A Rocky Start To The Political Year


For a political writer, it’s always tempting to repeat Harold Wilson’s immortal cliché: "a week is a long time in politics" but sometimes we witness a week in which political fortunes change so rapidly that the line is hard to resist.

Right about now, Tony Abbott must be wondering what happened. With the resumption of Parliament, this week was the first week back to proper politics in the nation’s capital. It started so well for the Opposition too, with the release of a Newspoll suggesting the Coalition was regaining support among voters, results which appeared to vindicate the new leader’s more combative style.

Then, on Tuesday, the Coalition released its long-awaited climate change policy which offered the chance to reframe the Liberal and National Party’s position on this key issue. Although polls still show climate change is a winning debate for Labor, the Coalition had been gaining ground before Christmas on the back of surging doubts about the science and economics of climate change, particularly among conservative voters.

But by week’s end, Abbott was on the back foot, struggling to sell his climate policy and forced to publicly defend his new shadow finance minister, Barnaby Joyce.

The problems began with the costings in the Coalition’s climate policy which had been carefully crafted as a "cheaper" and "better" alternative to Labor’s emissions trading scheme. Abbott proposed to pay taxpayer’s money to polluters who reduced their emissions and eschewed an economy-wide cap. As I argued on Tuesday, it was immediately obvious the policy wasn’t going to be any better in terms of reducing carbon emissions, given the lack of a carbon cap and a certain haziness as to how carbon prices would be set — not to mention the unexplained "penalties" for big polluters who don’t play by the rules.

Worse, the Coalition’s estimates of the cost of paying for various types of carbon emissions reductions soon began to look decidedly rosy. Even a cursory analysis of the Coalition’s figures shows that the shadow carbon price created by the policy would be low, in the order of around $12.50 or so, according to my initial estimates.

A low carbon price means a weak incentive to decarbonise. It’s a problem which continues to plague the renewable energy sector in this country as many economists and analysts have pointed out.

As journalists and experts pick over the policy in more detail, further questions are emerging, particularly over the issue of soil carbon on which the Coalition is relying to achieve most of its carbon reductions. Soil carbon technologies, like improved farming techniques and the emerging technology of biochar, certainly have potential as a way for Australia to reduce its emissions.

As this paper from the Wentworth Group of scientists points out, soil carbon technologies offer a big opportunity for Australia to put more carbon back into the landscape and to keep it there but some experts also question whether the Coalition’s proposed price for soil carbon sequestration, between $8 and $10 a ton, will be sufficient. Peter Cosier of the Wentworth Group pointed out that farmers would get more under Labor’s CPRS — which makes sense, as under Labor’s plan the price for carbon would be higher.

To amplify the Coalition’s discomfort, the Government then leaked its own departmental advice on the Coalition’s rubbery carbon figures. The Department of Climate Change thinks that the Coalition’s carbon assumptions are wildly optimistic and that the true cost of the Coalition’s plans will be more like $20 billion annually by 2019–20. The track record of the NSW Government’s Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme appears to back this up.

Of course, the real climate issue for Tony Abbott is political. It’s about how to calibrate a policy that keeps the sceptics in his own party happy (it was this issue, remember, that brought Malcolm Turnbull undone) while appearing to be plausible and credible to the business community and voters at large. As Penny Wong and Kevin Rudd have found, crafting a political compromise in these shark-infested waters is perilous at best. Abbott will probably have to tweak or even re-issue his climate policy by the time the election campaign rolls around.

And then there was Cyclone Barnaby.

Barnaby Joyce was promoted by Abbott to the position of shadow finance minister ostensibly because, as a former accountant to the big cotton farms of Queensland’s south-west, he was at least numerate but it was words, not numbers, that got Joyce into trouble this week as he stumbled his way through a strangely mediocre speech, at one point confusing billions for trillions in the kind of muddle that journalists love.

To make matters worse, Joyce also showed his usual flair for throwing off provocative ideas at the drop of a hat, this time foreshadowing cuts to the public service and questioning whether Australia should still be spending money on foreign aid.

Public servants and the international development lobby were predictably outraged, and Abbott has spent the last 48 hours trying to straighten out the mess. Even poor old Joe Hockey experienced some blowback, when a voter in Canberra (a public service town) laid into him over Joyce’s remarks.

The bigger issue is whether Joyce is the right man for a senior leadership role in the Coalition. A canny and passionate communicator, Joyce is also unpolished and ill-disciplined, with such an ingrained tendency to shoot his mouth off that gaffes are almost inevitable. "Colourful" is an ideal epithet for a politician from rural Queensland, but, in the broader arena of Australian politics, Joyce may soon learn some hard lessons via the problems caused by his quirky and independent style.

Interestingly, Abbott’s climate change policy and Joyce’s dismal performance at the National Press Club have also played into Labor’s key communication strategy for 2010, which is economic management and environmental prudence. For almost the first time on Tuesday, the Prime Minister was able to explain in simple terms what his emissions trading scheme will do.

"An emissions trading scheme does three basic things," he said in his Prime Ministerial doorstop. "It puts a cap on carbon pollution. The second thing it does is that it charges Australia’s biggest polluters for their pollution. And thirdly it uses that money to provide compensation to working families for the 1.1 per cent increase in their cost of living which comes from that, which also gives them the opportunity to invest in energy-efficient appliances to make a difference to those costs in the future."

If Rudd can keep to that formula and actually get his government to sell it in those terms, then, he should be well on his way to winning the climate debate.

In Kevin Rudd and Labor, Tony Abbott and the Coalition are up against one of the most ruthless government operations in Australian political history. They simply can’t afford to keep gifting the Government easy opportunities as Joyce did this week. And yet, you’d be unwise to bet that either Abbott or Joyce will change their style. As the year develops, we’re likely to see sharper distinctions between the parties and an increasingly polarised political debate.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.