The Labor Party’s climate change announcement has been one of the low points of an already trying election campaign.  Last Friday, with subsequent announcements over the weekend, Labor announced an incoherent, expensive climate change policy that will not meet its very modest target of a 5% pollution reduction.  Anyone who was looking for some leadership or courage will have been bitterly disappointed.

In 2008 Julia Gillard stated: “We all know that our planet is getting hotter — climate change is the biggest social and economic challenge of our generation. The science is overwhelming and after years of inaction, we can no longer sit on our hands and hope that the problem goes away.” Unfortunately nothing has changed, the planet is still getting hotter and we still have our heads in the sand.

With a difficult Senate composition, the government always had a difficult task of making its climate policy into law.  However, an ill-timed Liberal leadership spill, loss of bipartisan support for an emissions trading scheme and the phrase “great big new tax” led to Labor entirely losing its stomach for action on climate change. After arguing for three years that climate change was the “greatest moral challenge of our times”, Labor has been silent for most of 2010 including trying to quietly shelve its main policy piece the CPRS. The announcements over the past three days further cement that Labor has lost its conviction to address climate change in a meaningful way.

For the past eight months Labor has blamed the Coalition and the Greens. It did not support the CPRS and so Australia’s policy vacuum is its fault. However, regardless of the other parties, responsibility lies with the government of the day to prosecute the case for action on important issues. It is its responsibility to negotiate a pathway to achieve the policy outcomes the nation needs. It is on Labor’s watch that for three years we have not moved forward.

The talk of “rebuilding consensus” demonstrates just how defeatist the government’s attitude has become. It has been clear for many years that the vast majority of Australians accept that climate change is happening and want government to act. A recent Lowy poll puts that number at 86% in favour. Indeed, in the 2007 election both parties pledged to introduce an emissions trading scheme if elected and it was widely acknowledged that there was a clear mandate to act on climate change. What more community consensus do you need than the ratification of the electorate?

The leaders’ debate last night made it a little clearer what type of consensus the Prime Minister is really looking for.  Julia Gillard indicated that she would only bring in a price on carbon if the Coalition agreed. This echoes Senator Penny Wong’s evasive answer on Meet the Press earlier in the day when asked whether Labor would negotiate with the Greens if, after the election, they have the balance of power in the Senate. It seems that Labor is waiting not for support from citizens but support from the Coalition. Given Tony Abbott has vowed never to support a price tag on pollution, it is an uncertain road ahead.

Labor doesn’t want to take any risks — except, it seems, with the planet.

Gillard’s policy speech on Friday did not have the vigor of her earlier statement.  It rang hollow, as the sentiment did not reflect the substance of her policy. She discussed the need to provide certainty for business while indefinitely deferring a price tag on pollution. Gillard highlighted the urgency of action and costs of inaction, while confirming the Gillard government did not have a plan to reach its modest 5% reduction target. Gillard announced a billion dollars to connect renewables to the grid, but no concerted plan to invest in large scale solar thermal deliver that power into the grid.

She stated that we will “never allow a highly inefficient and dirty power station to be built again in Australia”. However, the policy is weak and, at this stage, gives no certainty that new dirty power stations will not be built. The kicker was the announcement on Saturday that the government would introduce a “cash for clunkers” scheme paying motorists to trade in their old gas-guzzlers for more efficient cars.  Sounds like a good idea except it will be funded directly from renewable energy programs. How does it make sense to pay for a scheme that reduces pollution by taking money from a scheme that eliminates pollution?

In her speech on Friday Gillard stated “… it is not an Australian thing to do just to leave a problem like this to our kids to deal with”. No it’s not. But this is exactly what both the major parties are planning to do. Both major parties have expensive, incoherent policies on climate change that will fail to reduce pollution and safe guard the future of young Australians.

There is some irony in Abbott’s overused slogan: “repay the debt”.

His policies will ensure that a massive ecological debt is heaped onto the shoulders of younger Australians. It is disingenuous for Abbott to accuse Gillard of a failure of leadership, when he has no credible plan for reducing pollution himself. In fact his costly suite of policies will see Australia’s pollution rise 8% by 2013, according to a recent study by the Climate Institute.

Both major parties have the opportunity to step up to the leadership plate and provide a comprehensive set of policies to address climate change.  Importantly, a price tag on pollution would be a logical thread to draw through an otherwise disparate group of policies. Abbott has ruled this out. Gillard must stop waiting for him and make a clear commitment to again put forward an emissions trading scheme if elected.

Peter Fray

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