Australian Economy

Greens card | The Monthly

The time to transition to a low-carbon economy is right now, and the Greens will be crucial players

We could say that the new Labor government has chosen energy as its first major policy area to tackle. The more accurate way of putting it is that energy policy has selected itself. Despite the mountains of policy documents that Australian cabinets and government departments have produced over the years – Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy has quipped that Australia could develop a small export economy by selling its energy policies to the world – the country is now in a self-inflicted crisis.

The current dire situation is due to Australia’s continuing dependency on coal- and gas-fired power, and it could have been substantially avoided had there been a competent administration in place that had created a workable energy reserve mechanism and coordinated maintenance on existing coal plants. Mostly, however, much of the crisis could have been avoided had Australia made the transition to renewable energy.

John Howard’s government steadfastly refused to countenance any policy that didn’t put the fossil-fuel industry at the centre of it. Kevin Rudd couldn’t get his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) through a hostile Senate. Julia Gillard’s emissions trading scheme was torn down by a hostile Tony Abbott. And the past nine years have seen a whole lot of talk about nothing much, at the merciful end of which Australia found itself with a “policy” that prioritised gas, which is now at the heart of the present crisis. The chickens of our national obsession with fossil fuels have now come home to roost.

Energy talks yesterday proceeded, by all accounts, in a refreshingly collegiate spirit, perhaps because they were led by a minister (Chris Bowen) of a government that is more interested in governing than fighting culture wars. Among the 11 agreed actions was a recognition that “large amounts of clean generation, storage and transmission is required”.

Into the maelstrom this week dropped Joe Dimasi, senior commissioner at the ACT’s Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission, who announced that the ACT’s power prices would actually be dropping from July 1. How? Since 2020, the ACT has sourced all of its electricity from renewable generators, which has protected it from the global energy shocks and from the reduction in coal capacity. Greens leader Adam Bandt, currently housebound with COVID-19, quickly reminded us of this fact.

It is no coincidence that since 2008, the ACT has been governed by a minority Labor government with crossbench support from the Greens, who also have three ministers in cabinet.

As the dust settles on last month’s election, it’s clear that the Greens – while they won’t be inside Anthony Albanese’s cabinet – will be central to his government’s fortunes, given that they control 12 Senate seats and practically its balance of power. Unlike during Rudd’s (first) prime ministership, Labor won’t be beholden to the Coalition this term: indeed, Dutton and co will be unable to block any legislation unless the Greens block it too. So the Greens will have opportunities to negotiate significant amendments to Labor bills.

The memory that looms largest in this relationship for many is the Greens’ decision to twice vote against Rudd’s CPRS in 2009. That decision quickly became emblematic in Australian political culture of the Greens’ preference for policy purity over pragmatism. But the reality is that the CPRS bills could only pass with Coalition support. Without it, Labor needed the Greens and Family First’s Steve Fielding, who adamantly opposed carbon pricing. The CPRS bills were the heavily compromised products of negotiations with Malcolm Turnbull. So Bob Brown’s Greens, knowing they didn’t have the numbers to make a difference, voted against the bills to emphasise their flaws. Even after extracting major concessions for emitters, the Coalition voted against them as well. The Greens were pilloried afterwards (and have been ever since), but Rudd’s problem in 2009–10 wasn’t that there were too many Greens in the Senate – it was that there were too few.

The reality since 1989, when Tasmanian Labor signed an Accord with five Green independents (including Bob Brown and Christine Milne), is that Labor has worked with the Greens when it’s had to. And Australia’s only legislated emissions trading scheme, to date, came about when Labor and the Greens collaborated during the Gillard minority government after 2010.

There will never be a better opportunity to finally effect Australia’s transition to a low-carbon economy than right now.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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