Bill Shorten’s year of ideas has not exactly been a riotous success; in fact he has been marked down at just 15 per cent.
But the never-give-up opposition leader ploughs on regardless, and last week came up with another three wizard wheezes. The first was just silly – making the cost of cigarettes even more unaffordable than it already is. For heaven’s sake, if you’re serious, just ban the bloody things – make the poisonous products of the merchants of death illegal, as it should be. Stop fiddle-farting around.
The second was a suggestion of parental leave for victims of domestic violence, which was a timely and topical proposal that even Malcolm Turnbull thought was worth talking about.
And then came the big one: cutting emission reductions by 45 per cent by 2030. This was indeed a courageous decision – indeed, Turnbull called it heroic, if, of course, uncosted and far too expensive even if it had been. Christopher Pyne, unleashing his inner revolutionary, described it simple as mad.
Of course, if it had been Turnbull’s own idea – which, in happier circumstances, it easily might have been – it would have been spun as agile and nimble, an innovative response to the challenges of the most exciting time in human history, looking forward to jobs that have not even been invented yet. But Shorten, somewhat less lyrical, cut straight to the chase: it was really all about Turnbull himself, who was going to the Paris climate change conference carrying the baggage of the Abbott years, forced by the sceptics, denialists and log-rollers of the conservative faction that reluctantly allowed him to become Prime Minister.
It was not inspirational stuff, but it was a fair cop: Turnbull has been struggling – manfully, but still struggling – to explain his spectacular tergiversation over the policies he once espoused so enthusiastically, and, more importantly, over the devastating put downs of Abbott’s Direct Action agenda.
To be fair, the new leader has done his best; he has managed to avoid the obvious accusation that Direct Action is ridiculously expensive and economically absurd, and instead has gone back to a slogan: well, at least it works. Well, up to a point, and at least in the short term.
Turnbull knows as well as anyone else that shovelling out taxpayers’ money to tweak the marginal efficiencies which technology will deliver in any case is, in the end, unsustainable: what will be needed is improvements on an industry wide basis to stop carbon pollution, and this will mean some form of cap-and trade system, what Abbott and his followers continue to insist is actually a carbon tax.
Direct Action was never meant to be more than a stop gap, something to buy Abbott a bit of time to placate the activists until a more pressing distraction came along. And as far as Turnbull is concerned, it still is; he has already begun hinting that, when the time comes, he will start working towards a real solution.
But in the meanwhile he has no choice other than to dismiss and deride Shorten’s formula, despite the fact that many authorities believe it is both necessary and practical; the Climate Change Authority led until recently by the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, Bernie Fraser, called for a reduction target of between 40 and 60 per cent So Turnbull has called in the accountants: Warwick McKibbin, an economist who did the numbers for the Foreign Affairs Department says that Direct Action would cost the economy about $18 billion in output by 2030 but the Shorten plan would cost around $30 billion.
It sounds a lot, but with total economy predicted to grow to about $3000 million, and still growing by 23 per cent of over the decade, the Shorten hit would be just one per cent – and of course that does not take into account the economic losses involved in doing less, or even nothing. And the Shorten plan also includes a renewable energy target of 50 per cent – remember the jobs of the future. So the bill, although obviously considerable, might not be regarded as exorbitant, given what is at stake.
Shorten is taking his manifesto to Paris, where his ambition will no doubt be applauded, although there will be obvious reservations about just how, when and if it can be implemented. But as always, his immediate agenda will be local. The bulk of his own party, and especially the green edges of it, continue to rate climate change as a genuine and pressing issue, perhaps even a game changer. But a large majority of coalition voters have put it aside, which means that is not longer the urgent topic it was nearly a decade ago – remember, it was so fraught that the Libs changed their leader because of it.
Shorten’s first task will be to return it front and centre; if climate change is to be an election issue, perhaps the overriding election issue, people have to start talking about it again. The science, of course, is on his side; but then it always has been. And Turnbull, for all his hedging about policy, is a true believer, which will help.
But most important of all will be the empirical evidence that the world is changing, and not for the better. We are told that the last five years will be the hottest on record, and that this year will be the hottest of them all. And we can see it happening: more extreme weather events and now an early bushfire season, with catastrophic consequences likely. Already there have been several deaths, multiple injuries and enormous losses in property, livestock and the environment.
No one will rejoice in the natural — or at least partially man-made – disasters, certainly not Shorten. But he would not be human if he did not see that they will focus public attention on the need for what Turnbull might call a calm, clinical, clear-eyed and professional response. And, he might add, one that makes sense.
Shorten has offered the germ of an idea to provide one. Whether he has the talent and ability to bring it to fruition is yet to be seen. But it is, at least, a big idea.