Green Policies: Too Much Of Not Enough

It can’t be a coincidence: the worst examples of bad policy making and implementation in the last few years have been green policies.

The Federal Government has spent the last few months trying to neutralise the fallout from the home insulation scheme. And not totally successfully: last night’s Four Corners program uncovered even more prior warnings about the dangers of the Government’s policy. Kevin Rudd can’t fire Peter Garrett twice.

But don’t forget: the Government has also been embarrassed by problems with its solar panel subsidies. And its green loans scheme. And its National Green Jobs Corps.

There’s just something about the environment that leads politicians to abandon the basic principles of good policy making.

The Hawke Review of the Administration of the Home Insulation Program, released this month, found public policy essentials, like eligibility criteria, means testing and co-payments – that is, getting homeowners to put a little skin in the game by contributing some of their money – were conspicuously absent from the program.

Whether the program should have included co-payment was apparently raised in Cabinet. It was rejected.

And the Hawke Review found that advice to homeowners that they get at least two quotes for installation was abandoned before the program was fully launched. Recommending consumers follow basic market diligence was against the Government’s interests.

The Government still claims we had an insulation subsidy-led economic recovery. As Lindsay Tanner has argued: “I don’t think it’s right to say we should have sat back… dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s because we were in a crisis situation.”

There must have been a few more i’s left to dot. The cost of cleaning up the insulation scheme (around $1 billion) is nearly as much as the cost of implementing it in the first place ($1.5 billion was spent before the scheme was pulled).

By any standard, that makes the home insulation program an absolute debacle.

But the insulation program was perhaps not as much a debacle as the less-publicised green loans program. Under this program, homeowners could borrow up to $10,000 for four years to make sustainability improvements to their houses. The Government helpfully paid the interest on the loan.

Unsurprisingly, such generosity led to widespread rorting. The Government was forced to shut the whole thing down. Penny Wong announced last week that taxpayers are going to cough up another $4 million to audit the green loans.

Another policy fiasco: the solar panel subsidy scheme. That also had to be shut down early. It was supposed to cost $150 million. The final price tag is around $1 billion.

Then there is the Government’s National Green Jobs Corps. Apparently, when it announced it mid-2009, the Government didn’t actually mean to imply they would be green “jobs” – they’d be work experience for people getting Centrelink benefits.

I guess you shouldn’t judge a policy by its title.

Last year, Liberal MP Joanna Gash rightly described the green corps as “basically work for the dole with a green bent”.

But then in January Tony Abbott announced his own low-carbon copy – a 15,000-person green army.

Indeed, the Opposition’s direct action climate policy is swollen full of clever little green schemes. Twenty million trees will be planted. Grants will be provided for towns to convert to geothermal, tidal, and solar power. Rebates for home solar panels will be extended.

Abbott’s environmental centrepiece is an annual $1.2 billion emissions reduction fund. Companies which reduce their emissions below an individually determined baseline will be compensated. Those which exceed their baseline will be penalised.

The most important thing for a company will be getting a favourable baseline. Imagine how many opportunities there will be to game that system.

A report last week from the Commonwealth Auditor General found that state and federal governments are usually uninterested if their climate change policies are successful or not. The public accountability of individual environmental policies “has generally been poor.”

The Auditor General counted at least 550 separate climate change programs across the country, many of which were Howard government programs. We don’t really know which ones work. And if the ad hoc way bureaucrats report the results of their environmental programs is any indication, governments don’t seem to mind.

Obviously, it’s about green quantity, not green quality.

Could we expect anything else of policies which have ‘save the planet’ as their criteria for success? Public debate about the environment is characterised by emotion and ideology. Governments respond with the same.

The insulation program, the green corps, the solar panel subsidies, and the green loans program made stately headlines when they were first announced.

But the goodwill generated by those headlines doesn’t last when time reveals how poorly thought out the green policies actually are.