Warren Truss can rest easy. Penny Wong isn’t serious about negotiating with the Greens and independents over the Government’s emissions trading scheme.

“We will be holding talks; we will continue to have discussions,” Wong said yesterday morning, sounding like she was prepared to keep the pizza and black coffee rolling until a deal was hammered out.

But she had already tipped her hand about the nature of the “negotiations”. “We look forward to talking with the crossbenchers about why we think this scheme which has been worked out with environment groups and the business community is the right scheme for Australia,” she said.

According to sources close to the discussions, that pretty much sums up Wong’s attempts to “negotiate” — explaining why she thinks the Government’s model is a good one and suggesting they support it. She continues to refuse to discuss amendments to the scheme of any kind.

There’s speculation Wong might offer the Greens a higher Renewable Energy Target as a trade-off for support, but a higher RET won’t help reduce emissions when there’s no cap on the growth of emissions-intensive industries, particularly when the RET itself is to be loaded with the same kind of exemptions for big polluters as the CPRS (incomprehensibly, Barnaby Joyce was trying to get Resources bureaucrats appearing at Estimates to agree with his claim that big polluters would be harmed by the RET, despite being 90% exempt from it). In any event, Labor backbenchers from heavy industry electorates have already made clear their concerns about the RET in its current weakened state.

Wong’s unwillingness — or perhaps inability — to genuinely negotiate with the crossbenchers also gives the lie to Greg Combet’s clunky effort to play bad cop last week (a role to which, with those Clark Kent glasses, he is entirely unsuited) when he suggested this was as good as it gets for industry and if the CPRS didn’t pass now the next iteration might be worse for polluters. For a government unwilling to accept the basic truth that addressing climate change will mean lost jobs in some sectors and more in others, the notion that it might do anything other than give further ground to industry critics doesn’t stack up.

The only other option for the Government is to offer to pump more money into renewables in a desperate effort to push new technologies that should be being pulled by legitimate price signals in the economy. But the budget is in no fit state to support further billions of investment to get new energy industries off the ground, particularly if the CPRS will in effect reinforce our current high-carbon economy by protecting big polluters from the costs of their emissions.

The economic crisis has severely disrupted the Government’s emissions trading plans, and not merely or mainly in terms of its timing. The Government’s preferred model seems now to have been a hybrid approach, composed of a weak ETS that sends a tiny price signal in its first few years, a Renewable Energy Target of equal (in)effectiveness and extensive investment in clean technologies such as carbon capture. This approach causes minimal job losses but can still be portrayed as a serious effort to engage with the problem of climate change, even if the sum is very much less than its parts. But it was crafted when there wasn’t even a Budget deficit, let alone a $53b one, and the capacity for continued investment in new technologies, especially after the Clean Energy package in the Budget, is now about exhausted.

And a minor, but possibly revealing, slip: Resources Department bureaucrats at Estimates this morning were discussing the Clean Energy package and one referred to the body that is to be established as part of the package, Renewables Australia, as “nominally Renewables Australia”. Why “nominally”? The Government has decided to establish “Renewables Australia”, so there should be no doubt about the name, should there be?

There is, however, a rumour that in putting together the Clean Energy package with minimal input from its departments, the Government missed the fact that someone already owns the name. It might be the NSW company Renewable Australia. Or someone else. Checking on the availability of a name is just the sort of finicky, pedantic detail that ministers and their staff leave to pen-pushers.

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12