Why we need an independent climate body

Mr Abbott 'poisoned the well' to the extent that major parties cannot propose rational, efficient climate policy.

Mr Abbott 'poisoned the well' to the extent that major parties cannot propose rational, efficient climate policy. Photo: TND

It was 12 years ago on Wednesday that Tony Abbott knifed Malcolm Turnbull to become leader of the Opposition and start breaking Australian politics.

It remains broken.

Mr Abbott and his accomplices so poisoned the well that neither of our major parties can propose rational, efficient climate policy.

In private, off-the-record, there are plenty of Labor and Liberal Party members who know what would best be done for Australia to pull its weight on climate change, to our own and the world’s advantage. But both sides are hamstrung by Abbott’s legacy of “Total Opposition”.

There is no point even considering the National Party – take your pick whether it’s utterly cynical, actually believes half the rubbish spouted by its members, or so used to rorting that it can’t recognise corrupt ownership by vested interests.

And to the extent that they are represented by Zali Stegall’s Climate Change Bill, it seems the wave of community independents are coming up short. Much closer than the main parties, but still short.

Which is why we need to take the same leap on climate policy that we did on monetary policy: Establish an independent expert body with the power to act at a credible distance from the political cycle.

Once upon a time, the Reserve Bank lacked independence. The government of the day could push interest rates up or down to suit its re-election chances – pushing them up never appealed.

That wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the nation. The system wasn’t good for the government either when rates simply had to rise or rose too much – the pollies were blamed for it.

The solution was to formalise RBA independence so that, hopefully, the best course for monetary policy could be charted and the government could blame the RBA if interest rate decisions were unpopular.

We are at a worse point with climate policy than we were with monetary policy.

The Opposition and the government are crippled. Mr Abbott’s legacy of demonising the effective pricing of carbon remains.

It’s writ large in the Morrison government’s mindless “Technology not Taxes” mantra – shorthand for wasteful, third-rate policy that’s more about subsidising and extending the life of fossil fuels than reducing emissions.

And the Abbott legacy is accepted in the Albanese Opposition’s pledge not to introduce a carbon tax.

We’re yet to see what climate policy Mr Albanese will take to the election, but we know that it will be at least second-rate if carbon isn’t properly priced – not just by the prone-to-rorting, inefficient and opaque carbon offset industry.

Rather than pretending carbon pricing can be avoided (even when it’s between the lines of the government’s own modelling), we should be debating the best way of doing it – tax or cap-and-trade, or a combination; a revenue-neutral tax providing compensation for consumers and businesses or one that further accelerates sustainable investment.

But neither side of politics can do that. Whichever side wins the election, if it subsequently moved to do the right thing, the other mob will repeat the Abbott tactics of branding the Prime Minister a liar.

The community independents movement is hot to trot on climate – it’s one of the handful of core issues for them. But they, too, baulk at the “tax” word.

Time to flick responsibility to a credible body that isn’t directly beholden to cheap political tactics.

This is where Zali Stegall’s proposed bill has to woman up and go the required step further.

The bill would deliver a new improved Climate Change Commission, as Mr Abbott’s replacement as the Member for Warringah explains:

“The current Climate Change Authority only reviews the functioning of certain legislation and is tasked to review policy and pathway to lower emissions only by referral from the Minister. This means its functions are limited and historically it has not been utilised effectively.

“The new Climate Change Commission will review policy and report publicly on progress yearly without referral by the Minister.”

But the new Commission can’t initiate policy. Ms Stegall’s bill still “leaves policy making in the hands of our elected Government”.

“Our elected Government” of whichever stripe after May has pledged not to adopt the best policy.

It’s time to give that government some help, to relieve it of the political pain of Tony Abbott’s poison. Empower the Commission to develop and enact relevant policy to the nation’s benefit.

The body would still be answerable to Parliament, as the RBA is. Its members would be appointed by the government – as the RBA board and Governor are, as our Governor General is.

It would help to have a moment’s clarity by our politicians to agree on a bi-partisan basis to such a body. It would also help if COVID-19 simply disappeared tomorrow and I won PowerBall.

But perhaps if several intelligent, genuinely independent members held the balance of power, they could force the next government to act in everyone’s best interest.

And the nation could start healing from a dozen years of Abbott destruction.

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