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Labor conference is Shorten’s next test on climate policy

Labor leader Bill Shorten has three formidable challenges once the immediate problem of the leak has passed. AAP/Julian Smith

The leak to the Daily Telegraph of an options paper on Labor’s carbon pricing policy has been a kick in the guts for Bill Shorten, who was portrayed in the newspaper’s pages not once but twice as a large zombie. It is, however, just an early stage of Shorten’s tough road on this issue.

Maybe the leak was designed to head off some or all the options canvassed, which included a general emissions trading scheme, a separate one for the electricity sector, and car emissions standards. Perhaps the leak was mainly to harm Shorten. Just possibly it came via some chance route.

Whatever the motive, the leak won’t stop Labor having a plan for an emissions trading scheme come the next election. Shorten committed the opposition to that a long time ago.

Labor’s leader has three formidable challenges once the immediate problem of the leak has passed.

Shorten has to see the climate issue managed through Labor’s national conference, held July 24-26 in Melbourne. Then the details of the opposition policy must be brought together. And finally, there will the job of selling it – to an electorate with bad memories of the former ALP government and in the face of a ferocious scare campaign by Tony Abbott.

The draft new ALP platform, to be considered by the national conference, sets out broadly the proposed approach on climate policy.

Labor will “introduce an emissions trading scheme which imposes a legal limit on carbon pollution that lets business work out the cheapest and most effective way to operate within that cap”, it says.

It will “develop a comprehensive plan to progressively decarbonise Australia’s energy sector, particularly in electricity generation”.

A Labor government would support high-emitting industries to become more energy efficient; grow renewables; introduce national vehicle emissions standards modelled on successful overseas efforts; and consider the appropriateness of a climate change trigger in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act and a trigger to cover the national parks system.

A group within the party, the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN), will try to toughen this platform.

Co-convenor Felicity Wade says an amendment will be moved to write in the post-2020 targets proposed by the Climate Change Authority (30% reduction in emissions by 2025 on 2000 levels; 40-60% by 2030). There will also be an amendment put up to commit Labor to having 50% of energy coming from renewables by 2030.

It might be noted, incidentally, that those urging precise targets be inserted can draw on the weight of the Climate Change Authority thanks to Clive Palmer, who insisted on its retention as part of a deal with the government to support its direct action legislation.

LEAN has canvassed the grassroots members of the party and gained support for its amendments from 360 branches and other party entities. Wade says that part of its argument will be that its amendments represent the view of the rank and file – when there is much talk in the party of being more cognisant of its grassroots.

The numbers between left and right at this conference are close, making predictions on amendments difficult.

The powers that be – Shorten and climate spokesman Mark Butler – may be willing to accommodate the renewables amendment but will not want to be tied down on targets. First, the government’s target for the United Nations Paris climate conference in November-December will not be announced until August, thus after the Labor conference; second, they will want to keep flexibility on Labor’s target for as long as possible while finalising the opposition’s position.

Shorten will not announce a policy at the time of the conference. But before the policy is out, it will be vital for Labor to get its climate messages across in general terms, including the difference between a tax and an ETS. If it doesn’t engage early and positively, the Coalition’s scare campaign will be all the harder to combat later.

The policy, when it comes, will have to strike a careful balance: ambitious enough to stake out climate change as Labor’s natural ground, but modest enough to avoid excessive burdens on businesses and households.

Labor requires a policy mix that it can sell from the front foot – accepting that whatever the detail, the government will label it a great big new tax. “Whether it’s fixed or floating, it’s still a tax,” Abbott said on Wednesday.

The opposition then has to decide when to announce the policy. It will have to be ready – or at least a version of it - just in case Abbott springs an election this year, although that is unlikely. Assuming there is not a 2015 election and the Paris conference reaches a reasonable international agreement, a logical time for Labor to unveil its policy would be early in the new year. (That’s not a prediction, I stress.) That timing would mean Labor could take account of the Paris outcome.

The question of whether Shorten can then sell the policy is the big unknown. Despite Labor’s previous negative experience, polling shows it should be possible. Climate policy was a winner for Labor in 2007. Things went pear-shaped with the global financial crisis and the disappointment of Copenhagen. But people have been starting to re-engage with the issue in recent years.

This week’s Essential poll found 53% thought Australia was not doing enough to address climate change; only 28% said Australia was doing enough. The picture would change once people were faced with the costs of change, but still this does indicate that many people would be open to more action if a policy was well put together and effectively communicated.

The onus will be on Shorten, who will need to be an effective explainer as well as a convincing advocate. As one Labor man said bluntly on Wednesday: “If we can’t win the climate change debate we don’t deserve to be in government.”

Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with French Ambassador Christophe Lecourtier, here.

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