Guest Column with Nicholas Reece

November 13 / 124

Behold one of history's greatest policy failures

Abbott's decision to abolish the price on carbon is bizarre.

The Abbott government's legislation to abolish the carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme is an epic fail for public policymaking in Australia.

There is no analysis anywhere that suggests the new Direct Action policy will achieve anything like Australia's commitment to a 5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020. And it is clear that the excuses that are given for the worst mistakes of previous governments will not be available to the Abbott administration on climate change.

Consider this: in 1935, Queensland Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations entomologist Reginald Mungomery imported into north Queensland 102 cane toads from Hawaii. Mungomery had read a report about the success of the toads as a biological control against cane beetles in Puerto Rico.

The ecological disaster that followed is well known: today there are more than 200 million cane toads in northern Australia. The toad was ineffective against cane beetles but spread disease and devastated native species.

The Queensland government of 1935 acted in good faith in accordance with flawed scientific advice. The Abbott government of 2013 will make Australia the first country in the world to repeal a carbon price by going against the overwhelming weight of scientific and public policy advice.

Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned yet again that global temperatures are rising and human activity is a cause. The report was written and reviewed by 900 scientists who examined more than 9000 studies on climate change.

For almost a decade Australia's pre-eminent independent public policy advisory body, the Australian Public Service, has been recommending a carbon price and an emissions trading scheme as the least costly, least disruptive way to reduce emissions.

The Coalition never submitted its Direct Action plan - to purchase abatement through direct payments from government to polluters - to the Parliamentary Budget Office for scrutiny before the September election. It has since refused to release the public service review of the policy. This leaves a report by the Climate Institute as the most detailed publicly available review of the policy. It found that the plan would fail abysmally to achieve the bipartisan commitment to a 5 per cent cut in emissions and their modelling suggested that emissions would rise by 9 per cent.

Former Treasury secretary Ken Henry this month described the central elements of the Coalition policy as bizarre and productivity destroying. And a recent Fairfax Media survey of 35 prominent university and business economists found only two believed the Abbott plan was a better way to limit Australia's greenhouse gas emissions than an emissions trading scheme.

Or consider this: the White Australia Policy was one of the first acts of Australia's first government. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 excluded non-white potential immigrants primarily through a selective dictation test. It would remain in operation until 1966.

The policy undoubtedly left our nation the poorer. But flawed as it was, the policy reflected the deeply held views of Australians of the time. And similar measures were introduced in other new-world nations, such as the US, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand.

Historians will not be able to defend the Abbott government's decision on an emissions trading scheme on the basis that it was following a flawed international consensus or even the misguided social norms of the day. According to the recently axed Climate Commission, there are now 33 countries and 18 sub-national jurisdictions that have a carbon price. This includes countries led by conservative governments, such as Britain and New Zealand, and sub-national systems that operate in the US and Canada.

Australian attitudes on a carbon price and emissions trading scheme in 2013 are also a long way from the deeply ingrained views on race that prevailed in 1901. With bipartisan political support, an emissions trading scheme could easily gain public backing in this country.

After all, the overall impact on households is much less than other worthwhile reforms, such as the introduction of the goods and services tax. Liberals with an eye to history will be hoping the policy debate over the emissions trading scheme follows a similar trajectory to that on the GST in the 1980s and 1990s.

Labor treasurer Paul Keating supported a GST in 1985 but was overruled by prime minister Bob Hawke. Eight years later Keating would use Liberal leader John Hewson's promise to introduce a GST to defeat the Liberals in the 1993 election. Seven years later the GST prevailed under the Howard government and stands as a political trophy but policy slight on Keating's record.

Importantly, the best public result prevailed after 15 years, and Labor's political opportunism was not a long-term drag on the public good.

Finally, consider the nightmare scenario for Australia and the Liberals should the emissions trading scheme debate follow the trajectory of the British government's repeated refusal to accept expert scientific evidence and policy prescriptions in the battle against the deadly disease scurvy.

In 1601 English sea captain James Lancaster demonstrated and documented the effectiveness of lemon juice in preventing the spread of scurvy among sailors. Some 150 years later, in 1753, the navy doctor James Lind confirmed this finding in the world's first clinical trial. But it wasn't until 1790, another 40 years later, that the Royal Navy finally changed its policy and introduced lemon rations on ships. And it would be another 70 years later, in 1860, before the English Board of Trade would introduce lemon juice as a preventive to scurvy on civil ships. Backed by science and expert policy opinion, good policy finally prevailed. But it took 260 years. In that time, more than 1 million people died from an easily preventable disease.

History will not defend the Abbott government's climate policy with the excuses of scientific ignorance, bad policy advice, or even by pointing to the social norms of the day. Instead, the policy will be viewed for what it is: a political exercise to win power through the spreading of misinformation, and bad policy in the face of insurmountable evidence to the contrary.

Nicholas Reece is a public policy fellow at Melbourne University and a former Labor adviser.

This op-ed was originally published in The Age on 18 November 2013: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/behold-one-of-historys-greatest-policy-failures-20131117-2xp0g.html#ixzz2l8Y5Rkrb

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