It’s called the COAG Taskforce on Regulatory and Competition Reform, and don’t be fooled by the boring name: it could be the gravestone of Australian climate policies and environmental regulation. Today Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets with the unelected Business Advisory Forum (BAF), and tomorrow with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), to advance this radical corporate-driven deregulation agenda.
I was going to write that the federal government intended to hand over its environmental approval powers to the states tomorrow. Fortunately that has been delayed following a campaign by the Greens and environmental groups, though it remains very much on the agenda. Instead this blog post will focus on another, even more important aspect of the COAG Taskforce program, which has received less attention but presumably rolls on inexorably toward an imminent conclusion: reviewing almost all climate policies with a view to axing them.
The process is completely opaque and undemocratic. Federal and state governments are advised by business lobbyists, with no comparable consultation of anyone else, and the public are not told what is happening apart from vague communiqués following decisions at BAF and COAG meetings.
It is not even clear why the BAF was created in the first place, though I can offer an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. Throughout 2011, business lobbyists campaigned against the Gillard government for daring to rock the boat even slightly by introducing a carbon price (never mind that it was full of holes). Some supported the Liberals’ campaign for an election and no carbon price, and I imagine behind the scenes some supported Kevin Rudd’s leadership plot in return for Rudd’s promise to weaken the carbon price. When Rudd was decisively defeated, the Business Council of Australia called for “a renewed commitment to make Australia more competitive and productive” including “a regulatory environment that encourages business to invest, adapt, and innovate”. Within a week, Gillard announced the formation of the Business Advisory Forum. The whole thing had a vibe of Gillard desperately trying to win the support of business. And what better way to atone for the carbon price than to dismantle all other climate and environment policies?
Returning to established fact, we saw during the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee negotiations last year that the Greens’ attempts to extract effective climate policies from Labor were like pulling teeth, in stark contrast to the media portrayal that the Greens were running the show. The way Gillard negotiated with the BAF this April was very different: the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), and Australian Industry Group (AIG) demanded what they wanted, then Gillard agreed to their demands word for word and promised to deliver them. Nobody voted for these business groups, yet they are dictating the Government’s agenda.
All of a sudden the oft-heard criticism of Gillard’s governing style became much more credible to me. Gillard seems to treat everything as a bargaining chip, caring more about making deals to appease powerful people (in this case the business lobby) than the real-world impacts of those deals (removing climate policies and federal environmental approval powers). Why does nobody call BCA President Tony Shepherd the unofficial Deputy Prime Minister?
The COAG Taskforce commissioned a report by the Productivity Commission, released in June, which called for the abolition (or weakening if abolition is not possible) of all federal and state-level climate policies they deem to be more costly than the carbon price: renewable energy targets, feed-in tariffs, energy performance standards, energy efficiency schemes, energy use reporting requirements, and low-emissions technology demonstration projects – pretty much anything that is not a carbon price. The argument, as always, is that a carbon price is the cheapest way to implement Australia’s emissions target. It ignores the realities that the 5% by 2020 target is utterly inadequate, and that cost-benefit analysis of climate policies fails to account for the long-term benefits of contributing to structural decarbonization of the economy, changing technology prices, avoiding lock-in of fossil fuel infrastructure, and avoiding the enormous costs of unmitigated climate change.
The lack of transparency means I can’t tell you with any certainty how far along the agenda is. I can’t tell you for how long the handover of environmental approval powers to the states has been put off. I can’t tell you the timeline for deciding the fate of the hundreds of climate policies that hang in the balance, though it looks like it won’t be all over tomorrow. According to a November communiqué, COAG’s Select Council on Climate Change (SCCC), chaired by federal Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, is due to complete its review on the value of climate policies by January and report to COAG in February in the leadup to the next COAG meeting in March. Whatever the exact timetable, all indications are that the process will be well and truly complete before the next election (at which time I expect business lobbyists will laugh at Labor’s foolishness and revert to supporting the Liberals).
Some climate policies could be on the chopping board as soon as tomorrow under the guise of another aspect of the COAG Taskforce agenda: reducing electricity prices. COAG commissioned another Productivity Commission report on this topic, released in October, whose recommendations again included abolishing renewable energy subsidies. The report cited inaccurate estimates of the cost of emissions cuts from solar PV, estimates that have been debunked by… the Productivity Commission itself in a report quietly released last December.
The demolition of Australia’s non-carbon-price climate policies could be over before most Australians even realize it is happening. If the Liberal Party wins the next federal election, the carbon price will soon be gone too. This climate deregulation is occurring, with very little scrutiny, at a time when the climate crisis has never been more pressing. We should be decarbonizing the Australian and global economy as rapidly as possible to prevent climate change spiraling out of our control. Instead, Gillard believes it is more important to appease the business lobby.
UPDATE 8 December 2012: The COAG meeting itself didn’t result in any climate policy cuts, as far as I am aware, but before the meeting NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell axed nine state green policies.