Ross Garnaut called climate change a “diabolical policy problem” but of course it’s turned out to be a diabolical political problem as well.

It killed off two Opposition leaders and gave Kevin Rudd a healthy shove. And it certainly didn’t help John Howard’s desperate attempts to retain power.

If you can put aside the high and rising costs of failing to commence Australia’s transition from one of the world’s biggest carbon addicts to a low-carbon economy aside, our handling of climate policy has been the stuff of priceless comedy.

Particularly when you recall both sides of politics went to the 2007 election committed to introducing an emissions trading scheme, and both have wimped it.

Labor, having devoted considerable bureaucratic resources and political capital to fulfilling its promise to introduce an emissions trading scheme only to junk it on, apparently, little more than a whim, is now desperately trying to craft a jury-rigged agenda of climate-related initiatives. Depending on which newspaper you read, it will involve spending on renewables, regulation, or some hold out faint hope, even a carbon price.

And, by the way, there is support within the Government and within Cabinet for a carbon price, however much some unidentified senior ministers rule it out as impractical.

Meantime the Opposition is trying to add some bits and bobs to its own witless “climate action” policy which will mainly involve hoping farmers are innumerate enough to undertake “soil carbon” initiatives that cost far more than the $8-10 per tonne subsidy on which the entire policy is based.

Greg Hunt, who abandoned his decades-long support for an emissions trading scheme to keep his shadow ministry job following the right-wing putsch last year, is revealing more than  he perhaps thinks now that he’s spruiking nuclear power, at least to Coalition attack grub Glenn Milne in today’s Australian. The Coalition’s “direct action” guff is supposed to enable Australia to easily meet the bipartisan commitment to reduce emissions by 5% by 2020, notionally making nuclear power irrelevant.

The Coalition is dead keen on nuclear but won’t ever move without Labor giving them cover. But as Crikey showed in November last year, nuclear power is ludicrously expensive and needs massive taxpayer support, otherwise it costs a lot more to build and more to operate than renewables. And that’s before you figure out where to park the waste for a few hundreds of thousands of years or decommission reactors.

Maybe if you call it “Green Waste” it’d be easier to deal with.

More to the point, as Greg Hunt appears to have forgotten, along with everyone else in this place where the Perpetual Present reigns supreme, John Howard asked Ziggy Switkowski in 2006 to look at nuclear power, and Switkowski told him it couldn’t happen without a carbon price. So, no nuclear power without a “great big new tax”.

The debate over climate policy in Australia is equal parts hypocrisy from business (who now apparently want the “certainty” of a carbon price, having idly sat by while Malcolm Turnbull lost his leadership), rentseeking by polluters and arse-covering by our major party politicians. The last aren’t so much scared to show leadership — and what sort of leadership is needed when polls consistently demonstrate a majority of voters want action on climate change anyway? — as simply implement the policies they committed to at the previous election.

So here’s a handy rule-of-thumb for the debate. If someone doesn’t want a carbon price — an actual price that makes some things more expensive for consumers and businesses compared to others — then they’re not serious about starting the transition to a low carbon economy. Or if they are serious, they want you to think there’s no cost in using taxpayers’ largesse, or regulation, to do it.

Avoiding a carbon price does reduce one particular cost of addressing climate change — the political cost. It does it the usual way you address the political cost of reform, by shifting the economic cost from one group of voters onto the taxpayer, or by making the cost invisible by moving it into transactions and administrative efficiency.

But we still pay for those costs, whether we can see them or not. Those costs are higher than if they were directly and transparently priced onto goods and services. Worse, the longer we delay a carbon price, the greater those costs will be.

So any politician or commentator who tries to sell you measures other than a carbon price — by imposing standards on power stations, or spending more money on renewables, or handing out solar panels, or talking glibly about a “Green Army” — is in effect telling you they think you’re either too stupid to notice you’re being conned, or they don’t care if you do notice.

Australians tend to judge their politicians harshly, often without good reason. But when it comes to climate policy, our leaders are every bit as bad as voters suspect.

Peter Fray

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