Bright carbon future assured: Climate Change Minister

Talking on morning radio in Rockhampton yesterday Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Greg Combet did a good job spinning what would seem to be the featherweight impact of the Gillard Government’s proposed carbon tax on a carbon intensive regional economy and the lives of central Queenslanders.

If you thought the carbon tax was an economic reform designed to stimulate investment away from Australia’s intensifying dependence on fossil fuels, you’d be sorely mistaken – or at least you could be forgiven for wondering at the link between clean energy and the carbon tax had you listened to Minister Combet on Radio 4RO yesterday.

In one of the numerous interviews he has done across the country as he systematically seeks to undo the impacts of the targeted fear campaign wrought by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in mining and industrial seats, Minister Combet described the carbon tax package in glowing terms:

“It’s one that will support jobs and one of the reasons that I’m in Rocky today is to talk to all of the lodge officials from the coal mines in the Bowen Basin region about the coal industry and why there’s really no need for any concern about job security in coal because there’s a huge pipeline of investment coming in. In fact the carbon price will have a very very minor cost impost – the coal impost per tonne of coal in Queensland all up, after the Government has provided assistance, is only in fact $1.38 per tonne of coal mined. We’ve got billions of dollars of investment coming into the industry and there’s no concern – no need for any concern at all about jobs in the coal industry. They’re going to grow”.

To make sure there could be no doubt among his central Queensland listeners about the great prospects for the coal industry , the Climate Change Minister went out of his way to spell it out:

“….we’re talking about $70 billion coming into the coal industry in investment. 19 new mines under construction or soon opening up. Another 68 in total actually…. that are in the pipeline – massive investment this is with massive flow on consequences for infrastructure and a lot of it is in Queensland and it will make a big difference. This is why I think that we’ve got to focus on the bigger picture”.

Bigger picture indeed and still no mention of why the reform was happening in the first place! By this time in the interview anyone listening would have had to have been wondering what all the fuss was about with the tax. For anyone still doubting the Minister was extra reassuring with some simple mathematics:

“When you’re talking about a cost of $1.38 a tonne of coal that’s mined in Queensland that is not going to affect things when the market prices for coking coal for example, are currently $320-$330 a tonne. So the outlook for the jobs in the coal sector and the region generally through the flow-on of the investment is very positive”.

Interestingly,  Combet had made most of his core arguments and the substance of the interview was almost concluded before he made passing mention as to why there was a proposed carbon tax.

He acknowledged that: “We do need to cut our pollution levels, in fact it makes common sense. You’ve got to do it in the lowest cost way in our economy – that’s common sense, that’s what the Government’s proposing to do”.  I supposed he could have been thinking of the nearby Great Barrier Reef and the threat to it from global warming.  Who knows?

Because having pointed fleetingly at the reason for the all the political angst and public rancour arising from the reform, the Minister quickly got back into selling the benefits – and they were not environmental.

Given that there would be “very modest cost increases that come through the economy, only 0.7 per cent increase in consumer prices across the board” the Government would deliver tax cuts and an increase in the pension and other benefits so that about 6 million households would have their expected costs fully offset by the assistance.

Quite clearly, the focus of the Government’s campaign is not to justify or explain the carbon pricing reform package; rather the emphasis is on selling what it means to have reform with no change, reassuring people that things will still be the same, the cost not even noticed, because it will only be those big 500 polluters who have to pay and richer folks who make more than $80,000 a year.

Another day and…. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh gave a very good speech today to a Brisbane business luncheon in which she rightly identified “scepticism” and even “a deeply entrenched cynicism” pervading the Australian public in its view of politicians, public process and debate.

Reflecting on the tone of the times, she spoke of the need for the “politics of optimism” instead of the “politics of pessimism”.

But for that to happen and it would be great if it did:

  1. political debate in Australia will have to get a lot stronger and more substantial on content;
  2. politicians will have to level with the people more openly and honestly about just how difficult and costly is delivering decent government in these fast changing and unpredictable times;
  3. the media will have to get off its backside and skill up enough to ask questions and provide analysis that stimulates and informs debate; and
  4. we will all have to stop pretending that we can have reform without change.

Most of all we have to face up to the inconvenient truth that issues as big and as complex as climate change will not be addressed as if it is a stroll in the park with every one going home with a prize.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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