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 Age. It 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.