Tuesday, October 20, 2009

National Party ETS Gamble

It seems to be unclear just exactly what is the coalition position on the proposed emissions trading scheme, or precisely what amendments it is proposing. Despite expectations that Malcolm Turnbull would seek approval from the joint party room for a set of specific amendments, there were no such proposals actually put into writing. Instead, the joint party room agreed to a set of principles on which Mr. Turnbull and his acting ETS spokesman Ian McFarlane would be permitted to negotiate. Mr. McFarlane is now in the process of discussing these principles with the Climate Change Minister Penny Wong. Presumably these discussions will lead to a point where the opposition feels it can actually put its proposals on paper and produce a draft of the amendments it intends to present in Parliament.

In effect, the coalition still has not committed to any position on the emissions trading scheme, other than to say that it opposes the scheme in its current form. Just what it proposes instead remains a set of vague ideas which have yet to be crystalised into a specific policy. In part, this is because the government has set the agenda, successfully calling a tune to which the opposition is struggling to dance. But it is also in part because the opposition parties remain deeply divided over the issue. A number of well publicized dissenters are to be found on the Liberal Party back bench, and pretty much the entire National Party doesn’t want to have a bar of it. No wonder there are no coherent amendments actually committed to paper.

Further complicating matters is the call by the National Farmers Federation for the National Party to support whatever amendments are finally drafted by the coalition. The Federation believes that if the government accepts the coalition proposals then the National Party should support them. It seems that the Federation accepts that an emissions trading scheme will be a fact of life whether anyone likes it or not, and is pragmatic enough to see the need for farmers to have a seat at the table rather than risk being shut out in the cold. Or perhaps in the context of global warming, that should be heat. Either way, there’s a lot at stake for farmers, and like any other business affected by the emissions trading scheme they deserve to have their interests represented in the process of reaching an outcome, and to have some certainty about their future.

There have been mixed messages from the National Party, with many of its members steadfastly opposed to any kind of emission trading scheme at all, and certainly not in advance of the international meeting in Copenhagen in December, while the Party Leadership is hedging its bets by supporting the negotiation process in which Malcolm Turnbull is engaged. The truth is they have no choice. Simply opposing the legislation would virtually guarantee that it passes after a double dissolution election which would at the same time lock the coalition out of government for another three years. That’s why, regardless of how much they grit their teeth, the Nationals are likely to support the amendments, when they are finally drafted and if they are accepted by the government.

That all hinges on developing amendments which are not only acceptable to their own members, but also to the government. If they don’t, they will have simply dealt themselves out of the game.

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