Sunday, July 20, 2008

Getting the emissions message clear

The Sunday Age

Date: July 20 2008

ANYONE on Family First Senator Steve Fielding's email distribution list will know this: the man pumps out an impressive number of press releases.

In recent days we've been sent these little gems: "Wong's got it wrong on petrol", "Massive food price hikes under emissions trading scheme" and (our favourite) "Will there be a fart tax, Mr Rudd?"

Individually, the emails might represent little more than an incremental addition to a huge debate.

But viewed another way, Fielding's contribution highlights an interesting political problem for the Federal Government, one almost as "diabolical" (to borrow a word from the Government's hired gun on climate change, Ross Garnaut) as the problem of climate change itself.

How do you explain something as profound, complex and intangible as emissions trading to people already straining to cope with rising bills for food, petrol and power?

For the Opposition and minor players such as Fielding, there is much political mileage to be made out of a scheme that will place a real financial impost on the public, particularly when Rudd himself created an expectation that he would do something tangible to stem the rising cost of living.

Although the costs are clear, by its nature emissions trading is an intangible and elusive concept. The Government is essentially attempting to create an artificial market for the right to emit something you cannot smell or touch, and where a tonne produced locally has exactly the same impact on the planet as a tonne produced in China or Chad.

Fielding, who holds one of the seven votes needed by the Government to pass any piece of legislation not supported by the Coalition, is promising he won't be supporting any plan that imposes significant net costs on Australian families - low income or otherwise.

The Government (which has 32 senators in the 76-member upper house) will either need support from the Coalition (which has 37 votes) or it will need to win support from the five Green senators, plus Senator Fielding and South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon, to get the 39 votes necessary to pass the plan.

For starters, Fielding is demanding a full Senate inquiry - one that traverses the country and consults families. He will not even consider supporting the legislation unless the Government gives him one.

"We're letting the Government know upfront that Family First will be calling for a full Senate inquiry on the plan they come up with and that will ensure that ordinary Australians have their say," Fielding said. "And the Government needs to build that in to their time frame. It needs to go across the country; this is a huge issue."

Even without an inquiry, the time frame for introducing the scheme is ambitious. After the release of its green paper this week, the Government is planning to unveil draft legislation and a final white paper by December. Allowing a few weeks for scrutiny, debate and deal-making after factoring in the long parliamentary hiatus over Christmas, it is hoped the legislation will pass smoothly through Parliament by March 2009.

The new scheme - where a fixed number of pollution permits will be allocated and then traded like any commodity on the open market - is then scheduled to begin by 2010, in less than 18 months.

Xenophon is unlikely to be a pushover, should the Government require his vote. He said he was also open to the idea of the full Senate inquiry into the scheme and was waiting for the financial legislation. "This is one of the most significant changes in terms of the impact on the economy … and we have to get it right," Xenophon said. "I agree with the destination; we just need to go along the right path."

Perhaps the more likely scenario is the Government deciding to go down the other path of attempting to convince the Coalition to vote in favour of the legislation. This is also likely to prove extremely difficult.

For its part, the Opposition is attempting to have its cake and eat it too (as is the prerogative of opposition parties). It is reluctant to abandon the message that climate change is indeed a profound challenge facing the world. One way or the other, it will be doing everything it can to exploit the issue politically.

Shadow climate change spokesman Greg Hunt said the Opposition would not be making any big decisions until it had seen the final legislation, but also would not rule out the idea of a Senate inquiry. He said the Government's decision not to give the Opposition or the Greens access to its briefing on this week's green paper did not help.

"If they want us to support legislation, show us the legislation," Mr Hunt said. "The other thing on bipartisanship, why would they lock the Opposition and the Greens out of the briefing this week?

"It's only a little point, but it's a lazy claim to call for bipartisanship when you are locking people out and you don't have any legislation."

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