Cloud over climate climate change deal in Parliament House, Canberra

On Thursday (13/08/09), the Australian Senate defeated the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), a legislative package made up of a Carbon emission trading scheme and ten related bills (click here for previous developments). The Opposition, Greens, and the independents, Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding, voted to defeat the package 42 to 30. Prime Minister Rudd has called the day “a disappointing day for Australia” and accused the opposition of “placing the nation’s future at risk” (ABC 13/08/09).

The Government is determined not to go to Copenhagen empty-handed, and will reintroduce the same legislation in three months. At that time, if the bills are rejected a second time, Labour will have a trigger to dissolve both houses of Parliament and call an early election.

Let’s have look at the opponents’ rationale for rejecting this scheme.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Coalition leader, has managed to save himself some embarrassment by gaining the support of the majority of his party room to keep alive the prospect of negotiating a deal with the Government over the emission trading scheme. Indeed, if Turnbull had directed the Coalition to vote for the Government scheme, his weakness would have been fully exposed. The Nationals, and perhaps even some Liberals, would have defied him by crossing the floor in the Senate.

However, his leadership is seriously threatened as he will have to reassess his position to avoid potentially disastrous elections, and faces an inevitable split among the Coalition. Eventually, Liberals will somehow have to support the legislative package and split from the Nationals, who are not prepared to countenance any emissions trading scheme. In the meantime, Turnbull is trying to win some time in order to offer constructive alternatives. But he is not. Two days before the vote, the Coalition had produced a policy model, commissioned from the consultancy Frontier Economics, and which Climate Change Minister Penny Wong has described as a ”mongrel” (SMH 14/08/09). The model is radically different from Labour’s scheme in that it treats electricity generation less punitively and claims to reduce the negative impacts on Australian employment, one of the main Liberal arguments against CPRS. But Turnbull has little hope of succeeding in negotiating with the Government, which is showing him no mercy.

The Greens rejected the bills because they see the Government’s 2020 emissions reduction targets – between an unconditional 5 per cent and a highly-conditional 25 per cent – as too timid; and generally condemn the CPRS’ easiness on polluters (ENS 14/08/09). Green groups are now using the defeat of the emissions trading scheme bill to urge the Government to separate its renewable energy target from the rejected trading legislation. Indeed, the renewable energy target – 20 per cent by 2020 – is set to reach the Senate next week for a vote, but is not expected to pass unless the Government removes a part of the bill that links compensation to heavy-emitting industries under the target to the passage of its now-rejected carbon trading scheme.

The Greens will move amendments to the target legislation, increasing it and removing industry assistance, and introducing a renewable energy feed-in tariff. The Opposition is also working on amendments, mainly to add extra exemptions for the aluminum and milk pasteurisation industries. Prime Minister Rudd said he would not commit to changes to the renewable energy target but that Labour is likely to separate this question from the carbon trading scheme. Next week’s vote on renewables target will therefore be an important test to see if Australian parties manage to overcome their excessive divisions. All the more so as a recent poll showed that Australians, who by a majority support the CPRS legislation, are losing patience with their politicians on climate change. (SMH 14/08/09)

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