August 11, 2015

Dishonesty is the worst policy

By Nick Feik
Dishonesty is the worst policy
The Abbott government has no intention of cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions

The Coalition is on the verge of announcing its long-term target for emissions reduction: 26–28% by 2030.

The logic behind this target shouldn’t be misinterpreted. It’s not to set Australia on a path to reducing emissions. It is simply to avoid international condemnation and pariah status at the upcoming Paris climate change conference. Abbott and his government expect the public and the world to accept that by merely announcing a target it will be playing its part. Clearly it takes the global community and the Australian public for idiots.

The government is announcing a long-term greenhouse gas emissions target, having undermined every possible mechanism to achieve it. Abbott, unsurprisingly, won’t be attending the Paris conference.

So how will the new 2030 target be met? The question’s irrelevant. Political opponents, world leaders, climate scientists and environmentalists are already lining up to decry the target for its inadequacy and lack of ambition but they miss the point: this government won’t even try to meet its target. It’s an exercise in sheer duplicity.

This government has killed carbon pricing, reduced the renewable energy target, gutted the Clean Energy Finance Corporation by instructing it not to invest in wind power or small-scale solar projects; it has presided over the destruction of the large-scale renewable energy industry in Australia; de-funded the Climate Council and tried to disband the Climate Change Authority; pulled financial support from the Environmental Defenders Offices, the Caring for Our Country, Low Carbon Communities and Energy Efficiency Opportunities programs, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Unsurprisingly, power sector emissions in the past year grew by more than they have in a decade, reversing gains made as a result of the carbon tax.

By its own admission, the government’s Direct Action plan is not suitable for achieving substantial long-term emissions reductions – even the promised 5% target can’t be guaranteed, if it costs too much – and its “baseline” mechanisms for capping industrial emissions are so high that they’ve been likened to setting a limbo bar two metres off the ground. As reported by Mike Seccombe in the Saturday Paper, none of Australia’s top 20 largest emitters are expected to reach the bar set for them, despite almost all being forecast to increase their emissions over the next 10 years.

Some, like environment minister Greg Hunt, may fool themselves that merely to voice a target is to participate in global emissions reductions, but this proves only an infinite capacity for self-delusion. It’s fairly obvious that the government’s main strategy is simply to present a fictional target, to make no serious attempt to curb emissions, and to fight a rear-guard action attacking any action on climate change on the grounds that it would cost too much. In this it is ably assisted by News Corporation, which, like Abbott, backs the view that any mitigation effort is irresponsible if it costs something. (Never mind the fact that Australia currently subsidises fossil-fuel use at a cost of $A1712 per person per year.) This kind of logic is analogous to insisting that paying for cancer treatment is an impost on the hip pocket.

The Daily Telegraph and the Australian now compete to see who can plant the most outrageous scare campaigns about carbon pricing and electricity costs, having ignored for the past decade the cost of deliberate overinvestment in power infrastructure, producing costs passed on to the public that account for by far the greatest share of recent power price rises.

If accusations of straight dishonesty from the government seem over the top, ask a simple question: what, according to the Abbott government, are the actual means by which Australia will substantially reduce its emissions? Will they involve greater investment in renewable energy? Not if the government has anything to do with it. Will they involve caps on emissions? Not real ones. Will they involve carbon pricing? No. Will they occur through regulation? “Red tape”, seriously?

There are no plans whatsoever. Apart from Direct Action, which has been judged an exorbitant joke by economists, environmentalists and almost everyone else in the world, besides Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott.

As with its proposals about higher education reform, tax reform, IR reform, infrastructure investment, indigenous constitutional recognition, and a host of other issues, the Abbott government’s words bear no relation to its actions. The prime minister repeats phrases like mantras, expecting them to materialise (“jobs and growth”) – he has a strange conception of the effects of his voice – and his party seems still not to have twigged that it’s all meaningless.

Abbott’s government is so far off the path of substantial emissions reduction that even if it did happen to act, its actions would contradict everything it has done until now. A move to reduce coal emissions would be in stark contrast to Abbott’s words of support of the coal industry, and plans for new mines; boosting renewable energy would seem ludicrous given recent efforts to knee-cap the industry; likewise a carbon-pricing mechanism is inconceivable given its campaign against the carbon tax. The list goes on. There’s nothing the Abbott government can now do – without looking foolish – to demonstrate it believes in addressing climate change. It has no room to move.

So what are the chances now of it taking genuine action on climate change? About as high as Tony Abbott standing up in front of the media and owning up to the fact that everything he said and done on the issue in the past five years is, to paraphrase, absolute crap.

Faced with a genuine policy problem, Abbott has proved repeatedly that he has no capacity to lead, or to persuade; none even to muddle through. His thought bubbles just burst. Evidence gets sidelined, partisan panels of non-experts are constituted to produce reports that reflect their ideological leanings, which are then ignored because they’re unpalatable or mad, and the whole process leads again to nothing. What message on climate change, precisely, is the government trying to send? There’s no good answer to that question.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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