Non-policy or anti-policy
My column in yesterday’s Fin (over the fold) advocating agreement between Labor and the Greens on a short-term carbon price was rendered obsolete almost immediately by Julia Gillard’s speech (as it happened, I was in the building next door when she gave it).
Gillard’s non-policy represents a failure of leadership. The best that can be said for it is that the delay generated by this process is only supposed to last for 12 months, and that 150 randomly selected Australians could scarcely do a worse job on this vital issues than our political leaders have done.
But, as is so often the case, Abbott is even worse, offering an anti-policy that would represent an obstacle to any real action. I’m feeling happy about my decision to vote for the Greens. With rather less enthusiasm than before, I’ll still give Labor my second preference.
Column for Thursday 22 July 2010
The speed and efficiency with which the Labor and Green machines have concluded a preference deal has substantially improved the odds for the government’s re-election, and virtually ensured a Senate in which the Greens hold the balance of power from 2011 onwards. The paradox in this is that, if Labor and the Greens had managed similar efficiency in settling their policy disagreements, the election would have been held under very different, and more favorable circumstances.
The key issue here is climate change. Labor’s failure to deal effectively with the issue brought an end to Kevin Rudd’s generally successful Prime Ministership and brought the government itself to the brink of defeat. And despite the centrality of the issue to the Greens, they have been unable so far to exercise any real influence on climate policy.
Both sides have blamed the other for this debacle. Labor’s central exhibit is the Senate vote on the Rudd-Turnbull deal for a heavily modified ETS. Two Liberal Senators, Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth, crossed the floor to vote for the deal, so if the Greens had also supported the bill, it would have passed.
The Greens argument, supported by many in the environment movement who had initially supported the ETS, was that the deal was so compromised as to be worse than useless, and that it would be better to start again from scratch. This calculation may turn out to be mistaken, most obviously if the conservative parties are returned to office on a platform of ‘delay and do little’.
But sooner or later the steadily accumulating evidence on climate change will force even the most reluctant government to act. At that point, being locked into a policy that effectively guarantees polluters of more than full compensation would be a major obstacle.
Regardless of how blame is assigned for the failure of the Rudd-Turnbull deal, it is clear that Labor lost the plot from then on. The government had a number of options – negotiation with the Greens and dissident Liberals on an ETS package that might pass the Senate, a double dissolution based on either its original proposal or the Rudd-Turnbull deal, or a switch to a carbon price fixed in the short run. It chose to do nothing, letting support ebb away, and then, even more disastrously, to abandon the whole idea.
This decision, forced on Kevin Rudd by the backroom operators who had previously opposed any action on climate change, was fatal to his leadership, and almost fatal to the Labor government. The injustice of this outcome is evident, and is still doing damage to Labor’s chances, but it was the culmination of a long series of mistakes.
Looking forward, Labor’s position remains ambiguous. In the long term, if there is to be any effective action on climate change, it must come through co-operation between Labor and the Greens. Given that revival of the ETS has been ruled out for some time to come, the best option would be to introduce a carbon price set to rise gradually over the next few years.
It could, for example, start at $10/tonne (about 1 cent extra for a kilowatt hour of electricity or 2.5 cents for a litre of petrol) and rise gradually to $20/tonne. Once such a price was in place, the doomsayer claims of economic catastrophe would be shown up for the nonsense they are.
But, unless it is forced to act, there is no sign that the Labor government will do so. In these circumstances, the only reasonable choice for voters concerned to see serious action on climate change, is to give their first preference to the Greens in both houses, and their second preference to Labor. The more Greens are elected, the sooner both Labor and the Greens will realise the benefits to be obtained from co-operation. Particularly if the Greens win Lower House seats, Labor will realise that its core supporters can’t be taken for granted. And if the Greens clearly hold the balance of power, a ‘purist’ strategy that leads to inaction will carry a high political price.
Even for voters who aren’t concerned primarily with climate change, there are some good reasons to consider voting Green. The conservatives, under the leadership of Tony Abbott and (effectively) Barnaby Joyce, are utterly unfit for government, and have shown themselves more interested in stunts and cheap populism than in serious policy formulation. There is no sign that this will change in the future, except in the unlikely event that the Liberals return Malcolm Turnbull to the leadership. In these circumstances, the sooner Labor and the Greens learn to co-operate effectively, the better for all of us.
John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.