. They’ve been decided…”

Hunt had done nothing of the sort. The only people canvassing a carbon tax currently is the Government. The first year of the CPRS will operate as with a fixed price and an unlimited number of permits. There won’t be any need for permit trading because you can simply buy some from the Government. The permits won’t be bankable, either.

Just like a carbon tax. Hunt pointed this out on Sky’s AM Agenda program yesterday and invited Combet to respond. Combet, after all, like others in the Government, had been bagging a carbon tax up until recently. Combet clearly didn’t have a clue what to say.

COMBET: Well it’s not, it’s an emissions trading scheme…

HUNT: It is. Do you know what a carbon tax is … Define a carbon tax for me.

COMBET: Well what we have committed to is an emissions trading scheme and what Mr Hunt is going over old, going over old arguments. We’ve been through the Garnaut Review, we’ve been through the Green Paper, we’ve been through the White Paper, we’ve been, we’ve been going through two Senate inquiries. A lot of these issues have been ventilated many times over. It is well-recognised that an emissions trading scheme … just let me have a go again…

KIERAN GILBERT: What about the point that Greg Hunt makes about the carbon tax? Because in the first year it’s a set price…

COMBET: What we are doing is fixing a price for the first year of $10 for a permit so it’s not a carbon…it’s an emissions trading scheme with a fixed price…

HUNT: It’s a carbon tax. The definition of a carbon tax is a fixed price with unlimited permits and that’s what you’ve introduced and you know it. Be honest.

COMBET: From the first of July 2012 the scheme will be in full operation with a market mechanism for fixing the price for carbon permits and you can get mixed up in this debate as much as you like…

It was a bit like the guy in Spinal Tap insisting “these ones go up to 11.”

To suggest that pointing out that the first year of the Government’s scheme will operate as a carbon tax amounts to “canvassing a carbon tax” would appear to be, well, lying. Combet did it in the heat of a debate and that is understandable. He was put on the spot and didn’t have a comeback. But to trot that line out again this morning doesn’t augur well for the quality of forthcoming debate on the minor issue of climate change.

Combet and Wong are also repeatedly claiming that there are multiple shadow ministers on the issue. Well, there’s Hunt, who has environment and climate change, and Andrew Robb, who handles ETS issues. That’s it. On the Government side there’s Wong and Combet, and they contend with the occasional intervention of Peter Garrett (perhaps the only minister who genuinely wants to address climate change). But in fact Martin Ferguson, representing the fossil fuel industry, is the more important minister for the ETS, and has been the go-to man and friend at court for Big Carbon.

Wong’s not in a position to complain about divided responsibilities on the other side.

Peter Fray

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