High Stakes Environmental Policy in Australia
Only a few weeks ago the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) in Australia had been looking to Prime Minister Turnbull’s proposed National Energy Guarantee (NEG) to provide farmers with a reliable, affordable, “towards lower-emissions” energy source. They supported the NEG because
- it addressed energy and emissions policy, dealing with repairing the broken national electricity market while meeting Australia’s international emissions reduction commitments;
- it was technology-neutral and did not preference any one energy source;
- it required the electricity sector to reduce its emissions by 26%; and
- it included plans for incorporating agricultural carbon sequestration.
By August 24th, however, Mr. Turnbull had lost his position as prime minister during the latest in a string of leadership “spills” – a declaration that the leadership of a parliamentary party is vacant and open for re-election.
It would appear that yet another Australian prime minister has come to strife over environmental policy. The ousting of Malcolm Turnbull ended over a decade of attempts by both ruling parties to design policy that better coordinates environmental and energy goals. Each time a party in power has introduced such policy – and at times, even after having passed it into law – there has been some sort of defeat.
This time, Mr. Turnbull is the defeated one, and his proposed NEG has hit the dust, joining other past abandoned initiatives, such as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme for carbon cap and trade and the Clean Energy Futures program.
Meanwhile, along with the NEG, farmers in Australia are also in the dust, during a winter marked by low rainfall with multiple fires raging across the dry land. In places, the fire risk is declining only because there’s nothing left to burn. With a few exceptions, it has been dry on average for the past decade and a half. Nationally, this was the driest July since 2002.
Energy prices are also a concern. Despite a growing renewables sector fueled by reliable solar and wind conditions as well as significant fossil fuel reserves, energy prices are high in Australia. Australian electricity prices are estimated to be the highest in the world.
Will the NEG be retained? This is unlikely given that Scott Morrison, the new party leader and prime minister, has split Turnbull’s judiciously coordinated Environment and Energy portfolio.
However, things are not always exactly as they appear. Reports are that there was no generalized resistance to the NEG in the House at large. Put to a vote, it should have passed. Even without such support across parties, with a majority of one, all Coalition votes would have guaranteed the passing of NEG legislation. However, in the eleventh hour before a vote, Mr. Turnbull was watering down his NEG because of party in-fighting. In the end, before the parliamentary vote, a leadership vote was called and Turnbull lost.
Canadians are familiar with environmental policy conflicts. Clearly, high stakes are involved personally and politically, but hopefully battles here are reserved for well-informed and balanced debate of best options for sound economic and environmental policy on a strong stewardship base.
Brenda Dyack is an agri-environmental economist who was a policy advisor and conducted research in Australia from 2004 to 2016. She is acting Director of Research and Policy for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario for the next year while Suzanne Armstrong is on leave. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily represent CFFO policy. The CFFO Commentary is heard weekly on CFCO Chatham, CKXFM Chatham, and CKNX Wingham.