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Why Australia should hope for another hung parliament

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Australia faces a stark choice in the September 14 federal election. But even from this distance, it seems the best hope for the Australian clean energy industry – and for efforts to tackle climate change and effecting the inevitable transition to a low carbon economy – lies in yet another hung parliament.

Such a prospect would be anathema to the politicians, the pundits and the media, who have struggled to cope with the dynamics of a minority government these past two and a half years; and to those in the ruling Labor Party who have found power sharing difficult to stomach; and to those in the Coalition who came so agonizingly close, yet so far.

The final policy packages have yet to be presented to the electorate, and the poll would likely be mostly fought on other issues, but what we know so far is pretty clear: the Coalition is not going to deliver on climate or clean energy. It has been content to wrap itself in the Tea Party-dominated Republican politics on both issues.

Tony Abbott made that much clear earlier this week: he seeks to mock the science rather than to respond to it, his policies are geared to favour the incumbents and ignore the opportunities of new technologies. A large part of his policy package is focused around his fantasy “green army” – possibly redolent of the peasant-led anti-Bolshevik movement in Russia nearly a century ago – but in this case consigned to collecting litter from median strips and planting trees.

The Labor Party is much more engaged. But however the likes of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and particularly the Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and his offsider Mark Dreyfus, have prosecuted the case for climate action, the carbon price and energy efficiency, does anyone believe this would have been allowed to happen to the same extent if Labor held a majority in its own right in 2010?

The reforms they have ushered in are profound, but it was the condition and product of a deal with the Greens and the independents. The ability of Labor to hold and expand that course of action is uncertain if it governs in its own right, because the internal politics are muddied. Joel Fitzgibbon betrayed the simmering tensions with this outburst late last year.

Fitzgibbon is one very frustrated chief government whip and one very frustrated faction leader. The biggest impact of minority government and the deal cut with the independents and the greens has been the effective neutering of factional politics, at least in regard to climate and clean energy. To the political apparatchiks, it has been akin to castration. And they are still screaming.

But let’s go into further detail. Abbott’s mini campaign launch in a western Sydney marginal electorate last weekend, and his efforts to put on a “positive” image proved to be an appalling spectacle for anyone engaged in climate change and clean energy issues.

Take this one quote.”Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax!” In the context of the heat-waves, the bushfires and the floods, and the extreme weather events around the world, it is an extraordinary remark. And it was not off the cuff, it was written into Abbott’s prepared speech and displayed proudly on the party website. It reveals he has barely moved beyond the “science is crap” remark of a few years ago – hardly surprising given that he owes his role to a cabal of climate sceptics that still surround him, and is advised by business people from the same school.

The Coalition’s policy position – scrap the carbon tax, scrap the Climate Change Authority, scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corp, scrap even the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency – is simply untenable. It is wrecking ball politics. Even if the Coalition could meet a 5 per cent emission reduction target without a blowout in costs, it does not have a plan to respond to the science.

It’s not even clear where the Coalition stands on the renewable energy target, but past form suggests it would be willing to bow to pressure from the utilities, and generators, and the conservative state governments of Queensland and NSW, who are going to try to sell network and generation assets, and who all have so much to lose from the growing penetration of wind and solar.

So, is the answer Labor governing in its own right? To this, proponents of clean energy need to ask the same series of questions: Would the policy measures and institutions deemed so crucial – the carbon price, the RET, the CEFC, the CCA – have been created or resisted the intense lobbying? There is no doubt that Gillard senses that the mood of the electorate is changing on climate, and she recognises its importance, but that does not necessarily extend beyond survival politics.

That leaves the Greens, and the independents. The position of the Greens is clear. It is to respond to the science, to push for the most ambitious emission reductions possible, a highest penetration of renewables. It is a position that is constantly branded as extreme, but it is entirely consistent with the conclusions of the International Energy Agency, the United Nations, the World Bank, any number of reputable international economists (including our own Ross Garnaut), the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, and dozens of industrial leaders and analysts – even the clubby World Economic Forum in Davos.

In just the last week, we have seen these concerns and policy positions expressed among a broader range of professionals: The Institute of Actuaries has warned that pension funds may be worthless within 20 years, HSBC has warned of the serious market risk of a carbon bubble, UBS has chronicled how solar PV and battery storage will deliver an inevitable revolution in the world’s energy market, at the expense of the incumbents.

Unlocking the investment required for the transition requires the participation of the private sector – which is why you encourage market-based schemes. A policy cocktail of direct government handouts and working bees – as the Coalition proposes – simply doesn’t do it. Labor kind of gets this, but requires the influence of the Greens and like-minded independents such as Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to make sure they stay on track.

It should be remembered that this hung parliament has been able to deliver an extraordinary amount of legislation. It does work, even if it does not conform to stereotype. Sadly, with 226 days to go till the election, the polls tells us that there is little chance of a repeat – even if  a Yale study concluded, hopefully, that progressive climate change politicies can win votes. One can only hope.

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  • Damien

    Tony Abbott’s remark reminds me of what US presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during his campaign at office, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. [Pause. Laughter.] My promise is to help you and your family.” Hurricane Sandy quickly demonstrated how inappropriate that comment was. I imagine there was similar laughter at last weekend’s Coalition campaign hall.

  • Lars

    I believe the hung parliament was the best thing to happen in Australia for decades. It has forced serious transformational legislation onto the table for discussion. I agree with Giles’ view that the Labour Party under Gillard would not have introduced much of the climate legislation were it not for the Greens and several independents, but we have to give Labor credit for following through with a comprehensive package. Now with this legislation in place, it appears Labour will have to fall on their sword so to speak. To ensure continued progressive policy decisions the only hope is that both the Greens and independents gain additional seats to block any Coalition policy disasters. Most of this support, should it come, will most likely be a swing against Labour and not the coalition so it will be interesting to see what strategy the Greens and Independents follow to gain coalition swing voters support as otherwise Tony may just get the majorities in both houses that he is after.

  • Alistair Spong

    here here………well written and thoughtful piece Giles, i think your the first journalist in 2 1/2 years to acknowledge that a hung parliament is still a democratic institution!

    I guess given the sour grapes on both sides its understandable, it is interesting though to see how much power both sides of politics can exert over the media. Or perhaps there are other influences…..its not just factions that have been the big loosers. A hung parliamnet must be a lobbyists nightmare, all those people with the freedom to start thinking for themselves and institutions like Get Up flexing like a perpetual muscle building competition………oh well , i hope it doesn’t end …..but there will always be more elections.

    • Giles Parkinson

      Thanks Alistair
      I should also point out, as someone did to me, that Labor has not yet forgiven the Greens for dumping on the CPRS. There is an argument that we wouldn’t be in this pickle if that hadn’t happened, the CPRS got through and Rudd and Turnbull were cheerfully arguing the policy details. And there is an argument against!

  • J Morganlowe

    Thanks Giles for a great post.

    It’s a pity that the majority of the Australian public can’t grasp the fact that elected members the major parties are duty bound to follow party lines, no matter what their own leanings on the matter at hand may be, whereas independents are more than likely to listen to their constituents, the Greens path is there for all to see, but our lack of an unbiased media is able to create fear among the masses.

    My hope is that commonsense will prevail before just surviving on spaceship Earth becomes an arduous task.

  • Matt Pallett

    This time when we hang the parliament can we please do it right and use a hemp rope

  • Stewart

    May i ask a simple question How does Taxing some one reduce the carbon out put when all they do is pass it onto the end user, can some one please explain that to me did it reduce the carbon out put and if so by how much.

    If some one can then i might start believing in some of your claims.

    Otherwise sorry to me Climate change is natural and will continue despite how much you try and stop the so called polluter pays in a carbon tax.

  • Alex

    The idea behind a price on CO2 is to make it more expensive to pollute, and the passing on of the price to the end user is a desired effect- because the end user will hopefully use an alternative that produces less CO2 and is cheaper. This is the most effective way to get people to switch to more climate friendly means of electricity generation. There are many issues with the implementation but the goal os the same.

    Your belief that climate change is natural is valid- but the rapidity of the changing climate is unprecedented and fits very closely to the models of climate change created by scientists simulating increased atmospheric CO2 as a result of human activities. There is no alternative observable natural phenomenon that will produce such a close fit between the models and the data. CO2 has been known as a “greenhouse gas” (allowing sunlight to pass in but trapping the reflected heat) for many decades. The atmosphere is very very thin given the size of the planet, and the increasing proportions of CO2 within the atmosphere have been substantial. Climate change through natural phenomenon is natural- the latest extremes of weather are certainly what has been predicted in a higher CO2 atmosphere.

    • Trisha

      Whether or not you believe in climate change or its cause, policies to reduce and prevent pollution and the degradation of our environment help us all.

      We will all benefit if we support real policy and action.

    • Chris Fraser

      Since Kyoto, and now the ETS, some have tried to put a price on pollution. It is only attaching value to carbon, or more correctly, carbon pollution, and thinkers responding to their own economic self interest, that can make change. Many will gladly pollute to sell something. Polluting is an externality, not taking in pollution’s cost to the environment for our own or national economic growth. Ironically, market mechanisms are what we are used to, to give us a choice of method and time to react. I suspect some objectors reason that carbon is wonderful now, beneficial for plants trees etc, as they aren’t used to some higher power putting a price on something they personally didn’t attach value to. Who wants a tonne of carbon dioxide ? It’s neither a useful byproduct or externality to some, so how can we put a price on it ?

      Easy slogan-maker that Mr Joyce. “It’s very hot today so the carbon tax isn’t working too well”. It must not be well understood how long it takes for an emission to have impact on climate, assuming it does at all. Most contrary others want proof that action is needed before action is taken, but I want proof no action is needed before I stop. Just a little insurance for the sake of generations.

  • Peter Smith

    I have one quibble: this is a “minority government” *not* a “hung parliament” – unless one is thinking in the sense of “well-hung”; but that doesn’t seem appropriate either …

    This is what I voted for last time, and it is working well.

  • Stewart

    Alex your theory on charging a tax making the end user pay and therefore make them chose an alternative energy source is flawed as it has been proven the only people (end users) who can afford the extra 10% is the rich, the middle and low income people have no chance hence the governments stupid an misguided we will give you money to off set the cost. To me and most of my friends we see that if you reward a polluter into changing by assisting him with the change then you will get a far better result then a big stick where they say hey charge us we just pass it onto the end user we don’t care attitude, is what is stopping this from happening.

    The federal government would of been better off giving every household in Australia a 5kw solar system this would reduce 90% of your daily needs for day time energy plus feed the excess back into the system. There would be no feed back money just a free system that reduces your energy and this one off cost would set the government back millions but in the long term roughly 20yrs a system is suspected to last it will reduce our need for power and also the industries be encouraged to do the say change from electricity to solar thus causing the power stations to produce less energy and reduce the pollution outputs. I am all for lowering the carbon outputs in fact i would love to see it reduced But until the rest of the world get on board and start to reduce then we will be an island surrounded by pollution from other countries.

    The old saying is bash the child get an angry child encourage the child get a happier child, hence the same with industry this has always been the greens way bash it through and what has it achieved very little a few things they have stopped but in the process they have destroyed lively hoods in some cases lives but to them this is collateral damage to me it is sheer lunacy.

  • Humblebee

    The Palmer-Reinhart puppeteers have the Abbot-puppet dancing a merry Putin jig singing “Prosperity”, “Jobs”, “Growth” and a “Strong Economy”.

    The old lines are wearing very thin.

    We are selling our agricultural land, our services, our technology and our souls for the quick buck, the big box in the suburbs and all the consumerist trappings that go along with it.

    What future will this leave us with? Empty holes in the ground, everything else sold up to overseas interests, and a few offensively rich individuals free to follow the money trail wherever they wish to go.