Thursday, August 13, 2009

Politics Rather Than Policy Dominates Climate Debate

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme has been shot down in the Senate today as expected, putting in place the first step towards a possible double dissolution election. If, in three months time, the government puts up the same legislation and it is rejected again, the trigger for such an election will be armed. In that case, it will be up to the Prime Minister to decide if it is a trigger he wants to pull, a shot he wants to fire. Given the disarray of the opposition parties, especially on the climate change issue, it’s hard to believe that he would choose not to.

In many respects, the debate about the merits or otherwise of the proposed emissions trading scheme has been overwhelmed by the politics, and all parties have been guilty of contributing to that. The government is no doubt taking great delight in the prospect of the coalition splintering over this question, despite all the earnest observations about the urgency of introducing legislation for a scheme which is not scheduled to commence until 2011, and even then not with its full impact until 2012. But the temptation of dividing and conquering the opposition is obviously too great to resist.

The Liberal Party too has been focusing so much on the politics that it hasn’t even formulated a policy. The best it has come up with so far is the Frontier Economics report which makes a list of recommendations, and even that remains the subject of debate within the party. Meanwhile, the Nationals look very much as if they will refuse to accept any form of emissions trading scheme on the basis of the impact on industry, and especially on primary industry. Many of their members are still in the climate skeptics camp, questioning the evidence of human activity contributing to global warming at all.

At least the Liberal Party has now indicated that it will stick with Malcolm Turnbull and work on producing a series of amendments to the legislation to put forward when the bill is presented again. Assuming that those amendments resemble the recommendations of the Frontier Economics, it is possible that the National Party will not support them, the Greens most certainly won’t, and there will still be an impasse in the Senate, even after months of haggling. That is, unless the Liberals actually manage to produce amendments which the government is prepared to accept.

While that may be possible, it is more likely that politics rather than policy will determine the outcome. Under the circumstances, with clear divisions in the coalition, and the government sticking to its guns, the temptation of a double dissolution election will be very strong. Given the opportunity, the Rudd government would be able to go to the polls as the only major party able to claim to have a consistent policy, which they will represent as also being the only responsible policy, while the Greens would be painted as too radical, and the coalition as a divided rabble. The chances are very good that in the circumstances, the Rudd government would win, and the ensuing sitting of the joint houses of parliament would see the CPRS finally passed, and the government back in office for a fresh term of office.

The task for Malcolm Turnbull now is to get an acceptable suite of amendments formulated before then. If he can manage to do that, it will be his most significant achievement yet, and perhaps a true indication of his leadership ability. By the time he has finished negotiating with his own party, negotiating with the government will seem easy.

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