As someone who accepts the laws of physics, I find it alarming to partly agree with Matt Canavan, noted coal fetishist. However, his response to business talking about putting together its own energy and emissions package — that “we have a way of resolving fraught political dispute in Australia, it’s called democracy, and I don’t think the corporate sector is a replacement for democracy” — has a point.
It’s not for business to determine Australia’s policy direction on major issues, but the people actually voted in by the electorate to address them — people who have to answer to voters on how they do so.
Where Canavan’s response falls down, of course, is that our democracy noticeably hasn’t resolved the dispute over an appropriate climate policy. It has spectacularly failed, due to people like Canavan, who refuse to accept science and aggressively push the interests of the fossil fuel industries that make such a big contribution to his party’s coffers. That’s why the Morrison government has no climate or energy policy, lies about meeting our Paris Agreement targets, and hides data showing rising emissions — making it even worse than the Abbott government on climate action.
Would a business-led process be any better? What target would it aim at? The government’s unacceptably low 26% target? Labor’s 45% target? How would it pursue such a target? Who would verify it? What about free riders or businesses that refuse to take part? What about the mining industry, which has sabotaged good policy so often?
Does anyone trust business to do what it says it will, after what we’ve seen from the banks, energy companies, aged care companies, multinationals and tech companies this year alone?
Luckily our system of government does have a mechanism for when our politicians are incapable of effectively governing. Despite widespread acceptance that, in a democracy, politicians should be the ones making decisions, we also routinely accept that politicians can’t be trusted to govern in the interests of the country, and remove their power to do so.
Since the early days of the Howard government, monetary policy has been run by an independent Reserve Bank of Australia, on the basis that politicians can’t be trusted to make interest rate decisions. It’s now accepted in Australia that frontbenchers don’t even comment on monetary policy decisions for fear of being seen to influence independent policymakers.
We have independent institutions elsewhere. We accept that politicians shouldn’t try to influence the media — not merely is the ABC supposed to be independent, but the media regulator ACMA is also independent of government. The corporate regulator is supposed to be independent, as is the prudential regulator. The Australian Electoral Commission is independent; so is the Future Fund. The ATO. The list goes on.
All independent because everyone accepts that politicians simply cannot be left to make decisions in these crucial areas — our democratic system isn’t strong enough for that.
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Why not climate action? A decade after Labor and the Coalition went to the 2007 election promising a carbon pricing scheme, it is clear that our democracy can’t address the issue. We didn’t need a decade of monetary policy paralysis to convince us to make the RBA independent. We didn’t need continual interference in the operations of the Future Fund to show the need to keep politicians out of it.
An independent body, appointed with the agreement of both sides of politics, to both set Australia’s emissions targets and determine and implement policy to achieve them, is probably the only way we’re going to secure genuine climate action. Labor might insist it is fully committed to its emissions targets, but remember Kevin Rudd declaring climate change as the great economic and moral challenge of our time?
Luckily, some in business are already thinking along these lines. Energy Australia’s Catherine Tanna suggested an independent climate action process yesterday.
“Just as the RBA is responsible for monetary policy, our independent energy institutions might take charge of delivering carbon policy,” she said.
“The concept of asking independent institutions to guide energy tends to attract scepticism, even ridicule,” she suggested, but, “we’re running out of time and people to trust.”
Anyone ridiculing the idea can perhaps also explain why an independent monetary policy, or an independent tax office, is ridiculous. At the moment, nothing else will save us from the likes of Canavan.