What Price A Carbon Tax?


It was the Clean Energy Bill that we had to have and it was let loose in Canberra this week. Though the experts make themselves hoarse pointing out that the policy does not in fact involve a tax but rather a price on pollution, the Clean Energy Bill seems stuck with being called a carbon tax. As Malcolm Farr writes, "This is testimony to the single-minded and singular campaign by Tony Abbott to demonise carbon pricing. He has outplayed the Government at every step." The Greens might want it referred to as a price on carbon but this battle, it seems, has been lost.

It’s been a long time coming. As Greg Combet noted this week in Parliament, "We have been debating these issues for decades. There have in fact been no fewer than 35 parliamentary inquiries into climate change since 1994. So we have been debating this now for 17 years in our parliament. The time for inaction has passed."

With so many chefs in the kitchen, it’s not altogether clear whose clean energy policy this is. Is it pretty much the policy that Penny Wong and Ian McFarlane negotiated in 2009 when both political parties were led by other people? The one that Malcolm Turnbull threw his weight behind — and cost him his leadership? Is it sort of exactly the same as the policy John Howard signed off on in 2007 before he lost to Kevin Rudd? Or is it Julia Gillard and Greg Combet’s?

Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t mincing words about the differences when he spoke to Tony Jones last night.

"If somebody asks me a question, straight question and says, ‘Does this scheme have lot in common with Rudd’s CPRS and the ETS that John Howard was proposing to introduce?’, the truthful answer is yes. They’ve all got a lot in common. They’ve all got differences and some of those differences are more significant than others, but, you know, ultimately at the core there is a cap-and-trade scheme and there’s a commonality.

"They’ve been designed by the same people. The same team that worked for us worked for Rudd and have worked for Gillard, so — but that’s beside the point. I’m not going to sit here and mislead you and try to suggest that there’s some — you know, it’s a completely different creature."

The package has been around since July but it’s only this week that it has been put to parliamentarians. In the intervening period, the anti-carbon tax crowd has gone postal and the Government has engaged in all sorts of contortions to convince voters that they won’t be worse off, and that the economy will be much better off. Indeed, voters have been able to read all about carbon pricing for months on the Clean Energy Future website. In the year of "Ju-Liar", pushing this policy through is no mean feat, as Ben Eltham wrote in New Matilda when the package was released in July.

Given the deluge of information released about the policy already, there weren’t many surprises in the bills. Nor were the responses particularly surprising.

This is what Combet had to say about it in Parliament this week: "We developed this policy because the science on climate change is clear: climate change is occurring; human activity is contributing; and, if left unchecked, the Australian economy and our environment would be severely affected. No Government acting responsibly can ignore that advice. A Government must act, and this Government has acted."

From the Coalition corner, the responses have been high-spirited. Tony Abbott called it the longest suicide note in history and his colleagues have been complaining bitterly at the limited amount of time they will have to debate the bill in the house. Christopher Pyne articulated the Opposition’s call for an inquiry into the policy before any final decisions by parliamentarians:

"The decision to have a shot-gun debate and avoid the scrutiny of an inquiry is a strange move from a Government already fighting perception problems of being dishonest and tricky."

Labor Senators this week responded scornfully to accusations of procedural unfairness by recalling John Howard’s last term in office and the legislation that was rammed through in that interval.

Liberal MP Paul Fletcher got a little worked up, opining away in The Drum, "If it is just about reducing emissions in Australia, it is a pointless exercise."

He argues that Australia needs to wait for the rest of the world to act before diving into major policy reform. Using game theory to debunk the Government’s policy, Fletcher’s rationale for the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan was a little baffling: "Our policy involves pursuing a rational strategy in a ‘multi-round’ game — to cooperate if others cooperate, but not to cooperate unilaterally if others are not doing so."

There has been speculation as to whether Malcolm Turnbull will speak on the bill — or support it. On Lateline last night he made it clear that he wouldn’t be speaking in the debate, and that he would vote with the Opposition.

The ALP has been making hay teasing Turnbull about whether or not he’ll stick to his guns on climate policy — and the Opposition has also been busy insinuating instability in the Government.

Greg Hunt, another former proponent of carbon pricing, told Steve Price on Wednesday:

"We will fight this before the vote and if it is passed, we will go to the election and make the next election a referendum on the tax and we will repeal and replace in government. Now in terms of the vote itself, anything can happen because there are undercurrents of deep dissatisfaction in the ALP Cabinet, let alone the Caucus, which is their party room."

He predicted leadership strife and a Caucus revolt. If that happens, it might be hard to tell what provoked it. After all the hue and cry that carbon pricing has provoked, the bills were made public in a week that saw plenty of outrage about the Malaysia Solution and the announcement of a media inquiry. We’ll hear more about these bills and about the likelihood that they’ll bring down Gillard, the whole government, the Greens, the country — but for now the response has been unpredictedly muted.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.