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When it comes to existential threats, it pays to remember we've all been here before

Opinion

Decarbonsation is just the latest existential threat to the Australian economy. From the UK’s joining the European Common Market to the end of high tariffs and the floating of the dollar we’ve survived them all thanks to detailed strategies, not just pork barrelling and talk of a rosy future, writes Robert MacDonald

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The Nationals’ deal to support Scott Morrison’s net zero emissions plan is even more outrageous than I first thought when I wrote about it in this column last Monday.

A week ago, I thought it wasn’t much more than an opportunistic and panicky, eleventh-hour exercise in pork barrelling, which highlighted the Government’s lack of planning for a “just transition” for local communities affected by decarbonisation.

A week on and we still know very little about what Barnaby Joyce screwed out of the Prime Minister. We’re waiting for Cabinet to finalise its deliberations.

But I’ve got a simple question, having read the Government’s “Australian Way” net zero emissions plan, which Morrison released on Tuesday, the day after my last piece.

If Australia’s new energy future is as bright as this new plan paints it, why did Morrison need to agree to the National Party room’s still-secret but no doubt expensive ransom demands in the first place?

According to the plan, no one is worse off. In fact, if you live in regional Australia, you could well be much better off.

“Our plan will not cost jobs,” the document says without qualification. Nor will it “put industries, regions or jobs at risk”.

“Our modelling finds that, with our technology-led plan, Australia can continue to prosper even as we reduce our own emissions to net zero and global demand shifts towards low emissions technologies, fuels and commodities.

“Employment remains strong, and our regional industries keep exporting energy to the world.”

The report does acknowledge that “some sectors will face global headwinds”.

But don’t worry too much about that because, according to the plan, “we will continue to export our traditional energy exports for as long as our customers demand them”.

And that means “Australia’s coal and gas export industries will continue through to 2050 and beyond, supporting jobs and regional communities”.

The plan doesn’t discuss at all any mechanisms for helping carbon-dependant  sectors and regions of the economy navigate their way through the changes ahead.

That’s to say, the “Australian Way” to a net zero carbon future is apparently all good news, albeit based on also still-secret modelling.

So why did the Nationals demand a pay-off for their support and why did the Government pay up?

Because, in my view, it’s all just a charade.

Scott Morrison had to go to this week’s United Nations Climate Change summit with some sort of net-zero emissions plan, which meant convincing pro-coal Coalition members there was something in it for them.

What better gift to a local member than some pork barrelling?

And National Party members needed to be able to show their climate-change sceptical supporters they didn’t sell out those pro-coal principles cheaply.

Morrison also needed to insist to the broader electorate his government actually saw benefit in finally embracing decarbonisation.

Hence all the rose-tinted talk in “The Plan” about the benefits to flow, especially to the regions, from the current surge in renewable energy investment.

The thing is that the Coalition’s National Party members have some serious points to make, which should be treated more thoughtfully than simply as just more fodder for short-term political game playing.

Regional politicians have every right to worry about what decarbonisation means for their constituents and to demand that the government protect those who lose out through no fault of their own.

But is locking up a party room full of National MPs for a few days to come up with a shopping list of things to spend public money on the right idea?

Or perhaps the government should  be dedicating the resources of its vast public service machinery to developing the roadmaps, strategies, plans and industry reconstruction programs to navigate the economy’s way from here to there.

Too much bureaucracy is universally agreed to be a bad thing.

But we really do need some guidance on the way ahead and some sort of plan for helping the regions beyond opportunistic money grabs by local politicians.

It’s not as if we haven’t been here before.

Decarbonisation is just the latest existential crisis to confront Australia’s economy.

In the early 1970s Australia had to quickly rethink its trading relationships with the rest of the world when the United Kingdom joined the European Common Market.

Soon after, it, had to deal with economic globalisation  and the international push to lower the tariffs that had long-protected local industry.

And by the early 1980s it faced the deregulation of the local financial system and the floating of the Australian dollar.

In each case, a vast amount of work went into planning and enacting the policies to steer Australia through the changes of the day — from the John Button-led  industry plans of the early 1980s to the developnment of new traditing relations with countries in Asia.

That’s the least we should expect from the current government — a strategy for guiding us through the current and looming monumental changes to the structure of Australia’s economy brought about by decarbonisation, which goes beyond satisfying the immediate demands of some National Party MPs.

 

 

 

 

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