Can’t Compare: Emissions Trading And Reforms From The Past

It’s now an accepted part of political folklore: the era of reform is over. Our boldness has gone. No longer are we able to push through major economic changes. We have no appetite for challenge.
Australian politicians are hesitant to take risks, intimidated by polls, and the Government is cripplingly scared of focus groups and opposition.
That’s the broad outline. Fill in the details yourself.
This story has a lot of truth in it. In his recent Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis carefully and convincingly documents the way federal Labor reacted to falling opinion polls in ways which only made those opinion polls drop further.
But the end-of-reform tale pivots on one critical comparison which doesn’t hold up – that between the liberalisation of the Australian economy in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the failure to (so far at least) introduce an emissions trading scheme.
The parallels are admittedly seductive. The decade-long program of financial deregulation, reduction in tariffs and industry protection, privatisation and corporatisation of state enterprises, and labour market reform required unheard-of boldness. It caused pain. Industries which had relied on protection were no longer viable, workers were exposed to the stresses of competition and new private operators took knives to the bloated payrolls of formerly public sector businesses.
The emissions trading scheme will bring hurt too: making some forms of energy production unprofitable (with the attendant risk to jobs) and add substantially to everybody’s power bills. The government that introduces it will be a bold government.
But that’s where the similarities end.
The reform of the 1980s had one clear and unambiguous goal: to clear up a century of accumulated, unnecessary or entirely counterproductive regulatory burdens. These burdens were holding back Australia’s economic growth, limiting personal income, and entrenching private interests at the public expense.
The goal of an emissions trading scheme is very different: to impose burdens on the Australian economy.
Not a bug, a feature. Placing new costs on the cheapest energy will inspire people to reduce their energy use. It will also make technologies which were uncompetitive in a world of cheap coal suddenly competitive.
That’s the plan, anyhow.
In practice, the emissions trading scheme was rife with exemptions, subsidies, wealth transfers and policy distortions which favoured some industries above others. Emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries were eligible for assistance, so the definition of what constituted “emissions-intensive” and “trade-exposed” was pretty important.
The lucky winners, according to a paper released by the Department of Climate Change in October: Alumina refining (of which there are four companies operating in Australia), aluminium smelting (also four companies), carbon black production, (one company), carbon steel from cold ferrous feed (one company), clinker, copper, ethylene, flat glass, fused alumina, and glass container production, among others, are now considered “highly emissions intensive” and “trade exposed”.
Other businesses, like tissue paper and white titanium dioxide pigment production, are considered to be trade exposed but only moderately emissions intensive. They get a different rate of assistance.
Then there were the free and subsidised emissions permits. And the household assistance payments to compensate poorer Australians for higher energy costs.
The end result of all this regulatory complexity, new subsidies, and tax-welfare churn shouldn’t remind us of the great reform movement of the 1980s. It should remind us of what that reform movement tried to clear away.
Treasury suggests emissions reduction will cost Australia’s economy 2 to 3 per cent of GDP over the next 50 years.
That too compares poorly with the great reforms of the 1980s, which were designed to boost, not restrain, economic growth.
The pain of deregulation was limited to companies which had profited at the expense of the rest of everybody else. Like the tariffs which kept inefficient clothing companies in business and inflated clothing prices. The pain of emissions reduction will be borne by all Australians who use energy.
In a speech last week, the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, tackled just this question: what constitutes “reform”?
At the very least, reform has to be productivity-enhancing. Reform has to achieve its goal – if carbon pricing is to be considered a success, it has to go some way to mitigating global emissions and then climate change. And reform has to be long term – not so precariously controversial it will be eliminated at the next change of government, like, for instance, WorkChoices.
Banks also cited the Baby Bonus, light globe bans, FuelWatch, Grocery Choice, and Cash for Clunkers as “reforms” which failed to meet these modest but important criteria.
Emissions trading would fail too. No emissions trading proposal before Parliament could achieve its ambitious goal. And no proposal before Parliament would be “sustainable”; that is, would be able to survive into the long term without major revision.
Banks does not go so far as condemning emissions trading. But his argument for action on climate is half-hearted: “perhaps the strongest economic argument for carbon pricing is that it would displace more costly alternative measures targeted at particular products or technologies.”
In other words, it would be marginally better than the even-worse things we’re doing now. That’s hardly an inspirational argument for bold new reform.
How desirable you think carbon pricing is will depend on your view of the science of climate change and the likelihood of significant global action.
But to compare it to the great reforms of the 1980s and 1990s is a mistake. It does a disservice to the legacies of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. And it gives emissions trading a sense of historical inevitably which this compromised, undercooked, and ineffective policy has not earned.