Monday, 13 January 2014

The Abbott Government And The Environment



All has not gone as smoothly as Prime Minister Abbott would have hoped in dealing with climate change policy since he took over the reins of government.

Abolition of the carbon tax was one of the new Prime Minister's early priorities. He indicated that he fully expected the parliament to enable him to fulfil his election promise immediately.  This was an unrealistic expectation given that the Government does not control the Senate.  Threats that Senate non-compliance could be used to trigger a double dissolution election unsurprisingly have not produced the cooperation Abbott demanded.  Despite the threat, a double dissolution election is extremely unlikely for a number of reasons including the expectation that the new Senate, to be installed in July, will pass the legislation - which means the Government just has to be patient.  Furthermore, the Government's position in the polls does not suggest another election as a viable option. 

The new Government's changes to climate change policy extend beyond the abolition of the carbon tax and its replacement with their "Direct Action".

There is no longer a Climate Change Minister or Department of Climate Change. The responsibility for climate change policy has been taken over by the Department of the Environment under Minister Greg Hunt. Mr Hunt made his mark early in his ministerial role during an interview with a British journalist by using a statement from  Wikipedia to support his claim that there was no link between the severe Blue Mountains bushfires and climate change (because  bushfires have always been a feature of Australian life since European settlement).  The use of such an authority as the basis for a serious public statement by a federal Minister subjected Mr Hunt to considerable ridicule both at home and abroad.
Beyond checking Wikipedia, Mr Hunt has moved on a number of climate bodies which have either been abolished or slated for abolition.  Three of these bodies are the Climate Change Authority, the Climate Commission and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

The Climate Change Authority ( ) was established to advise on Australia's emissions targets and to analyse the effectiveness of policies designed to meet those targets.  According to Mr Hunt this advice will, following the Authority's abolition, be provided by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO.  As these agencies obviously have other commitments, it will be interesting to see just how much of the CCA's work they will be able to take over. It will also be interesting to see whether the Government is prepared to provide them with additional funding to assist with their new roles.

However, the Climate Change Authority can only be abolished through an act of parliament.  While the relevant act has passed the House of Representatives, it has been blocked in the Senate. So it is likely the CCA will continue to operate until July 2014.
The Government probably did not appreciate the Climate Change Authority's most recent report  (October 2013) on emissions targets  - Targets and Progress Review Draft Report (  ) – which concluded that the 5% reduction in emissions by 2020 was insufficient and that Australia should be  looking at a reduction between 15% and 25% on year 2000 emissions.  Mr Abbott's Government (along with the former Labor Government) committed to the 5% reduction on year 2000 levels. It has costed this and has stated that this is the only funding available for this purpose.  So it is extremely unlikely that the Government will commit to a stronger reduction target.  The Authority's Final Report, with its emissions target recommendation, will be delivered to the Government by 28 February.

The Climate Commission was abolished on 19 September.  Minister Hunt claimed that the closing down of the Commission was "part of the Coalition's plans to streamline government processes and avoid duplication of services" and that the Commission's "function to provide independent analysis and advice" would be continued by the Department of the Environment.  It is quite obvious that Mr Hunt has no understanding of the term "independent analysis and advice".  The level of independent analysis and advice a Government department will provide is likely to be rather different to that provided by a body at arms-length from Government as the Climate Commission was. Furthermore the capacity of that Department to provide analysis and advice of an equivalent standard to that of Climate Commission would depend on factors such as the expertise of departmental staff and whether they had the time to undertake the necessary research – and whether the Government provided funding additional to current provisions to enable this.  All highly unlikely.

A considerable segment of the community, unimpressed with the Government's Climate Commission decision, was prepared to do something about it.  This led to a "crowd funding campaign" to replace the Commission with a group independent of the Government.  Over $1 million was raised in a little over a week and the Climate Commission was re-formed as the Climate Council. (  ) Perhaps this is an early warning that Mr Hunt and the Government should think carefully about the way they deal with climate change and providing the community with information on this important issue.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (   ) which commenced operation in July last year is responsible for making co-investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in the commercial sector. At the end of November last year $536 million had been invested in renewable energy, energy savings and low-carbon technologies.  According to the fund's board, for every dollar the CEFC invested, the private sector had invested three and the fund had generated carbon emissions savings of 3.88 million tonnes.
This is another planned abolition which has been foiled by the Senate for the time being.  It is interesting that a number of supporters of the CEFC and its work have pointed out to the Government that this body is actually the epitome of real direct action.  Unsurprisingly, this has not made any impression on Abbott's ideologically-driven Government.

The Coalition's commitment to acting effectively on climate change was open to question before it won the election.  Tony Abbott 's attitude (his 2009 comment about climate change being crap remains to haunt him)– and that of many of his Liberal-National Party colleagues - to the reality of climate change has for years been equivocal at best.

Concern about this commitment has only increased since Mr Abbott became Prime Minister. Factors such as Mr Hunt's unsatisfactory statements about how both the Climate Change Authority and Climate Commission roles will be filled following their abolition have only increased the concern of those who see an urgent need for effective action on climate change.

There continue to be serious questions about the likely effectiveness of the Coalition's "Direct Action" policy. The major component of "Direct Action", which is to replace the carbon tax, is the payment of polluters to stop them from polluting – the carrot rather than the stick - taxpayer funded in order to ensure the right behaviour.  The Senate has referred to the Government's Direct Action policy to the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications  - which must be a further irritation to the Government.  The Report on this inquiry is due on 24 March.  (Information  on this Senate Inquiry can be found at :

A rather unexpected sideshow occurred recently when Maurice Newman, head of the Prime Minister's new Business Advisory Council, claimed that climate change is "a scientific delusion".  To have someone heading what is presumably an influential Government business group espousing such a view lends further credence to the suspicion that climate change is not being taken seriously by the Government.

The next few months should prove interesting on the climate change front.  It is highly likely that the Government will feel increased pressure from the Opposition and the Greens as well as those in the community who want an effective climate policy.

Northern Rivers

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why have a climate change policy at all if, as Abbott believes, cc is "absolute crap"?