Books delve into Labor's climate failures

August 31, 2014

Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics Under Rudd a& Gillard
Philip Chubb
Black Inc., 2014
302 pages, $29.99 (pb)

In 2007 in Australia, “climate policy was a reform full of promise and excitement,” writes Monash University journalism academic Philip Chubb in Power Failure.

Six years later, however, an “exhausted and confused” electorate had installed a climate change-denying government that was dismantling the previous Labor government’s few fossil fuel carbon emission programs. Chubb dissects, with much sorrow, the climate change “policy fiasco” of Labor.

Labor’s instinctive, capitalist-friendly policy was to establish a market mechanism to price carbon within an emissions trading scheme. Theoretically, this would provide a cost disincentive to the use of fossil fuels.

But the schemes of both Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard seriously misfired.

Rudd’s proposed scheme suffered from delay, conceptual complexity, dense technical detail, poor communication and a back-office technocrat (Penny Wong) as climate change minister. It also sidelined the Greens and was pushed by an autocratic but cowardly PM who refused to call a double dissolution election on the issue.

It intensified political and corporate opposition from aggressive climate change deniers and from electricity generators threatening power cuts and job losses.

People did not know what the government was doing, or believed it was doing nothing. They rightly queried Rudd’s commitment and questioned how important the whole issue of climate change could really be given such insipid leadership.

Gillard was more inclusive on process than Rudd, a more focused communicator, and a better manager of the Greens ― buying them off with concessions, albeit important ones such as a $10 billion green investment bank.

But she faced a hostile Murdoch media that had so soured her carbon “tax” that her proposed emissions trading scheme died along with the Labor government.

For all the surface differences between Rudd and Gillard, and their respective schemes, both were offering the same product ― market-based emissions trading.

What sunk both schemes was not, as Chubb proposes, the flaws in the leaders’ psychology or presentation skills, but the common elements of both schemes, namely weak targets and a gushing money tap of compensation for industry.

The pathologically shy target (5% less carbon by 2020) did not match what the science insists is required. The free carbon pollution permits and cash compensation was logically contradictory because “the government was trying to force companies to change their behaviour, but then paying them so they did not have to change”.

As could have been predicted, and as subsequent research on the carbon tax in Victoria found, coal-fired electricity companies simply passed on the cost of their emissions to consumers through higher prices while reaping windfall profits from their taxpayer-funded compensation.

The problem, largely ignored by Chubb, was not the messenger (Rudd versus Gillard) but the message (emissions-trading markets). Nor was the problem what Chubb terms an “excess of purity” from those environmentalists who were opposed to Labor’s inadequate policies. People were simply underwhelmed by what was on offer.

Chubb does note the strong popular support for renewable energy, including government investment in renewables and the Renewable Energy Target. This mandates that generators source a percentage ― currently a modest 20% ― of electricity from renewables. However, he does not expand on it.

There ― with vastly more state intervention in the capitalist market and not in continued genuflection to it ― lies the future for a political party willing and capable of grasping it.

Judging by the evidence in Chubb’s book, that party won’t be the Australian Labor Party.

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