Australia knows how to legislate a carbon price, and we can do it again

Nov 9, 2021
wind farm
(Image: Unsplash)

The Gillard government’s ill-fated clean energy bill was passed 10 years ago. Australians are ready for an even better successor.

Amid the hot mess that is Australia’s national climate politics, it’s important to remember that, 10 years ago, we made a historic leap forward. And there’s every reason to hope that we might be on the cusp of doing so again.

On November 8, 2011, the Clean Energy package was passed into law. It was the result of an extraordinary negotiation process through the multi-party climate change committee involving the Gillard government, the Greens, independent MPs and experts including professors Ross Garnaut and Will Steffen.

The package cast a wide net, both in its process, which brought people together from across party lines to deliberate carefully over many months, and in its final form. It established a broad suite of policies — not just a carbon price, but the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the independent Climate Change Authority, the Carbon Farming Initiative, Australia’s first modelling of 100 per cent renewable energy scenarios, and more — which saw Australia’s greenhouse emissions immediately begin to fall while creating jobs in the transition.

Particularly through the modelling and funding of renewable energy, it changed the game in Australia dramatically and permanently. Instead of renewables trying to break down the power of coal incumbency, it shifted the playing field to one where coal was in a rearguard struggle to extend its future.

But since its repeal by the Abbott government in 2014, the Clean Energy package has been almost entirely written out of history, erased to the extent that some people who are active in the climate space in Australia don’t even realise it existed.

This is despite the fact that it cast its net so wide that, against the best efforts of the ecocidal vandals now in power, parts of it such as the CEFC and ARENA still exist and are still doing much of the heavy lifting in what passes for Australian climate action.

The Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (MPCCC) also stands as an inspiring model for a better way of doing politics — constructive, co-operative discussion, taking in expert advice. It was a precursor to the growth of the climate-friendly regional independents’ movement, putting grassroots participatory democracy at the core of their mission, just as the Greens long have.

The Clean Energy package happened because, in 2010, Australians went to a federal election with the climate crisis top of mind, civil society noisily calling for action, and two major parties that couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing. Greens and Independents won a swag of seats, delivering a minority Labor government through a power-sharing parliament. Greens deputy leader Christine Milne proposed a multi-party committee to prime minister Julia Gillard as a path towards climate action. And, a little over a year later, the laws passed the parliament.

Well. Here we are again.

Thanks to the efforts of advocates and activists from the school strikers and Indigenous traditional owners to investors fed up with fossil fuels and musicians singing it from the rooftops, the climate crisis is once more at the top of the Australian political agenda. And once again, the atrocious quality of the political debate – not only within what passes for a “Coalition” government, but too often also in the Labor opposition and most of the parliamentary press gallery — has huge numbers of voters tearing their hair in frustration, looking for alternatives.

The last few weeks, building up to Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce’s “net zero” announcement, have been a case in point.

Given the government has also been hyperventilating again about teaching “Western” history, it’s tempting to mangle Winston Churchill and suggest that “never in the course of human history has so much fuss been made about contributing so little to something so important.”

But, watching the Liberal, National and Labor parties fight over climate policy while voting together in the parliament to enable coal and gas to keep spewing out pollution for decades to come, I’ve also been thinking of Macbeth’s immortal line: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” After all, the prime minister proudly says his climate plan will “not shut down our coal or gas production”. And Labor has backed to the government’s decision to reject the global methane pledge which Joe Biden has been promoting. We can’t cut emissions from this most dangerous of fossil fuels while expanding fracking, so neither major party is willing to commit to it.

To continue the Shakespearean theme, our government and opposition are “two houses both alike” in their reliance on fossil fuel corporate donations. The Coalition is effectively a wholly owned subsidiary of the coal and gas industry, while the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is too often blinded by the coal dust to the solutions they sometimes say they want.

This pantomime has to end.

We’re in struggle for survival here. Scientists are issuing increasingly desperate warnings that, unless we stop using all fossil fuels and clearing forests within the decade, parts of the globe will become uninhabitable and unfarmable.

But the government’s “net zero by 2050” strategy is so full of holes it might as well be a net thrown over the stacks of a coal-fired power station. It is pretty much the definition of too little too late, maybe tapping the brakes after the car has sailed over the cliff. With no net at the bottom.

We need to cast the net wide for zero emissions and beyond as fast as possible. A serious climate action plan would see a massive investment in high quality job creation across the regions and cities as we build 100 per cent renewable energy and renewable export industries.

A serious climate action plan would see us phasing out coal, gas and oil extraction and use in the next decade, with sophisticated transition plans developed by communities themselves. A serious climate action plan would see us regenerating the land and bush to nurture more life, grow more food, and store carbon. A serious climate action plan would see us building better homes, designing more livable cities, breathing cleaner air.

People are ready to punish the Coalition, and can see that Labor isn’t committed. There is a very real likelihood that the upcoming election will result in another power-sharing parliament like the one that established the MPCCC, and like we have in the ACT, delivering 100 per cent renewable electricity, beginning the phase out of gas, increasing tree cover, and putting us on track towards zero emissions.

We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. It’s time to make it happen.

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