The Politics Of Carbon And The Price Of Doing What's Right


Many readers will remember the moment in December 2009 when two liberal senators defied the newly elected opposition leader Tony Abbott and crossed the floor to vote with the Rudd government in favour of a cap-and-trade system of emissions trading (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme).

This offered the Australian Greens an historic opportunity to provide Australia with a price on carbon. But instead, they voted with the opposition, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, and Family First Senator Steve Fielding to vote down the scheme.

Five years on, a lot has changed in the political landscape. Most recently the repeal of the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Future Bill and a slew of political biographies has sparked renewed interest in the dramatic events of December 2009.

Former climate change minister, Greg Combet captures a popular sentiment about the Australian Greens in his recent biography The Fights of My Life:

In an act of political lunacy and environmental vandalism, the Greens voted with the opposition in the Senate to kill the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

According to this view, the Greens are “excessively pure”, “divorced from the real world” and do not respect the “necessity of compromise” in contemporary politics.

Moreover, commentators like Phillip Chubb have argued that the Greens made a “major blunder” and that had carbon pricing been realised in 2009 “it would almost certainly have been a feature of the Australian economy and society for good.”

There is considerable merit to Chubb’s analysis. For example, had the CPRS been introduced in 2009 the Australian people would have had five years of lived experience of a price on carbon. This experience would have taken the sting out of Abbott’s scare campaign, and claims that a carbon price would cause unimaginable price rises, destroy the Australian economy and wipe regional towns off the map.

Yet the way Combet and others frame the defeat of the CPRS obscures, in important ways, the strategic failures of the Rudd government. These include indecisiveness, failure to consult with stakeholders (including the Greens and the Union movement) and the critical failure to press their signature climate policy through a double dissolution election.

More importantly, while many commentators have been quick to place blame on the Greens, few have properly considered the role and value of principled decision making in politics today.

I am not talking here about moral absolutism – the kind which Paul Kelly and his colleagues at the Australian decry. Rather I am referring to the courage to fight for a principle because one believes it to be right and just. This does not negate the role of compromise and pragmatism in politics. But at some point, authentic leaders must draw a line in the sand and hold their ground.

Neither Bob Brown nor Christine Milne regrets their decision to join with the opposition to defeat the CPRS. Speaking at the National Press Club in September 2013 Senator Milne defended her party’s decision:

If we had had the CPRS in place now, the carbon price would be less than $1, there would be no mechanism for increasing the target and we would be stuck with a completely ineffectual scheme…

While I don’t advocate “crystal ball” politics it is important to understand fully what drove the Greens to take (what can only be described as) a drastic step and join the Coalition to vote down a price on carbon.

In December 2008, Rudd announced that the CPRS target would be an unconditional 5 per cent and a conditional 15 per cent reduction in emissions below 2000 levels. Remarkably, the policy did not contain a mechanism for raising the target above 15 per cent and gifted billions of dollars in subsidies to heavy polluters.

Moreover, Bob Brown notes in his recent biography Optimism that

The Rudd Formula could not later be lifted without massive taxpayer compensation to the worst polluters.

It was easy for scientists and environmentalists to demonstrate the gross inadequacy of the CPRS targets. In a recent interview, Penny Wong, the climate change minister under Rudd, conceded the validity of these criticisms:

I probably should have put 25 per cent on the table in the white paper. That was an option and I probably should have pushed for that.

In May 2009, Rudd and Wong promised the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (consisting of groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Climate Institute and the Australian Council of Trade Unions) that an extra unconditional target of 25 per cent would apply “if the world agrees to an ambitious global deal to stabilise levels of CO2 equivalent to 450 parts per million or lower by mid century.”

Lawyers like promises like this – full of caveats. But remarkably the SCCC agreed to the government’s inadequate and compromised proposal. The Greens decision to vote down the CPRS put them at odds with traditional allies and was a rare moment of conviction and authenticity in contemporary politics.

Moreover, as Clive Hamilton suggested:

The barrage of attacks on the Greens for that decision reflects outrage at the party’s refusal to go along with the power structure, to play the game whose rules are set by the established order.

It should be obvious to anyone seriously engaged in climate politics that it is ties between the fossil fuel industry and Government and the advocacy of the “greenhouse mafia” that has stood in the way of progressive climate policy in this country (and indeed around the world). A historical narrative that blames the Greens for the failures in Australian climate policy simply diverts our attention from the real source of the problem.

There is, I hope, still room for ethics and principled decision making in Australian politics. That experienced commentators like Combet could describe the Greens as environmental vandals simply demonstrates how Orwellian the dominant conversation has become.

Indeed, if it is “political lunacy” to draw a line in the sand and fight for policies that confront the full facts of climate science then, I submit, that our future depends on us all getting a little bit crazy.

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.