By Mungo MacCallum
In one version Anzac was a glorious exploit, in another a disastrous blunder. And given that politics has been described war without blood, the analogy is hard to resist, especially for the present beleaguered Abbott government.
Anzac began as an act of gallant, perhaps reckless, bravado but it never achieved its intended objectives and ended in retreat. And so it may well be for the latest adventure – the direct action scheme for curbing carbon emissions.
The first of the so-called auctions for polluters was announced by an exuberant Environment Minister Greg Hunt on the eve of Anzac Day itself, which of course meant that it was swamped by the commemoration; the mainstream media had neither the time nor the inclination to give it even the most minimal critical appraisal.
Instead, Hunt’s initial spin ruled, and as a result the assertion that just this first round had already produced four times the result achieved by the whole of the previous government’s carbon tax was allowed to sit unchallenged. Indeed, it was parroted on the front page of The Australian by Greg Sheridan, who whatever his dubious talents as a foreign affairs guru, has neither expertise nor scepticism as either a scientist nor an economist.
Even the most cursory inspection would have shown that the comparison claimed by Hunt was one of apples and oranges – or more appropriately strawberries and broccoli, so patently absurd was it. For starters, The carbon tax was not a cost to revenue but a profit; the money came into Treasury coffers, not out of it. True, there was a price to be paid in compensation measures for some of the less wealthy consumers, but this has been maintained anyway by the current government. In other words, it is all red ink.
But perhaps more importantly, there is absolutely no guarantee that it will produce any results whatever, less alone the promised bonanza. The profits garnered by the carbon tax were banked and audited over the brief two years of its existence, and the extent of emission reduction monitored.
They were considerable; of course not all the cuts came directly from the tax, but the simultaneous falls in demand obviously had at least an indirect influence on their successes as well as deliberate economies from the various suppliers. The promises from the polluters who have trousered Hunt’s handouts are just that – promises. Some are projected to cut in before the putative five-year deadline of 2020, but others are longer term – a decade if we’re lucky.
Thus the target trumpeted by Hunt, reducing Australia’s overall emissions by five per cent by 2020, remains at best a blue sky scenario, and the predictions of failure by the climatologists and economists are still a lot more credible than the minister’s triumphalism. Hunt brags that he is on track to ‘breeze past’ the five per cent, but the Climate Institute, for one, calculates that while the $660 million already represents a quarter of the total $2.55 billion allocated by the government, it will only achieve about 15 per cent of the 2020 promise.
Not for the first time, the government’s arithmetic just doesn’t add up. Planting trees is all very well, and no doubt a nice idea in its own right. But it will never produce the hard and fast solutions of making those who do the damage pay for it, or take the financial penalties for the operations.
And of course, there is something rather perverse about Tony Abbott and his mates morphing into tree huggers instead of economic rationalists. The much despised and reviled Greens are a lot hard-headed in their approach to the issue. They insist that for once the point is not trees, it is coal-fired electricity generators and that there are no serious plans to deal with them.
They may come up in the next auction, but if they do it will be a much more expensive business, and not one of actually closing them down (unless they are seriously obsolete and will then in any case be replaced) but in making them still more central to the Australian economy. And the new and gigantic mines in the Galilee Basin are still an integral plan to enlarge the country’s reliance on coal, which, is, of course, regarded not just as an export but as being good for humanity at large.
In the circumstances Hunt’s vainglorious boast that the first part of his auction is not just a win for the government but for the whole planet seems just a fraction hyperbolic. The current international thinking is that the emission reductions need to be accelerated and enlarged; the aspirations talk seriously about 30 per cent by 2025, 40 per cent by 2040, and the lot, or something very close to it, by 2050. Neither Hunt nor Abbott is even likely to imagine such scenarios. They will plough on with dealing with waste management and not planting (or more likely just not chopping down) trees.
The pity of it is that there is a more rational, more efficient and far simpler tried and trusted solution; a cap and trade emissions trading scheme, coupled with government support for moves to a more vigorous approach to renewable energy sources, especially in the electricity industry But Abbott, won’t, and can’t, even consider such ideas: the denialists, sceptics and apologists within his party room are the ones he relies on for support. They made him leader in 2009 and they can, and will, tear him down in 2015 if he steps out of line.
The Abbott government is already out of step with the world, but who cares: we will decide what we do with our emissions, and the circumstances in which we manage them. And if we leave the place a bit of a mess, we’ll worry about cleaning it up when the time comes.
To return to the Anzac analogy, we can always fall back on Simpson and his donkey. Well, perhaps not on Simpson – he was, after all, a pacifist and a socialist. But we can certainly find an appropriate donkey.