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Climate change claims two more victims

By Randal Stewart - posted Thursday, 10 October 2013

When Martin Parkinson, Secretary of the Treasury, travelled to Sydney to meet his newly elected Prime Minster, Tony Abbott, did he know he would be sacked three days later? Probably, because Parkinson is closely associated with the Labor policy Abbott hates the most, the carbon tax! Parkinson and his colleague, Blair Comley were sacked, their only apparent crime was to lead the climate change bureaucracy.

Richard Nixon said he got the Presidency over the bodies of four dead men. Tony Abbott can truly say he got the Prime Ministership over the political death of two Prime Ministers, one Opposition Leader and now two senior public servants. These are the victims of climate change in Australian politics. What is so lethal about climate change in Australia? Why do some crash and others survive?

The score is not encouraging, Climate change believers -5, doubters 1 Prime Minster! However, as in sport the score does not necessarily reflect how the game was played. Like sport though, in climate change politics you lose if you get your structures wrong, open up a strategic gap and thereby expose you vulnerabilities. In climate change politics, the wrong structure is an unwavering commitment to carbon price as the mechanism to reduce emissions.


Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull, Martin Parkinson and Blair Comley have all fallen to carbon price. Rudd sent out ambiguous signals as to whether emission reduction was about ‘morality’ or ‘price’ and when Copenhagen failed to close this strategic gap for him, Rudd became vulnerable. Turnbull could not work out if he wanted big business polluters to pay more or pay less and Gillard failed to explain that a ‘fixed’ carbon price is not ‘a great big tax’. The way the ‘carbon price’ undid Parkinson and Comley is more complex because as public servants they can claim they were simply serving the Government of the day. However, Parkinson and Comley opened up some strategic gaps of their own, especially in the early days of the Department of Climate Change when they authored the 570 page Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a densely packed, high-brow, economic analysis, very public with an uncompromising market focus.

To the Prime Minsters credit, the sacking of Parkinson and Comley may be more than vindictiveness. Abbott may simply have not wanted them on the team as he moves to a non-price mechanism for reducing emissions called Direct Action. More deeply, Abbott may have judged Parkinson and Comley as not flexible, having limited adaptive capacity to work on a non-price scheme. The brilliance of their economic analysis, he may have thought, contrasted with their limited collaboration skills. This may have suggested a strategic gap going forward and vulnerability in the skill of engagement. Such a judgement would not apply to Comley.

Direct Action is not about ‘price’ but may be just as lethal if not handled exactly right. Direct Action is an acceptable alternative to ‘carbon price’ aiming to reduce emissions by capping the amount spent on greenhouse gas reduction rather than capping the emissions themselves. It has the political advantage of quarantining the electricity industry from electricity price increases caused by climate change. The ALP should treat Direct Action seriously or it may open up a strategic gap between itself and electricity consumers (“all of us”).

If the past is a guide, Direct Action could eventually devour its strongest supporter, new Environment Minister, Greg Hunt. Hunt will become vulnerable if emissions do not fall. This will open up a strategic gap between him and his Prime Minister mid-term, when the going gets tough. Such dangers suggest Hunt’s Environment Department public servants need to tread carefully if they are to avoid a future fate like Parkinson and Comley! The best advice for them may be to adopt a traditional public service detachment like “Yes Minister, but…” on Direct Action.

Richard Nixon said it is not until you have reached the deepest valleys of despair do you appreciate the clean, pure air on the highest of heights. Parkinson and Comley will live to play again but Rudd, Gillard and Turnbull are finished as political leaders. In climate change politics, neither captain nor coach is safe from retribution when the game is lost. The safest role seems to be an academic trusted advisor, like Ross Garnaut and Will Steffen, offering advice without accountability.

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About the Author

Randal Stewart is a Canberra-based consultant, trainer and author. He is co-author of the popular politics textbook Politics One.

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