Zali Steggall announces a new climate bill alongside Rebekha Sharkie, Helen Haines and Andrew Wilkie (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Independent MP Zali Steggall’s climate change bill, launched this morning in Canberra, seeks to remove the primary impediment to serious climate action in Australia: major party politicians.

The bill advocates a souped-up independent climate authority — though, crucially, it still leaves government ministers in charge of implementation.

Steggall, who knocked off former prime minister Tony Abbott in his north Sydney seat of Warringah in last year’s election, is backed by fellow independents Rebekha Sharkie, Helen Haines and Andrew Wilkie.

But she may struggle to get her private member’s bill on to the parliamentary agenda in the face of a bitterly climate denialist government and a Labor Party torn over its addiction to financial contributions from coal-supporting unions and its desire to win seats in pro-fossil fuel electorates in regional Australia.

Steggall’s Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) bill in effect re-establishes the Climate Change Authority that was abolished by the Abbott government, but expands its role and enhances its independence to create an alternative centre of government climate policy making outside the major parties and their donors.

The new climate change commission would be charged with advising on five-year carbon emissions budgets all the way to net zero emissions by 2050, and emissions reduction plans to meet each budget. Government ministers, however, would still be the decision-makers on both the budget and the implementation plan.

Implementation plans would be required to include sector-specific policies and a broader cross-economy strategy strategy as well as addressing transition issues for “employees and employers, rural and regional Australia, Indigenous Australians and wider communities, including the funding for any mitigation action”.

The commission would similarly provide five-yearly “climate change risk assessments” and advise on a national adaptation plan, again for decision-making by the government.

There’s a safeguard mechanism proposed around appointments to the commission, with appointments having to be approved by a new statutory joint parliamentary committee on climate adaptation and mitigation. Although approval would be by majority vote, and the government would have the numbers on such a committee.

But unlike most government bodies, the commission would not be subject to government direction and the chief scientist would be a permanent member.

Steggall and the crossbenchers in effect want to upgrade the Climate Change Authority model — established by the Gillard government as part of its climate action package with the Greens — to a kind of Productivity Commission for climate action and adaptation.

It would generate independent emissions target and abatement and adaptation advice whether the government likes it or not, right down to emissions budgets for the next five years and how best to achieve them.

But while the bill provides for some requirements for ministers in relation to each stage of the emissions budget, implementation plan and adaptation plan process, ultimately it leaves the government — and the donors and lobbyists who shape its thinking — in charge of climate policy.

As we’ve seen with many Productivity Commission reports, government can blithely ignore them or cherrypick them for their own political purposes.

The thinking driving the bill — that governments can’t be trusted to develop climate policy by themselves, but require independent advice — really needs to be taken to its logical conclusion.

Like monetary policy, or regulation of key industries, climate policy is too important to be left to politicians and should be fully outsourced to an independent body.

The emissions budget and implementation plan process (coupled with continuous assessment of previous plans) is a good model for developing policy.

But the last 20 years — apart from when the Greens forced Labor to establish a successful carbon pricing scheme under Julia Gillard — demonstrates that decision-making as well as policymaking should be taken away from major party politicians who, as this summer has tragically shown, have delivered only catastrophe and failure instead of leadership.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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