Why Progressives Are Failing On Climate Change


The Coalition's Direct Action Plan is terrible policy. The problem for Labor, not to mention anyone who supports domestic measures to tackle climate change, is how to challenge it effectively.

Direct Action, as far as we know from the limited release of policy by the Coalition, amounts to paying polluters via an untested tender process. Direct Action's $3 billion Energy Reduction Fund's sole economic mechanism to incentivise structural change across a $1.6 trillion economy is a bureaucrat planner picking winners.

And winners they will be. According to the Fund Terms of Reference released last month, the Coalition haven't identified viable emissions reduction sources in even the broadest sense. Instead they've asked business and the community to identify “the likely sources of low-cost, large-scale abatement to come forward under the Emissions Reduction Fund”.

We'll have to wait for the release the Green Paper in December and the succeeding White Paper in “early 2014” to know for certain which firms will get the Direct Action pork. The risk is that unless Greg Hunt has dreamt up Australia's tightest tender process, the fund will subsidise rust-bucket firms at the expense of competitors who have already cleaned up their act under the carbon price.

This is in addition to the loss of advantage that more carbon-efficient businesses face as the carbon price is dismantled. Ignore the Coalition's rhetoric on "least-cost" emissions reduction; if anything Direct Action has all the potential to act as brake on least-cost carbon abatement and mitigation.

At first glance then it seems an easy push back, but for a newly minted Opposition, policy scrutiny is a tough gig. There's that old adage about lacking the resources of government, but more pressing is the fact that Labor's best parliamentary performers and technocrats are on the way out. The next generation are only beginning to build up steam. Others are intellectually tired and refuse to move on.

The technical nature of climate change policy can readily turn these weaknesses into public failings. It's hard to cook up a win on climate policy involving props, stunts or shallow yarns – the standard method of political operation for an Opposition – when your response relies on 30 charts of long-run modelling and comes wrapped in the language of carbon equivalence ratios and emissions-intensive trade exposed entities.

This means that the attack material is harder to translate to media releases and harder to break down for backbenchers and their electorate offices. It becomes an uphill battle to roll out an in-depth campaign if your best connections with the wide public can’t be easily scripted on the basics.

It also should be acknowledged that Direct Action is an easy sell. To be more specific it's a case of easy answers versus the esoterica of economics and atmospheric science.

Direct Action is also the kind of easy fiscal policy modern federal politicians of every shade love. Scratch together fig-leaf money under a simple grants structure, and – bingo – you're on top of a complex inter-generational issue.

Forget Australia's long-run commitments to reduce emissions by 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020, as long as it sounds big enough it's a winner: "Mate, it comes to $3 billion when you roll it over the forwards!"

Further to this, as has been seen in the failure of the Opposition to cooperate with the Greens to increase committee scrutiny of the repeal bills this week, the Government's climate program is unlikely to be constrained in the parliament.

Labor, and the centre-left more generally, must realise they have resoundingly lost the battle of climate policy in this political cycle. Even a hint of grandstanding is further opportunity for the Coalition and its commentators to heap mud dug from a particularly undignified era for the party.

Instead the Opposition should rest on its climate laurels. Despite faults – too many free permits, a complicated initial hybrid scheme, and a thoroughly forgettable government marketing campaign – Australia's emissions trading scheme remains a fundamentally good piece of policy.

It got out of the blocks early, avoided many of the pitfalls that the EU scheme lurched into, and, most importantly, has ensured that carbon emissions have gone down without tipping the economy over.

What is now needed is renewed endorsement of evidence-based climate and carbon pricing policy from organisations outside of politics to build the broad and deep support within the Australian public. Co-ordinated, passionate advocacy for better climate change policy needs to come from those outside politics. Mature individuals and public institutions who carry public weight, those who are driven by a fundamental belief in the evidence and are invested in Australia's future prosperity.

This brand of advocacy has been so desperately lacking over the last current political cycle. Remember how badly organised the Say Yes protests were in 2011 and how few people turned up?  GetUp! could not even be bothered to fund proper TV ads during the carbon price roll out**. (Wince as you watch their depressing online anti-campaign.)

Importantly, such advocacy needs to take on an unashamedly pedagogical slant. Rather than more righteous opinion pieces shouting of the moral challenge, resources should be put towards better highlighting the negative impacts of climate change, and the sound economics of carbon trading. There remains a pressing need for methods of communication that properly sell the concepts at the heart of climate change policy.

This will require adjustment from Australia's social policy-inclined community organisations and NGOs into an area that is not their usual bread and butter. But it is hard to call yourself a socially responsible organisation in Australia today if you aren't pulling your weight on climate change policy. To abdicate moral authority on the issue to select groups like Tim Flannery's Climate Council or federal politicians seems ridiculously naïve.

This also isn't to say that Labor should exit the field of climate policy. They have a role to play here, but it's a supporting role, not a selling one. The typical approach, of thin, ghost-written op-eds from frontbenchers appearing in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun, or snarky digital media campaigns carried out by the Labor nomenklatura, just crowds out more effective advocacy.

For the Opposition, there are better opportunities to build up political capital by actively challenging the Coalition approach to environmental approvals and other thought bubbles like the Nationals' push for grazing in national parks. In this regard then, early signs from Bill Shorten are promising.

Rather than forcing a rhetorical showdown with the Coalition, Shorten has fought a kind of rear-guard action, seeking to defend the viability of emissions trading in the face of the Coalition's repeal bill. In doing so he's effectively limited the personal target he offers to Tony Abbott, but has also ensured that Labor is able to retain the narrative of carbon pricing and climate change reform.

That puts Labor, as the banality goes, "on the right side of history" when the next chance for government comes around. But it won't all be clear sailing. Rising star Mark Butler makes for an active climate shadow minister, and limiting tension between him and elements in the Victorian and SA Right who have already demanded that Labor drop support for a carbon pricing will be a full time job for at least one unlucky adviser in the Opposition Leader's office.

Considering the difficulty of mounting a deep political campaign from Federal Parliament on the issue, the brittleness of Direct Action, and the Federal Government's commitment to roll it out hell or high water, relaxing the grip on climate policy, and letting other sources of advocacy come to the fore, is probably a good place for the Opposition to be.

**Correction: GetUp! Did run a national TV campaign. See comment below from former online director of GetUp!, Nick Moraitis.

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.