An uninspiring leaders debate Opinion Article

Jul 26, 2010 - 9:00am

By John Connor, CEO, The Climate Institute

The perils of Australia’s pollution politics are clear to see. They’ve wounded, at the least, two prime ministers and two opposition leaders. Scare campaigns on taxes, jobs and prices have clashed with strong desire from Australians for action on pollution and climate change.

Rather than credible plans both parties have trotted out low grade policies and processes. Green armies and citizen assemblies featured strongly in the Leaders debate last night.

Developments over the weekend with policies on cleaning up old workplaces and Australia’s first, if not a little feeble, mandatory vehicle emission standards, have helped improve the Government’s policy mix - slightly. On The Climate Institute’s 5 star rating analysis, the ALP have tiptoed forward but still rate just 1 and a half stars out of five.

The Coalition are yet to build on their high risk mainstay, their Emissions Reduction Fund, which, combined with their decision to withdraw money from global solutions and RD&D, leaves them with just half a star.

The committed policies of both major parties will see pollution increasing to 2020 and beyond, breaching the at least 5 per cent reduction target they both agree on.  The Prime Minister was pinged on that last night by the journalists but not Tony Abbott.  

Indeed, overall, Tony Abbott was subjected to less scrutiny of his climate policy than was the Prime Minister.  

How is using taxpayers’ money to buy carbon reductions not a carbon tax? Hasn’t the Coalition backed electricity price rises, for worthwhile outcomes, in supporting - not once but twice - the renewable energy legislation? Why is the Coalition slashing support for financing and technology transfer (adaptation financing for developing countries and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute), two key pillars needed for building global ambition and agreements? How can you be serious on solutions for climate change if you are hindering global ambition?

The Prime Minister made welcome statements of intent in backing a cap and market mechanism to limit and reduce pollution. But the PM is suffering from taking the advice of those paranoid about scare campaigns on price rises in Western Sydney.  

Her advisers take a one dimensional view of the concerns of citizens in our suburbs. Yes they are concerned about the cost of living but our, and others, research repeatedly shows strong concern about pollution and climate change as well as the risks of our pollution dependent economy.  

I support those advocating new approaches, like citizens juries, to buttress our teetering democratic institutions. The way the Big Polluters and Miners Mafia (BPAMM!) have used their power and resources to defend the status quo in our high carbon political economy in both the CPRS and RSPT debates should unsettle anyone serious about democracy in this country.

But the ALP has adopted a high risk defensive strategy on pollution and climate change. The third tier nature of the policies and processes being put forward serve to highlight, not mask, the inadequacies of any approach which puts off a limit and a price tag on pollution untill 2012 at the earliest.  

Finally, I would have liked to see the PM, and Tony Abbott, asked about how they will front up to international leaders and explain how they should be taken seriously when they don’t have credible policies to achieve even the 2020 pollution targets of 5 per cent reduction off 2000 levels.  

Indeed, both still theoretically back conditions for stronger targets up to 25%. Under these conditions independent analysts, like Professor Garnaut, say Australia is already obligated to at least 15 per cent reduction commitments. There’s poor scrutiny in the media of the foreign policy implications of this bipartisan policy credibility deficit.

The perils of pollution politics rippled through the debate last night but neither leader made a splash with a new initiative nor closed with much attention to the issue.  

The absence of the Greens leader Bob Brown reinforced the duopoly in our political system and it should be noted, while we had our disagreements about their actions last year, they have by far the most comprehensive and credible policies. Our analysis has them at four stars out of five and with credible policies, with limited international offsets, of achieving 25 per cent reduction targets by 2020.

There’s plenty of room for improvement from both major parties in the remaining weeks. We need a limit and a price tag on pollution ASAP but there are still opportunities in land use, energy saving and cleaner energy policies. Most of these could help minimise the power price bogey still hanging as a result of the policy uncertainty, but still leave us short of a proper plan on pollution and climate change.  

I’m a professional optimist but times like this campaign make it challenging to maintain optimism we’ll shift from our risky highly polluting economy any time soon.

John Connor

John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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