The accord released yesterday between Labor and the Greens delegates the development of policy proposals on a carbon tax to a Senate Committee. This is a welcome and very significant proposal — both in its own right and for its larger implications.
Climate action requires as much cross party consensus as possible. In its long term implications, this issue is even more significant than the micro-economic reform agenda. After 1983, that agenda was implemented by the Hawke-Keating government with broad bipartisan support.
The recommendations of the climate change committee will have pervasive impact. Potentially, they will affect all Australians and the structure of the Australian economy. So it is appropriate to seek cross-party consensus.
An adequately resourced and staffed Senate committee is the right vehicle to do this. All evidence will be on the public record. Affected interests and members of the public will have their say and will hear each others viewpoints. Hearings and other more interactive forms of consultation can be held around the country. Data and alternative costing will also be on the public record.
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The public, particular stakeholders and other interested parties can then get the information they need to make informed judgments.
This is essential if the detailed implications of big issues are to attract wide community understanding and support. This is essential if the curse of the 24 hour news cycle is to be broken.
This approach is thus also of potential long term significance for the way public policy gets made in Australia. This approach establishes a pattern that could be followed on other strategic or contested matters. When new issues are emerging to claim a place on the public agenda, parliamentary, particularly Senate, enquiries are essential to put relevant evidence and perspectives on the public record.
They allow issues to be re-defined in terms that the public can understand and that reflect their true significance. Senate enquiries engage all the relevant stakeholders and the media. These steps are all necessary if an informed public opinion is to develop. The Senate is the right setting for such work.
In informing Australians about key issue and options for responding, parliament and its committees represent the only alternative to the media. But to achieve this outcome, the role and standing of parliamentary, particularly Senate, committees needs to develop. Their formal capacity to impact on policy thinking, the policy process, the media and the broader community needs to be enhanced. This Climate Change Enquiry will point the way.
*Ian Marsh is a professor at the Australian Innovation Research Centre, University of Tasmania and a signatory of the GetUp-newdemocracy Agenda for Democratic Reform. His most recent study, Democratic Decline, Democratic Renewal: Britain, Australia, New Zealand, is currently in press.