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.

36 thoughts on “Non-policy or anti-policy

  1. Now that I have cooled down a bit, maybe we DO need to pause for breath because there is still no solution as to how to to deal with imports of goods with no carbon price included in them.

    Australia is already flooded with cheap imports often produced under conditions which Australian producers would not be allowed to get away with. It would be silly to have Australian goods subject to a carbon price which encouraged an even greater flood of imports NOT subject to a carbon price.

    The failure of leadership is still there, no less diminished by this. There are many other things which can be done to reduce Australia’s carbon footprint which aren’t being done to any great degree and the gabfest is still a fart in the head as far as I’m concerned.

  2. @Salient Green

    maybe we DO need to pause for breath

    No, we don’t

    because there is still no solution as to how to to deal with imports of goods with no carbon price included in them

    It’s called a Border Tariff Adjustment and there is precedent in GATT for doing this.

  3. Ah, but is a BTA part of the CPRS? I repeat, there are many other things which can reduce our carbon footprint without a price on carbon. The will just isn’t there. The pause for breath I was refering to was in regards to a carbon price only.

  4. @Salient Green

    I doubt that we could get an international agreement on carbon without going through a stage of import taxes items that not carbon taxed in their source countries.

  5. @Fran Barlow
    One way to get the rancid right-wing populist elected PM is to get more wavering labour or liberal voters to vote first for the greens.

    Ex-senator John Black and now market researcher regards the Greens as the DLP of 21st century politics.

    The DLP were a conduit for new to the middle class Catholics to migrate to voting liberal without losing their working class roots and self-identity.

    Vote DLP to stay true to your heart and your old class, and then follow your wallet and second preference the Liberals with a clean conscience. Voting DLP first was like going to confession to cleanse your sins and then starting afresh with the second preference for Menzies.

    Green voters with children and on lower incomes trend to second preference the Liberals.

    Voting greens in the Senate allow these light green voter with families to express their green identities and then follow their wallets in a recession and second preference the rancid right-wing populist in the House. Voting splitting is good for the soul.

    If Green preferences drop from 80% to 70% ALP, the Liberals get an extra 1% on two-party preferred – more than enough to make many more elections much closer.

    If you want the increasingly shifty centre-left populist to win, vote ALP.

    One example of her shiftiness is treating East Timor as a suzerainty expected to on overnight notice pay its latest tribute in the form of hosting refugee processing camps.

    Gillard’s real shiftiness is her citizens’ assembly on global warming.

    An astute way of putting off the issue for all of 2011 and into early 2012 before any real decisons get to cabinet.

    By early 2012, enough bills would have gone to the Senate to allow Gillard to size up the green cross-bench senators to see if they really hold the balance of power or they are just a left wing cross-bench party that is occasionally used as a stalking horse to win some or all of the Liberals over to a gilded compromise.

    Being of the senate cross benches does not automatically make you the first port of call.

    Both major parties are now of the view that green voters who swing to either party have a limited hip-pocket tolerance for anything more than environmental tokenism.

    Gillard hints at support for emissions trading because of the rent-seeking opportunities on offer in who gets what upfront for free and which industries go first to extract support from business groups and the recipients of green jobs. Gillard will not risk a carbon tax with the 2014 election likely to be even closer than 2011.

  6. This backdown on climate is deeply disappointing: I suppose it could be viewed as a more honest representation of Labor’s position given they probably have just as many denialists (or at least ‘ it’s real but too hard’ views) in their ranks as Liberals do and are just as desperate to avoid commitment on this issue. Since the non-policies of Abbott are even worse I suppose they see this as opportunity to avoid hard decisions for another electoral cycle or two without serious loss of votes even if only by preferences. If the States can use the next few years building enough coal plants the whole issue of low-emissions infrastructure gets shifted from necessary to optional with a few green looking projects that make no real difference being what we’ll get.

    Labor were far too willing to negotiate away climate policy effectiveness to get Turnbull’s Libs on side but were unwilling to deal with Greens to increase it’s effectiveness so no, I’m not that surprised that Labor lacks conviction.

    Looks like both main parties are fielding candidates suited to a nation that aspires to be the world’s coal mine. Just don’t even mention the long term ire this will earn us from people and nations just as desperate as we are to find scapegoats and avoid responsibility for their own decisions and failures on this.

    Suspicious of our pollies as I am, I do wonder if, during the recent behind closed doors discussions with the big miners Julia got handed their ultimatum – that they’ll do everything up to and including widespread economic destruction like they would to uppity third world nations should a carbon price stay on the agenda. I am deeply suspicious of backroom deals and this looks a lot like one. Part of the deal to get some agreement on mining taxes? Julia is showing herself to be more influenced by closed doors discussions than by the widespread public concern and overwhelming scientific concern over climate change.

    2 decades of science being very clear that the accumulating costs of increased emissions will be huge beyond imagination and we have to vote for fringe parties to get policy that actually reflects reality? Do Gillard and Abbott really think lots of Aussie voters are largely idiots who don’t care? Sorry, an idiotic question; of course they do.

  7. Just to avoid any confusion I’ve previously posted as Ken; there are other Ken’s who comment here.

  8. @Jim Rose
    I live in Murray Bridge, South Australia, and I am going to vote Green this time as a primary vote; it won’t be merely a protest vote, at least I won’t intend it as such. MB had close to the lowest average income by postcode in SA, only a couple of years ago, IIRC. Just up the road in Mypolonga, Salient Green will probably vote Green as well.

    Fact is that Labor and Liberal either offer and slide away from delivery of climate policies as their strategy, or they do that out of poor execution of political strategy to get legislation enacted. The Labor government as elected in 2007 had strong community support for meaningful action on AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) and to hold credibility it had to delivery the legislation capable of changing human behaviour with respect to GHG emissions. They failed through a combination of watering down the targets, largely ignoring Garnaut’s report, caving into the high energy industries be they energy producers or energy consumers, having no plan B for dealing with a let down at Copenhagen, not negotiating with the Greens, failing to communicate in simple terms what an ETS is and how it works (a simple diagram could have conveyed the most important steps; it has been done before), and what distinguishes its effect from a “Carbon” tax.

    The Labor policies of massive open-cut coal mines, and a default policy of high immigration on the one hand, and concerns of infrastructure stress and GHG emissions on the other hand, have led many voters to see Labor as holding paradoxical policy positions and that weakens Labor’s credibility on these issues. Further to that, Labor’s election promise to put $2k into new cars for those who trade in a pre-1996 clunker is funded by stripping money out of solar energy farms and wind farms. What kind of idiocy is that?!!

    Given that conditions weren’t particularly favourable for a record breaking high global temperature this financial year just past, the fact that it happened should be a wake-up call to those who spent the last decade claiming that the temperature was falling…but it won’t be.

    Vote Green, be Green.

  9. @Donald Oats

    If the major parties are unlikely to deliver on climate policies, and international agreement about effective global action is even less likely, what are your next set of options?

    A key part of policy development after bringing out the first-best policy responses is remembering the bringing you down-to-earth question: that is not going to happen, so what are you going to do now?

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