Are You Fair Dinkum, Julia?

Julia Gillard and her Government might be moving forward but they aren’t heading toward a responsible climate policy, writes Fiona Armstrong

This election is proving to be even more dispiriting than the last. Right now, it feels more like a reality TV show than a contest for the national leadership. Mediocrity rules and success depends on a process that places little value on merit or worth. Instead, the prize awaits those who can “cut through” with simple messages and trite slogans.

As we all well aware the Prime Minister is moving forward. Mr Abbott meanwhile claims that he is fair dinkum — and that the Prime Minister isn’t. Is this fair? Gillard certainly seems fair dinkum about moving forward. But surely moving forward is only a meaningful aspiration if you are going somewhere? Like toward a visionary goal, for example. But where is our PM going? At the moment, she’s moving away from her Government’s part mistakes as fast as she can. That is understandable; there have been a few.

And wherever the PM is going, she’s not going alone. In the leaders’ debate, Gillard made it clear that she wants “Australians to come with me”.  But it’s hard to imagine what will encourage people to join her without a clear vision of what lies ahead in the “shape of the future”.

According to Gillard, there’s no challenge in our future “that’s too hard” or that we “won’t master it if we do it together”. She claims to be optimistic — and she will need to be, to imagine that our “very special, very precious Australian way of life” can be conserved by the proposals the Government has put on the table with regard to climate change and environmental issues.

The Government’s current proposals — connecting remote renewable power generation to the grid; fitting carbon capture and storage capability to new coal-fired power generation; providing ‘cash for clunkers’; and tax breaks for some energy conservation measures — are so unlikely to have any serious impact on emissions reductions they can hardly be called ‘climate’ policies.

Not that the Coalition is offering anything substantial either. Apart from the rather quaintly named  ‘Green Army’, Abbott’s climate policy centre seems to involve not having one — especially one that places a value on the environmental and health costs of pollution (aka a ‘price on carbon’).

There has been little acknowledgement in the campaign to date of the nature, type and scale of the challenges we face as a nation, as a global society, and as a species.  Scientists are telling us we have around a decade to restore equilibrium to our planet. But is there any sign from our political leaders (or those aspiring to be the position) of the scale and urgency of this task?

Our leaders seem remarkably unconcerned about their failure to plan for the future. By contrast, Germany, Spain, China, the UK, and Finland all have plans to guide their pathway to low carbon energy supplies as they transition to a ‘post carbon’ society. A nation as dependent on fossil fuels for energy and export income as Australia needs a national plan to transition away from coal and oil. Such a plan should outline the steps we will take to join the global race for deployment of renewable energy technologies — and to capitalise on our unlimited supply of natural resources such as the sun and the wind.

Far from offering a visionary plan for the nations’ future economic and national security however, neither the Government nor the Opposition have any policies that will even enable Australia to meet its commitments under the disappointing Copenhagen Accord. The IPCC recommends emissions reductions for Australia of between 25-40 per cent by 2020 but the policies currently on offer will not even achieve the government’s timid committment of 5 per cent emissions reduction by 2020.

The Opposition claims their policy will achieve the IPCC targets but this is open to debate. Analysis from the Climate Institute earlier this month suggests Coalition policies would instead lead to an 8 per cent increase in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020.

Thank goodness then for signs of leadership from the other player in Australian politics: the Greens.

The only party in this election with any credibility on climate, the Greens have a plan for Australia to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy, and thanks to a new report released by Melbourne University’s Energy Institute, we know this is not only possible that but it can be achieved in a short time frame.

The Government clearly takes the view that it is too expensive for them to fund this transition. A price on carbon is needed not only to make polluting energies more expensive but also to relieve pressure on government coffers. The Coalition’s current opposition to a price on carbon ignores the reality that any action to reduce emissions effectively places a price on carbon, whether it’s in the form of grants or subsidies. Eventually we will all pay for it, whether it is in shifted allocations from other sectors (less health care, anyone?) or a tax hike to cover costs.

In order to get the leverage we need to undertake this new industrial revolution, it is vital to mobilise private sector finance which exists in far greater quantities than government funds. A carbon price will do this by creating disincentives for investing in dirty energy and shift investment to clean.  And there are other compelling reasons for doing so — the failure to act on climate change is already costing us $50 billion a year globally in lost natural capital.

Australia is also risking our future economic security. Among the G20 members, we already lag in carbon competiveness, ranking 15th out of 19 countries in an index that evaluates each country’s adoption of credible policies to reduce emissions and their ability to prosper in a low carbon world. Like most, this report warns the longer it takes to achieve this transition, the more costly “economically, as well as socially and politically” it will be.

We are already losing investment to other countries by failing to develop coherent and carefully planned climate policy. One of Australia’s biggest fund managers Colonial First State Global Asset Management told a conference in Brisbane this week that the lack of effective policy in Australia, such as a carbon price, gross feed-in tariffs, or loan guarantees was driving investment offshore to countries such as China where predictable and stable climate and energy policy provide a secure investment environment.

If, as CEO of a company, Julia Gillard demonstrated the same lack of strategic vision for our country’s future that is currently on offer, the shareholders would have every right to question her credentials for the job. Unfortunately for Australians, she’s our CEO and it’s our national capital and assets that are being degraded. Even worse, her aspiring deputy can offer nothing different. It’s little wonder that many shareholders appear to be thinking it’s time to look elsewhere.