A price is right

It’s strange to watch Ross Garnaut talk about a carbon price so many years after Tony Abbott succeeded in tearing it apart.

In old interviews, when the softly spoken professor outlines his rationale for the price, he’s measured, perhaps a little pensive, but mostly he’s assured.

The chaos that has vexed Australian politics for more than a decade over pricing carbon, or even committing to an emissions target, seems a world away.

Garnaut’s price was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

How can a government push big polluters to lower their emissions? Make it more costly to emit than it is to reduce.

How can it be ensured the cost isn’t simply passed on to households? Take the revenue raised and direct most of it back to low- and middle-income earners.

Whatever is left should be directed to support innovation, to make low- or zero-carbon technologies more competitive.

Its supporters rightly viewed the carbon price as uncluttered, straightforward; its detractors saw a big target.

The problem with a simple policy is that those who wish to destroy it can do so easily – if they are able to find the weak point. That’s exactly what Tony Abbott did when he labelled the price a tax.

His wasn’t some stealth mission. Over years, Abbott battered the price with that word – tax – and through sheer repetition he and his Coalition colleagues broke through.

Australia’s energy policy has become only more fractured and needlessly complex since. There is no overarching strategy, no moral direction. There is still no emissions target.

Instead we have Angus Taylor’s technology road map, released this week, another confused half-attempt at a plan.

Garnaut made clear years ago that investment in technology is vital. But offering piecemeal grants for unproven technologies at the expense of “mature” renewables is farce.

The idea of such subsidies should be antithetical to a Liberal government in the first place.

Scott Morrison says that under his government Australia will reduce its emissions at no cost – no cost to households, no cost to jobs.

But the only way he can do that is with a price.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2020 as "A price is right".

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