Wayne Swan: The terrible consequences of the Coalition's inaction on climate

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When the Howard Government announced support for an ETS, clean energy rallies were held all over Australia, like this one in Hyde Park. (Photo via http://peakenergy.blogspot.com.au/)

It's been a lost decade on climate action and political opportunists and charlatans were the ones who lost it for us, writes former Treasurer Wayne Swan.

IT'S A LOST decade we couldn’t afford on climate change and energy policy — but when the consequences are felt in years and decades to come, it’s incumbent upon us all not to forget the political opportunists and charlatans who led us down this path.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry last sitting week in parliament, when Prime Minister Turnbull accused Labor on energy policy of “bumbling around in the dark, and leaving Australians in the dark”, with no idea of how to protect the jobs and households of Australia.

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of the rally outside parliament organised by a radio shock jock in response to Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement that Labor would introduce a carbon pricing scheme.

Without question, the politics of carbon in this country have been spectacular over the last decade or so, but there is a real cost to the obsession with political colour and movement in reporting on such an important issue. One tragic part of it is the damage to future generations of failing to deal effectively with climate pollution. But, sadly, I don’t expect Australian conservatives to respond to moral cases on anything. More immediate still is the comprehensive failure to send sensible investment signals for the energy sector. A carbon price is, of course, the best long term effective mechanism that will deliver the investment required in clean energy to secure our economic and environmental future.

The carbon price announced by Prime Minister Gillard was little different from the carbon pollution reduction scheme that had the support of a Liberal Party under the leadership of John Howard – and Turnbull – right through to December 2009.

In 2011, our announcement of a three year fixed price trading scheme was immediately characterised as a carbon tax and became the focus of one of the most dishonest and brutal political campaigns in our nation’s history.

It was driven by Tony Abbott, sections of the business community and shock jocks who unleashed an anti-Gillard mob mentality that knew no bounds.

The prime minister was called everything from a dud to a witch, right through to being called a schemer.

The rally outside Parliament six years ago on 23 March 2011 saw Tony Abbott mingling with the likes of Pauline Hanson, speaking in front of a sign that said 'JuLIAR: Bob Brown’s Bitch'.

Imagine for a minute someone outside the parliament doing the same to Julie Bishop today.

This event and the campaign against carbon pricing, more than any other issue, symbolised the negativity of Tony Abbott’s leadership as well as the Liberal Party’s radical right turn into a protest movement in the mould of the U.S. Tea Party.

I’ve thought long and hard about the nature of this sustained campaign against Labor between 2007 and 2013, and my experience has convinced me that it was not the product of politics as usual, but rather the product of something alien and new.

Since first meeting (Professor Lord) Nick Stern 11 years ago, I’d come to the conclusion that no first-class economy should be anything other than a clean economy and the only way to drive investment in clean technology was to put a price on pollution.

As treasurer, I saw a price on carbon pollution as the next frontier on global reform.

Last week, as Prime Minister Turnbull fulsomely embraced Pauline Hanson in that parliamentary answer, the rise of the Australian right inside the Liberal party and the Trumpification of the conservative policy platform was being laid bare. I began to feel physically ill and, for the first time, to genuinely fear for the future of our country.

'I began to feel physically ill

and for the first time to genuinely

fear for the future of our country.'

Here was the agenda of right-wing nutters posing a threat to both our economic and energy security, one devoid of any connection to the most basic facts and scientific analysis being articulated by a supposedly Liberal businessman whose claim to the prime ministership of Australia was that he has the business experience to grow our economy and protect future generations.

There are many reasons why Labor failed to secure re-election in 2013 (and I outline these further in my book, The Good Fight) but stasis on big policy issues wasn’t one of them. I can put my hand on my heart and say that we put forward big structural reforms essential to our future economic and environmental sustainability.

The Murdoch media, determined to remove the Labor Government at any cost, mounted a savage war on the science of climate change and the structural reforms that needed to be undertaken. They were instrumental in carving in stone that Prime Minister Gillard had lied about the carbon tax.

So I wasn’t surprised this week when there was so little coverage by the Murdoch media that their star recruit, Peta Credlin, had admitted on Sky News:

“It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know. It was many other things in nomenclature terms but we made it a carbon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics …”

In judging economic policies, it is best to consider not just what happened after a given policy came into effect, but also what would have happened without the policy in question — known by the policy wonks as the counter-factual.

We know that prior to the carbon price being abolished, emissions in the energy sector dropped by 10.4 per cent and we saw a surge in investment in the renewable energy sector. Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation and our Australian Renewable Energy Agency worked together to drive a strong investment pipeline in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Both agencies have been targeted and blackguarded by the Liberals.

Published on 13 July 2014

We are now seeing what happens without the policy, or the counter-factual. There isn’t a stable and predictable environment for investment activity. The BCA darkly warned back in December of a systemic crisis in energy which is the product of a lack of investment, certainty and clarity.

Just as an aside: it’s a sad tale of the short political memories in this country that the BCA, in particular, wasn’t run out of town on a rail the same day for these comments. Of all the craven performances of lobby groups in the service of partisan ends, the BCA beats them all with its butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths effort of spending several years torpedoing an effective, functioning carbon price and then seconds later starting to whine about investment uncertainty.

Nevertheless, the day that the carbon price was repealed there were triumphant scenes in the parliament as ministers embraced each other on the floor of the parliament. As the years pass by, this will become their Neville Chamberlain moment.

As Alan Kohler put it this week:

'This is entirely the Liberal Party’s fault … By taking the low road in 2009 instead of the high road, and deciding to mislead Australians about the true cost of energy, the Liberal Party condemned the country to a decade of confusion and stasis on energy policy.'

It’s a lost decade we couldn’t afford on climate change and energy policy — but when the consequences are felt in years and decades to come, it’s incumbent upon us all not to forget the political opportunists and charlatans who led us down this path.

See also John Menadue’s piece Abbott/Turnbull policy on climate change and energy caused current messand Max Corden’s piece ‘Bring Back the Carbon Tax?’

Wayne Swan was the deputy prime minister of Australia, the deputy leader of the Labor Party from 2010 to 2013 and the treasurer of Australia in the Rudd/Gillard Government from 2007 to 2013. He is currently the Federal Labor MP for the Queensland seat of Lilley. This article was published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations'. It is republished with permission.

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