Kingmaker Clive Palmer has saved the furniture on climate policy, in a bizarre press conference with environmental crusader Al Gore. Spin and media fiction aside, here’s an explanation of what Palmer’s announcement means.
Palmer confirmed that yes, his Palmer United Party party will vote to repeal the carbon tax. That means the carbon tax is gone, and there will be no other form of carbon price to replace it. This part is a victory — a very predictable victory — for Tony Abbott.
Some conclude that means Gore has failed entirely. But Palmer has long vowed his party would vote to scrap the carbon tax. Was it really to be expected he would do otherwise?
Here are Palmer’s other promises from last night — and Palmer has gone partially green.
A slightly breathless Palmer announced his senators would not vote down the Renewable Energy Target (RET), a crucial part of Australia’s climate architecture. The RET obliges electricity providers to buy a certain proportion from renewable sources (we’re talking about wind here — solar power is in the scheme, but makes a tiny fraction).
Now, there is no legislation to scrap the RET, and it’s not even Abbott government policy. But Abbott has been moving towards gutting or scrapping the scheme. Palmer has cut that off at the pass. The RET will survive — a very inconvenient truth for Abbott.
Palmer also announced his senators will keep the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. That is big news. The CEFC is the government’s green bank — it has $10 billion to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It’s new, and its investments seem to be working fairly well.
The Abbott government wanted to scrap the CEFC and until today, that looked like a pretty sure bet. Now the CEFC is saved.
Palmer said his senators would also vote to retain the Climate Change Authority. This is a government body which gives top-level advice (especially economic advice) on addressing climate change. The Abbott government wants to scrap the CCA, and until yesterday it looked dead (half the staff have already left, and the rest have been eyeing off the office furniture).
“The RET will survive — a very inconvenient truth for Abbott.”
So what Palmer has done is reel back some of Abbott’s plans to dismantle Australia’s climate policy.
But did he just herald the start of an ETS? No, and here’s why not.
Palmer said he’d attach an amendment to the CCA bill (note to Fairfax: not to the carbon tax repeal bill) stipulating that Australia would have an ETS with a zero carbon price, and that when Australia’s main trading partners established a similar ETS, Australia’s ETS would crank into action (i.e. the carbon price would rise). He named those partners: China, the United States, the European Union, Japan and Korea.
The EU and Korea have a carbon price. The US has no national carbon price and is not moving towards one (some states do have one). Instead, Obama wants to directly regulate emissions from coal-fired power stations. China does have various carbon prices in some regions and is moving towards linking them up with a national scheme. But this is taking time; it is some years away. Japan is not doing much on climate change and is not moving towards a carbon price.
Another issue is how would this bill get through the Coalition-dominated lower house? If the Coalition gives up on scrapping the CCA, the bill will die off and the ETS would not be established. Why on earth would the Coalition pass this bill in the lower house?
So in all, Palmer’s ETS sounds like a phantom one — his conditions would not be met for quite some time. They have certainly not been met now. So the carbon tax goes, and the ETS does not replace it.
And if you listen closely, what Palmer says on an ETS — Australia will have one when our major trading partners all have one — is actually what the Coalition says. It’s just that Abbott says it pretty quietly and not very often.
It could be argued that Palmer’s phantom ETS is nothing but greenwash to allow the PUP to get on with its election promise to vote to scrap the carbon tax.
But, in moving a small (and possibly futile) step back towards carbon pricing, the announcement has some significance. It leaves the Coalition more isolated in being hostile to pricing carbon. From now on, the ALP, the Greens and the PUP will all say they believe in an ETS. It kicks the can along the road in the debate over carbon pricing.
And in the other announcements — the RET, the CEFC, the CCA — Clive has greened up quite considerably. That’s why the genial Gore stood next to him.
It will be interesting to see what Abbott does now. If Palmer stands his ground on these bills — and if his senators toe the line (which might be a live question) — does the Coalition government go to a double dissolution election on the CEFC or the CCA? Given the carbon tax repeal, Abbott’s sacred cow, will go ahead, that seems unlikely.