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Sep 8, 2010

Climate change policy set to steam up Canberra

One of the biggest questions for arising out of the ALP’s day of deliverance by the two country independents is this: what does it mean for climate change and clean energy policies?

One of the biggest questions for arising out of the ALP’s day of deliverance by the two country independents is this: What does it mean for climate change and clean energy policies?

That will likely depend on how long this minority government can survive. At the very least, these issues are now back on the agenda, which is a big step ahead of where we would have been with a majority government of either ilk.

Having shied away from climate change and clean energy policies during the election, the major parties are now faced with a greener parliament than they could ever have imagined. And there is every reason to believe that discussions will now focus on the policy, rather than the naked politics that blighted and finally hopelessly compromised the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The key to bringing that debate to life will be the “climate committee”, a condition laid down by Greens climate change and energy spokesman Christine Milne, who drew on examples from Norway and Sweden in her attempt to find a mechanism that can leverage the multi-party dynamic that will be a feature of this parliament, at least until the next election.

Quite how this climate committee will work is not yet clear. Parliament is entering virgin territory. The broad agreement between the Greens and Labor provides only that they will decide on the mechanism by the end of September, which gives them three weeks to sort it out.

Milne’s vision is that it will include representatives from the ALP, the Coalition, the Greens, and the two country independents — Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott — who made climate change one of the key considerations for their decision to ditch the rural conservatism of their constituents in favour of the ALP. She also wants a panel of experts — like Ross Garnault, for example — to sit on the committee.

Milne is aware of the time constraints, and that this is possibly a one-term opportunity that needs to be seized. “This is the best political opportunity we’ve ever had. We’ve got a minority government for three years, then we are going back to majority rule.”

How the Coalition plays its hand will be interesting. Milne wants the pre-condition of membership of this government committee to be acceptance of the science of human-caused climate change and the need for a carbon price. The Coalition’s spokesman on climate change Greg Hunt is not happy.

“I don’t believe that parliament should ever have a committee where a belief test is a prerequisite,” he said yesterday. “Parliament should be place for free thought, …it is completely inappropriate.” His colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, might have a different take on the matter.

Milne, though, had a word of warning for the clean energy industry yesterday, saying that it needed to be forceful and speak with one voice, which it has conspicuously failed to do till now. She pointed to the debate on the renewable energy target, for instance, where there was no clear stance by the industry and it ended up being outmanouvered by the aluminium industry, which won major concessions.

This was a sentiment echoed, extraordinarily, by a government bureaucrat, Greg Nielsen, the head of Queensland’s Office of Clean Energy, who told the EcoGen conference. “I see a lot of good intent. What I don’t see is the amount of collaboration that we need. It’s not just about renewables, or energy efficiency or peak demand management or R&D. It is about all of these. Can we please have greater unity on this agenda.”

They are both absolutely right. The proponents of clean energy and climate change policy have been comprehensively outplayed by their opponents in the public policy debate. The lack of a coherent strategy has meant that the economic and environment opportunities of a low carbon economy have struggled to gain traction in the media.

The Rudd government can take much of the blame for that, but Milne says it also comes down to the quality of industry leadership. “Everyone is scratching around for small outcomes. That is not the strategy. Get yourself unified. If you can’t get (a representative body) that can agree, get one that will agree.”

That sentiment is one that is widely shared, and will make for some interesting positioning in coming months. The Clean Energy Council is presumed to be the industry representative, but it is distrusted by many, particularly those in emerging technologies such as solar and geothermal who see it as a vehicle primarily for the wind industry and the established players in the energy market.

The CEC membership criteria is a particularly sore point, and smaller players accuse it of effectively selling its policy positions to the highest bidders. Those with the means, pay a $49,000 annual fee to gain special privileges, such as input into policy formation and 20 votes at the AGM. Smaller players pay a $12,000 fee but get no direct policy input and just two votes.

Little wonder that a number of alternative groups continue to proliferate in their place. There are several solar groups — and another one soon to be formed to represent large-scale solar developers — a geothermal organisation and others representing biomass, and most recently hydrogen. The WA Sustainable Energy Association, an effective voice for the WA industry, is considering going national.

But much will also depend on how mainstream businesses — the property groups, retailers, manufacturers, and the finance industry who are not afraid of a carbon price and see it as essential to remain internationally competitive — are able to gather their forces as an effective voice in favour of such policies. Even if the opportunity for a more considered debate is afforded by the new parliament, the public positioning of industry groups will be crucial.

*This article first appeared on Climate Spectator

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45 thoughts on “Climate change policy set to steam up Canberra

  1. Jim Reiher

    There are a lot of very powerful and well financed groups who have a lot at stake: they will want this new minority government to fail as quickly as possible. Controlling (or at least … “inputting”… or “guiding”…) a Labor or Liberal majority is much easier for them.

    All the more reason for the diverse alternative energy groups to work better together.

  2. twobob

    Great point Jim
    It is such a shame that the team supporters don’t recognise this fact. Simply too many of them just vote as their parents did completely unaware that liberal now means business first and labor means centre right.

  3. Meski

    Don’t be too sure about the time limit, Christine. If this government doesn’t absolutely balls it up, we might repeat the experiment. Many of us were tired of majority rule politics, anyway.

  4. Alex H

    Meski, we might have the sentiment that a minority government is a good thing, but we can’t vote for one. It is only a chance thing where roughly the same number of electorates go each way that we get one. In order to increase the chance of having a minority government people need to vote away from the major partys, get more indies and Greens in (difficult with our lower house voting system).

    We can always hope though…

    What we can be moderately sure of is that the Greens will continue to hold the balance of power in the Senate which would still act as an effective check on a majority government – the government either needs to get the opposition or the Greens on side to pass legislation, so they shouldn’t be able to do anything too outrageous.

    Hopefully the days of one party controlling both houses (Howard ’04-’07) or the balance of power being shared by a rag-tag group of senators (Rudd ’07-’10) are over for a while. It remains to be seen how the rag-tag minority government works for Gillard… but don’t forget that the independents and the Greens all have a significant interest in making it work.

  5. Meski

    Well, you can vote for them by voting independents ahead of the main parties. (there’s a marginal risk you might get an all independent parliament that way, but it’s unlikely)

  6. Alex H

    As regards the content of the article, if the independents are serious about supporting climate change action there is a good chance that there will be significant policy advances. The Greens will have genuine input, the ALP need to keep the Greens on side and the Libs can’t stop them as long as the independents remain on side. The Libs will have their work cut out to be relevent over the next three years.

    The comment about having a greener parliament than either party could have imagined couldn’t be truer.

  7. Wagram

    Thanks Gyles. I’m relatively new to Crikey and am enjoying the informative articles.

    It looks like Greg Hunt needs a reality check. Why have a member of a committee that has no interest in the subject? Clearly the Greens are right in wanting the Committee to discuss progressing outcomes, rather than the time waste of disputing the science.

    AlexH is perfectly correct when he says the Libs will have to work to be relevent over the next three years. Considering the laziness of their performance in the last three it is difficult to see how they can achieve this. The Greens and Independents will have more power than the Coalition, unless the Coalition become a participative group in the Parliament (in this circumstance that involves having real policies that can work and being able to prove it) as opposed to the game playing obstructionists they were last term.

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Wagram, it’s risky to propose that a political party that went from dead to breathing in three years is lazy. Maybe resurrection is a piece of piss, who knows?

  9. Flower

    We can continue playing ducks and drakes with the climate by concentrating on the emissions of the fossil fuel industry while ignoring the reality, and that is that the influential agriculture industry (holding this country to ransom), is the second largest emitter of green house gases – methane, nitrous oxide and CO2.

    Leon Bradley of the WA Pastoral and Graziers Association said that excluding agriculture from the CPRS obligations “is a win win outcome for agriculture and the climate because including farming would have had no effect on the climate, in the same way that the inclusion of all other Australian industries will have no beneficial effect.”

    Bradley said that: “Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull had been pushing Australia towards an ETS because they see a massive new funding source as well as a new potential for political control over business and individual activity.”

    Doctor: Spell ‘simple’. Cowpoke: Huh? Doctor: That’ll be a ‘yes’ then.

    Sorry Julia – it’s hard being Mrs Nice Gal!

    The livestock industry occupy nearly 60% of Australia’s landmass, and a massive amount of crops are grown to feed them, yet this industry’s main objective is to increase the numbers of livestock.

    The state of WA is some 2.5 million square kilometres – one third of australia’s land mass and has a major influence on the nation’s climate. Due to WA’s pastoralists and graziers’ failure to consider drought and climate change, there’s been a mass exodus of sheep in the last couple of months, from farms with little water and no feed.

    More than 150,000 emaciated ewes from WA have been trucked thousands of kilometres to pastoralists in South Australia and Victoria and don’t you worry about those transport emissions- ‘it’s the economy stoopid.’ Disappointed stud breeder Ray Lewis from WA said “all the hard work in increasing sheep numbers in the west is going to waste.” Huh? No matter that the south west of WA is officially listed as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. To qualify, the hotspot must have lost at least 70% of its primary vegetation.

    In addition, WA is losing the equivalent of 19 football fields a day to dryland salinity but what the heck – who’s counting while we salivate over that quarter pound tournedos rossini whilst retaining the ignominious title of the most obese nation on the planet.

    Recently a Netherland’s politician suggested that if people in the US, (which slaughters 10 billion livestock a year), ate one meat-free meal a week, it would be equivalent to taking 500,000 cars off the road. An excellent suggestion and not only for the climate but public health too since livestock owners in the US, coupled with other contaminants, feed chicken poop to commercial animals!

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