Bernie Fraser’s resignation as chairman of Australia’s Climate Change Authority has left many wondering what is left of it and what its future might be.
Established three years ago as part of the climate change package negotiated by the previous parliament’s Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, the Authority was formed to serve as the principal source of climate policy advice to the federal government, particularly on the issue of emissions targets. Championed by the then Greens deputy leader Christine Milne, it was modelled closely on Britain’s Committee on Climate Change.
The Authority is legislated to have nine part-time members, including the Chief Scientist ex officio. When the Abbott government was elected two years ago it expressed its intention to abolish the Authority along with the rest of the Labor government’s climate policy architecture.
Unlike the former Climate Commission, which had a public education role (and since losing government backing has morphed into the independent Climate Council), the Authority was established by legislation as a statutory authority.
The government could not obtain sufficient support in the Senate to abolish the Authority. In particular, Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer struck a deal with the government in which he would support the carbon tax repeal but not the abolition of the Climate Change Authority.
With the Authority saved, Palmer said he wanted the government to instruct it to assess whether Australia should have an emissions trading system at some time in the future, and what conditions should trigger its introduction, taking special note of the policies of Australia’s major trading partners.
The government agreed to Palmer’s request to extend funding for the Authority. Continued funding was essential in order to sustain the Authority’s secretariat, based in Melbourne, which at its peak reached around 35 but now stands at around 25. On its formation the Authority attracted some of the best and brightest to work for it.
The job at hand
As a result of the Palmer deal the Authority is now conducting a major review of an emissions trading system (the kind of system that would have entered into force on July 1, 2015 under Labor’s Carbon Price Mechanism), with a draft report due on November 30. The final report is due, after public consultation on the draft, by June 30, 2016.
While this work is important, the Authority’s most significant project was its 2014 Targets and Progress Review, which recommended that Australia should set an emissions reduction target of 19% below 2000 levels by 2020, and cut emissions by 40-60% by 2030.
This year the Authority revisited its recommendations after the Abbott government set up a committee within the Prime Minister’s department to advise it on a target for Australia to take to the crucial United Nations Paris climate summit in December. The Authority published a brief report reiterating its earlier recommended targets, adding that Australia should cut its emissions by 30% by 2025.
The Government subsequently announced it would pledge to cut Australia’s emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, which for comparison with the Authority’s recommendation is equivalent to 19-22% below 2000 levels.
Although the government could not act on its wish to abolish the Authority, it made it clear that it would not listen to its advice (although it does seem to have been influenced by its recommendations on vehicle emissions standards and international permits). In this situation, four members of the Authority last year notified environment minister Greg Hunt of their resignations.
The other four appointed members (including myself) took the view that the Authority exists to serve the parliament, as well as the government, and as long as the parliament wants it to continue and the Authority can do useful work, they would carry on in their roles.
They also took the view that the Authority’s reports play an important role in providing independent advice to the public. This has proved true with the Authority’s recommended emission reduction targets being viewed widely as the benchmark against which the government’s targets should be evaluated.
Such a situation of course sets up tensions between the Authority and the government. Fraser’s job, as chairman, of liaising with Hunt became increasingly difficult, an issue perhaps illustrated by the story in the Daily Telegraph that claimed the Authority’s modelling gave a projected cost of Labor’s carbon policy of A$600 billion – a claim that the Authority rejected.
Bernie Fraser’s extraordinary stature as a public servant (he served with distinction as Treasury Secretary and Governor of the Reserve Bank) lent authority to the work of the Authority in a way few others could.
His resignation is a blow, yet the work of the Authority will continue.
For more than a year the Government has chosen not to replace the four members who resigned soon after it took office. There is a logic to this – after all, it has said it has no confidence in the Authority, so why spend public funds on new appointments? And perhaps the most relevant question is: who would agree to be appointed by the government in such a situation anyway?