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Australia needs climate institutions, whoever is in power

The new Australian government is sacking the public service heads who implemented Australia’s carbon pricing scheme, and is closing institutions for climate change information and policy advice. It risks…

Australia can ill afford to lose the Climate Change Authority, led by experienced climate policy analyst Anthea Harris. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The new Australian government is sacking the public service heads who implemented Australia’s carbon pricing scheme, and is closing institutions for climate change information and policy advice.

It risks further politicisation of the climate change issue in the public service. Keeping at the very least the Climate Change Authority as an independent agency would send a positive signal about the government’s commitment to economically sound climate policy. Science and economics are needed to underpin policy choices, especially in a field where ideological positions now play such a big role in public debate.

Sackings

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has sacked Blair Comley, who was Secretary of the Department of Climate Change and recently moved to the resources portfolio. He was in charge of implementing Labor’s carbon pricing scheme.

Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Treasury and Comley’s predecessor at the Climate Change Department, announced that he would depart next year (presumably he was asked to do so). He was in charge of developing the Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme, and had started high level work on emissions trading in the last year of the Howard government.

Both have an impeccable reputation as economists. They have served previous conservative governments, including on big picture tax reform. Their credentials and integrity are above question.

Perhaps their downfall was due to faithfully implementing Labor’s climate policies. Perhaps it’s that they are on the public record supporting a price on carbon emissions as the economically efficient way of reducing emissions; although this is exactly what the very large majority of economists say.

Sacking public servants over issues of policy is unusual in Australia. The Westminster system of an independent public service is – or is supposed to be – in operation. Public servants are professionals who serve the government of the day. The last “night of long knives” was in 1996 when the incoming conservative Howard government sacked six Secretaries; when Labor took government in 2007, all were kept. This week three were axed, plus Parkinson and the head of AusAID.

With blood still on the carpet, a public servant in a senior position will need extra courage to provide objective and critical assessments about climate policy and other contentious issues. We should salute those who will continue to provide frank and fearless advice, and understand if some will be cautious.

If the bureaucracy is less inclined to critically examine proposals such as the Coalition’s “direct action” plan, there is a greater chance that policy design will go awry.

In a larger sense, the sackings contribute to the demise of what Ross Garnaut back in 2011 called the “strong, independent centre of our polity”. We need that “to get strong results in the national interest on a complicated policy question like [climate change]”.

Closures

The first of Australia’s independent climate change institutions to get the axe is the Climate Commission, the agency created by the Labor government to disseminate public information about climate change.

It made its mark with reports about climate change impacts and the scientific basis for prompt action. But it also explained the advantages of carbon pricing and listed mitigation policy actions that other countries are taking, and took its message to many public forums.

It is by no means revolutionary stuff. The fact the incoming government sees the Commission as a problem is an indication of just how deeply politicised the Australian climate debate has become.

Next on the block is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which is charged with making co-investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in the commercial sector.

The Corporation has a A$10 billion investment mandate – not a subsidy, but the mandate to invest up to that amount and earn an appropriate return on the investments. The Corporation has been told to stop lending, though whether the government can legally require it to do so before new legislation is passed appears somewhat unclear.

It is slated to be abolished if and when the government repeals the Clean Energy legislation including the carbon price.

The case for the Climate Change Authority

The most important element of the institutional structure at risk is the Climate Change Authority. This was established as a statutory agency to provide advice to the government and parliament, modelled after the UK Committee on Climate Change.

The Authority conducts reviews on Australia’s climate change policies. Its draft report on Australia’s climate change target – which has bipartisan support – is due in October. The final report, as well as a report on Australia’s emissions trends and drivers, is due early in 2014. A review of Australia’s renewable energy target is already out.

The government has said it will abolish the Authority. Doing so will require a change to legislation so cannot happen immediately.

Axing the Authority would be the most severe blow to Australia’s climate change policy institutions. Even if the carbon price was repealed, the authority has an important role. It has to advise on Australia’s national emissions target, and provide deep and critical analysis on any policy aimed at cutting emissions.

By all indications, the Authority has been taking very seriously its task to critically evaluate the evidence and form well-supported recommendations for policy. The Authority employs some of the sharpest climate policy analysts in Australia, led by Anthea Harris, one of the country’s most experienced climate policy practitioners.

For the sake of retaining Australia’s capacity for quality analysis and independent advice, it would be much preferable for the government to retain the institution. The government may not like the fact that the Authority’s board was appointed by Labor when in minority government, and could replace the board.

The Authority could serve this and any future governments by shining the torch of sound economic analysis on policies and policy proposals. For a long term issue such as climate change, we need institutions that can outlast the electoral cycle.

The Coalition supports Australia’s 5% national emissions target, and also the possibility of a stronger target if international action warrants it. America, for example, is on track to a 17% reduction by 2020.

Decisions like about the national target need well-founded independent analysis and advice that is open to scrutiny, and periodid re-evaluation. Analysis should not be left solely to the often opaque processes in government departments.

Ideology vs science

A broader question is whether the Abbott government will uphold its stated commitment to action on climate change. Both major parties have agreed on the need to act on climate change, and even on the range for Australia’s 2020 emissions target.

But some close to government are clearly attempting to overturn this. A stark example is an opinion piece this week by Maurice Newman, former chairman of the ABC and the Australian Stock Exchange, and incoming chair of the Prime Minister’s business advisory council.

Mr Newman wrote of the “climate change myth” and of “money wasted pursuing those myths”, and accuses “well-organised elements in the public service, the media, the universities, trade unions and the climate establishment” of “propaganda”.

The government’s official position meanwhile is that climate change needs to be addressed and that efforts will be made to cut emissions. Most conservative parliamentarians appear to support action on climate change, and many are vocal proponents of economically sound climate change policy.

And crucially, the environment Minister Greg Hunt is deeply knowledgeable about climate change and environmental policy instruments. His engagement with the issues dates back to his 1990 thesis on environment taxes. Simon Birmingham, now Parliamentary Secretary for Environment, has likewise shown himself as expert on the issues.

One can only hope that after the initial frenzy, there will be no “climate wars” but a measured approach to climate change policy. Scientific investigation and economic analysis should not be subjugated to political considerations.