Almost all of my posts to date have focused on criticizing Australia’s incumbent Labor government. I have written very little about the alternate Liberal/National Coalition government. But as we enter an election year, it is time to examine the Liberals’ policies.
Can the Liberals be trusted?
To begin with, it is worth noting that the Liberals have given us every reason to distrust them on climate change.
According to a 2010 survey, only 38% of Coalition politicians accept that humans are warming the planet (compared to 98% of Greens, in line with the scientific consensus, and 89% of Labor politicians). Liberal and National politicians regularly spout denialist talking points, up to and including their leader Tony Abbott. Most notoriously, Abbott reportedly said in 2009 that the science of climate change is “complete crap” but “the politics of this are tough for us”. In 2010 Abbott met with Christopher Monckton, a man who claims climate scientists are conspiring to fake their results in a plot to create a socialist world government. In a speech to the Mining Council of Australia in 2011, Abbott said “the authors of the carbon tax do not see coal, oil and gas as the most important parts of our economy” but “as a threat to the very survival of our planet”, the obvious implication being that his party disagrees. In 2011 former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard launched a book instructing schoolchildren to raise denialist arguments in the classroom. Queensland’s Liberal National government wants to remove climate from the school curriculum, and its Premier and Environment Minister openly deny human-caused global warming.
I could list many more examples. Indeed, it would probably be quicker to list Coalition politicians who have never publically made denialist claims.
Almost all of the Liberals’ actions mark them as an anti-climate party. The Liberals did not take any significant climate action during the eleven years of the Howard government. They consistently prioritize short-term economic considerations like mining industry competitiveness and electricity prices ahead of climate change. Today they are putting way more effort into opposing Labor’s climate policy than in designing and promoting their own (the former is the subject of this post; the latter will be covered in Part 2). Thus it is questionable whether they would even implement their climate policy, let alone whether it would work.
Carbon price repeal
Research cited by the Australian Financial Review says most voters are skeptical that a Liberal government would go through with the party’s promise to repeal the carbon price. Labor and the Greens have both argued the Liberals will break their promise. Let’s not kid ourselves. Abbott’s promise is explicit and unequivocal, describing the abolition of the carbon price and Clean Energy Finance Corporation:
On day one, I will instruct the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to draft legislation that repeals the Carbon Tax and to have the legislation ready within one month.
On day one, the Finance Minister will notify the Clean Energy Finance Corporation that it should suspend its operations and instruct the Department of Finance to prepare legislation to permanently shut-down the Corporation.
On day one, the Environment Minister will instruct the Department to commence the implementation of the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan on climate change and carbon emissions.
Within the first month, the Cabinet will approve legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax.
On the first sitting day of Parliament under a Coalition Government, I will introduce legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax.
The first piece of legislation to be debated in the Parliament will be the repeal of the Carbon Tax.
As soon as the Carbon Tax is repealed, the Environment Minister will introduce legislation to enact the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan on climate change and carbon emissions.
Within the first sitting fortnight of Parliament, the Finance Minister will introduce legislation to shut-down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
I expect that the Parliament will respect the mandate of the people and repeal the Carbon Tax.
To oppose the mandate of a government elected on a platform of abolishing the Carbon Tax would be as reprehensible as the Gillard Government’s action to introduce a Carbon Tax without a mandate from the people.
If Labor and the Greens combine to block the express will of the Australian people, a Coalition Government would seek dissolution of both Houses of Parliament. We would then introduce the legislation to abolish the Carbon Tax at a subsequent Joint Sitting of the Parliament.
Unlike the Prime Minister, I mean what I say: there will be no Carbon Tax under a government I lead.
Abbott first promised to repeal the carbon price on 28 February 2011 (months before the details were negotiated), he has continued to restate this promise regularly for nearly two years, and he has shown no sign of wavering in his determination yet. Here are some selected quotes (and there are plenty more where these came from):
- “We will oppose it in opposition; we will rescind it in government.”
- “I have dedicated my political life, whatever’s left of it, to stopping this carbon tax.”
- “We can repeal the tax, we will repeal the tax, we must repeal the tax… I am giving you the most definite commitment any politician can give that this tax will go. This is a pledge in blood.”
- “We will repeal this tax; we will dismantle the bureaucracy associated with it.”
- “I will get rid of the carbon tax. It’ll be gone, lock, stock, and barrel.”
- “I won’t reduce the tax, change the tax, or redesign the tax. I will repeal the tax.”
The Liberals say the next election will be “a referendum on the carbon tax”. Abbott personally adds: “It’s also a referendum on political parties that break their promises and prime ministers who say one thing to win votes and then do another thing – the opposite thing – to hold onto their job.”
And make no mistake: the carbon price can be undone. All the Liberals would need to do is pass legislation. The next election will include all House of Representatives seats and half the Senate seats. If the Liberals win control of both houses at the next election, they should have no difficulty passing legislation. If the Senate blocks them (as Labor and the Greens have promised to block any repeal legislation), the constitution allows the government to call an election for all seats in both houses of Parliament then, if it wins, call a joint sitting of both houses to pass the blocked legislation. It would take time for the Liberals to follow this process to its conclusion; estimates of how much time vary widely; but if the Liberals gain power, the carbon price’s days are numbered. Furthermore, the issue of whether cancelling emissions permits is an acquisition of property should not be an impediment, as the Liberals argue it will not be necessary to cancel the permits: businesses would keep their permits but wouldn’t have to pay for them anymore.
Renew Economy’s Giles Parkinson has argued the Liberals could spin moving to an emissions trading scheme (ETS) sooner than scheduled as fulfilling their promise to remove the carbon tax. I consider such a move extremely unlikely, at least as long as Abbott remains party leader. (Parkinson’s theory might become relevant if there is a leadership change; I will examine the implications of this possibility in Part 6.) The Liberals have promised in no uncertain terms to repeal the carbon price legislation, not merely change it. Australian Financial Review columnist Brian Toohey asked Abbott’s office in July 2012
if a Coalition government would repeal Labor’s emissions trading scheme as well as its carbon tax. Back came a succinct email: ‘The simple, short answer to your question is, yes.’ When asked whether the long answer left open the possible adoption of some form of ETS, the reply was blunt: ‘There will be no other form of ETS.’
Liberal finance spokesperson Andrew Robb has even said he and Abbott would resign if a Liberal government backed away from its commitment to repeal the carbon tax and ETS.
Given the amount of noise they have made about Julia Gillard’s alleged “lie”, the Liberals cannot get out of their own promises.
In addition to the carbon price and Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Liberals would also cut the Department of Climate Change, Climate Change Authority, Climate Commission, and Clean Energy Regulator (which they describe as a “communist carbon pricing cop”.). So apparently they’re going to have a climate policy, but they’ll abolish the specialized bodies that currently administer, advise, communicate, and regulate it. (It’s also worth noting these bodies provide hundreds of jobs, contradicting the Liberals’ professed concern about jobs affected by the carbon price.)
The Liberals would also abolish the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.
Although the federal Liberal Party claims to support the Renewable Energy Target (RET), this particular promise has little credibility considering the Liberal-controlled states of Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria have all lobbied for the RET to be abolished.
Though Abbott has contradicted himself on coal seam gas, it is pretty obvious a Liberal government would facilitate the industry’s expansion, far from doing anything to stop it.
In April 2012, Abbott announced in an environment policy speech that the Liberals want to cut “green tape” by delegating environmental protection powers to the states (though it looks like Labor will do this anyway before the Liberals get a chance). This was misrepresented by a headline writer at The Age as a “green plan”. However, an Age editorial summed up my opinion on the concept of “green tape”:
“Red tape” is an emotive phrase that has no specific meaning. It is generally invoked by opponents of a government regulation who want people to believe that the regulation exists only to frustrate them. “Green tape”, a recently coined phrase, is like red tape, only worse. Both terms are favoured forms of political spin: if a government announces that it is cutting red tape, the regulations or policies being shredded are thereby declared indefensible.
The state Liberal governments have led the fight against “green tape”, by cutting climate programs on the basis they duplicate the federal carbon price (although again federal Labor seems intent on finishing the job before the next election).
Leaked Liberal speakers notes from July 2012 say the Liberals would “work with industry to reduce impediments to [energy] investment”, as well as “streamlining approval requirements and procedures”, “merging wherever possible State and Federal Government requirements”, and “delivering more certainty to the electricity generation sector”. On the last point, the Liberals claim “Australia faces a medium term electricity generation capacity shortage that must be addressed immediately”, a claim which electricity companies have made for years but is actually false.
More broadly (and I will elaborate on this in Part 5), I think there are signs the Liberals are planning a radical deregulation agenda. If my suspicion turns out to be accurate, it would not be good for the prospect of effective climate action.
In Part 2, I will examine the climate policies the Liberals promise to introduce.