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.
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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