Greg Sheridan embarrassing on ETS

In a piece in The Australian astounding in its incoherency, Greg Sheridan makes a fool of himself attempting to argue against an emissions trading scheme and in favour of direct action.

He starts badly, of course, whining that the media are all on the side of a carbon price or ETS. Considering that Murdoch owns most of the Australian print media, that’s a hilarious lie. But more substantively, he tries to make two points: that the Coalition’s Direct Action policy does more than is really necessary compared to the rest of the world, and that it would be crazy to enter into an ETS. On the first, he misses the point, and on the second, he makes embarrassing blunders.

Arguing that we will already be doing more than everyone else, Sheridan decides to play ignorant. The point that responsible commentators have been making that he never acknowledges is that no-one is doing enough to counteract the serious damage climate change is poised to inflict on the world over coming decades. Even if it were accepted that Australia was doing more per capita than other nations, it’s hardly an honour to just be slightly less bad than everyone else.

Or to indulge Sheridan’s apparent love for bad analogies: it’s like having a smashed table and using a bit more sticky tape than the other guy to try to fix it. To state the obvious, sticky tape was never going to be up to the task.

Of course, Sheridan’s underlying sentiment here is that Australia shouldn’t make sacrifices while others aren’t willing. This really is just a rehash of an old dispute between the climate change movement and the conservatives. Is taking action is more likely to lead others to do the same and therefore get the results that are needed, or should we wait until absolutely everyone is satisfied before we do anything? There is extensive commentary on this that I won’t repeat, but I’ll indulge in pointing out that it’s no coincidence that China is committing to greater measures now that the United States is as well. And that this new status quo is seriously embarrassing Australia.

But where Sheridan really shoots himself is with his faux analysis of why an ETS is no good. Besides the usual rubbish about bureaucracy, Sheridan says:

“Imagine you could receive a finan­cial credit for every neighbour you promised not to punch and then sell those credits to people who did want to punch their neighbours. You would have a huge incentive to pretend to want to punch all your neighbours.”

Yeah, just one problem with that, Sheridan. When pretending to want to punch all your neighbours, you would need to first obtain some of those “credits” to be able to sell any, most likely by buying them at substantial cost. That fact in itself really cuts down on that “huge” incentive you banged on about. Not to mention that you would run the substantial risk of looking foolish if you bought those credits at a higher price than you were later able to sell them.

(Yes, Rudd’s CPRS would have given away quite a lot of free permits, but not all permits would have been free, the ones that were would have been given to actors that clearly weren’t going to be able to reduce emissions in a great hurry and therefore be in a position to quickly sell them off for profit, and most importantly, free permits are not inherent to an ETS.)

What Sheridan believes to be a problem that strikes at the core of an ETS is no more than an exaggeration.

This is not to say that any ETS would be flawless or that no-one would try to game the system. But these are problems with the process, not the principle itself. And at least a properly constructed ETS would reduce carbon emissions more substantially at lower cost to the government than some idiotic Direct Action scheme where companies can simply take cash for doing not very much at all.

Sheridan would do us a favour if he avoided cheerleading so hopelessly for the Prime Minister.


It’s always Labor’s fault, says Chubb

Former journalist and Monash Associate Professor Philip Chubb today laid all of the blame for the failure of carbon pricing policy over the last six or seven years at Labor’s feet in a piece in The AgeIt reads like another sad and wistful tale of how Labor once again failed to live up to the dreams of its true believers. The only problem is that it’s only half-right and pretty unfair.

Yes, it is pretty reasonable to say that Labor was less than persuasive in its attempt to publicly argue in favour of carbon pricing, or even to argue that Rudd was a very flawed leader. But that was only ever half the challenge — the other half of it was getting any form of an Emissions Trading Scheme (then referred to as the CPRS) through Parliament. The numbers game. You know, the game that actually gets anything done in this country. And anyone who actually recalls their history will remember that Labor needed the support of the Greens, Nick Xenophon and Family First’s Steve Fielding to pass anything if the Coalition would not budge.

I think you see the problem with that.

When Fielding and arguably Xenophon was running in an opposite direction to the Greens, an ETS was never going to be legislated without the support of the Coalition. Even if Labor were better negotiators and managed to put Xenophon and the Greens and themselves on the same page, they’d still fall a vote short. Fielding, a man who wasn’t even convinced of the science of climate change, was never going to be persuaded.

That in the first place is why Labor chose to negotiate with then-Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. It wasn’t because it was a great opportunity to exploit Liberal weakness, as Chubb rails. It wasn’t even to stick it to the Greens, as Chubb implies in his recently published book — why anyone would negotiate with the Greens when their numbers weren’t going to be enough to pass climate legislation that would also be backed by Xenophon and Fielding is beyond me. No, it was pure political necessity. The perfect CPRS which fulfilled all of the environmentalist’s demands was never going to pass, and so therefore it made sense to at least attempt some form of a CPRS than nothing at all. When Turnbull was then knifed, it finally became absolutely impossible to pass any form of carbon pricing policy unless there was an election.

It is true that Labor then put off the CPRS. But Labor never said that it would not price carbon at some time in the near future; it was a policy that was shelved, not done away with. (Even when Gillard infamously declared that there wouldn’t be a carbon tax under a government she led, she did add that she always believed in some form of carbon pricing.) Moreover, even if it maintained a facade of desperation to pass one during that term, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to happen. So why expend the energy?

This is not to argue that Labor’s tactics on climate policy were flawless, or that its contribution to the climate debate was top-notch at the time. But the situation was always more complicated than the popular left-wing media narrative that Labor just simply passed on a wonderful opportunity to legislate an emissions trading scheme that also ensured a minimum of the kind of electoral backlash that would guarantee a swift repeal after an election and make the action pointless. Despite Labor’s flaws, which are inherent to all political parties and not unique to itself, it’s outrageous to say that the main thing that was standing between good climate policy and bad was Labor’s own dysfunction.

All too often in recent years, Labor gets all the blame when things go wrong but never any credit when things go right. Commentators who take themselves seriously should deliver a more nuanced analysis of the actual circumstances.