We will aim to do more’, a glad-handed Greg Hunt promises the world, having just begun the week by breaking his promise to Tiwi Islanders over Port Melville. ‘Port Oversight’ mysteriously popped up while no-one was looking with not even a nod or a wink at any environmental impact, let alone Environment Ministry permission. The facility will refuel up to 40 ships per week and endanger marine creatures in hitherto pristine waters but it’s all been sorted, thank you. Nothing to see here. Move along. The adults are in charge.
In May, ‘Bluster’ Hunt was up on his high horse, all set to track down the outlaws responsible : ‘if further action needs to be taken, we will take it without fear or favour, no matter where the blame lies’. This week, however, our Federal Environment Minister settles for just giving Port Melville a good rubber stamping. Then he’s off to China to set the rest of the world straight on energy and environmental management. Another week, another mask.
Another mission faces Hunt in global finance hub Shanghai, Tuesday. Our agile Lone Ranger turns keynote speaker at a ‘Future of Energy’ Summit. He spins his government’s ‘positive agenda’ to ‘harness energy innovation, support renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions’, leaving his audience gobsmacked, wondering which Australia he represents. Who is that masked man? Me Tonto.
‘A clean and healthy environment and a strong economy are not mutually exclusive,’ Hunt continues, calling an end to ‘lawfare’ and the demonising of environmental activists. Jaws drop. For two years his government had a coal-fired PM who ceaselessly argued precisely the opposite. At home, his party’s large right climate change denying rump shudders. The dries wet themselves. Brandis has to pour himself another brandy.
Turnbull is full of blandishments about coal being very much in the ‘energy mix’. Expect to learn that we will buy Adani a railway to the newly expanded port at Abbot Point out of the $5 billion northern Australia fund. Queensland has put billions into redeveloping the port despite having its ports only 65% utilised.
Adani coal mate, Hunt, promises the world we’ll cut our carbon emissions even further. Blind Freddy, however, can see we are not really reducing any at present, despite all of Hunt’s statistical nonsense. In his sales pitch for Direct Action, Hunt parades a breathtaking duplicity and an ignorance of simple mathematics. Our reality-defying, back-flipping Environment Minister, brags about Australia’s brilliance in carbon reduction; the genius of his plan.
And what a plan it is. Turnbull himself could not have put it better. ‘We will aim to do more’. Cue Bryan Brown as Hunt of the outback, who has now morphed into rugged bush poet in battered Akubra mustering brumbies in the rain. When the vision thing goes blurry, when your helmsman drops his oar, when your team won’t pull together, thank God someone knows the score. We will aim to do more, boys, we will aim to do more!
The nation looks to Hunt to save the day with his fearless future-embracing yet nuanced 21st century manifesto and universal, all-weather platform on everything. ‘We will aim to do more’. Adam Bandt and Richard Di Natale retort in Hunt’s case, less is more. In particular, reinstating a ‘carbon tax’ would add as much to the ‘budget bottom line’ as increasing or broadening the GST, while costing households less.
‘Do more?’ All triumphalism aside, ‘Chutzpah’ Hunt could hardly be doing less about carbon reduction. Doubtless this is why he has been let loose on the world stage to spruik Direct Action, a dodge in which government pays agile entrepreneurs to nimbly plant trees or manage landfill but does nothing to curb coal-fired power generators nor any other big polluter.
At least this government has a clear narrative, even if the main character is a worry and the plot has got whiskers on it. The Australian Industry Group calculates that to meet its target of a five per cent reduction on 2000 carbon emissions by 2020 through Direct Action will cost the government between $100 and $250 billion.
Even less credible are Hunt’s ‘safeguards’ which are riddles with loopholes such as allowing polluters to set their own very generous baseline on their highest levels over the last five years or higher if they make special application. In any event fines are only a last resort and are not envisaged as bringing in any revenue. But that’s not his narrative which has more of a western flavour.
Carbon baddies quake in their boots as Hunt rides tall in the saddle. He’ll bring rogue polluters to heel with ‘safeguards’, he says, but no-one, except Hunt, believes him. Those not persuaded include The Australian Industry Group, investment bank Citigroup and the Grattan Institute think tank. Perhaps they’ve seen the Tiwis.
Yet no persuasion may be needed. A lucky Hunt has been helped greatly by downward revisions in the target. Energy and carbon market analysts, RepuTex, now calculate that actual greenhouse gas reductions that have to be achieved by government policy could be just 50m tonnes. In a special deal with landfill operators, the government has been able to receive a free gift of 16 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions reductions.
What is beyond dispute is that $660 million of Hunt’s $2.5 billion budget has been gratefully pocketed so far by energy carpet-baggers and other new age entrepreneurs ‘seize very big opportunities’ as the new PM promised in his September coup. Many of those on the take, it is true, began their schemes under Labor; schemes that would have continued without Direct Action double-dipping. Or without our tax subsidies.
Equally as certain, moreover, is that the uptake of solar and wind energy, together with the slowing of the economy were masking an increase in carbon emissions since the removal of the carbon tax, a trend which has now reversed according to energy consultants Pitt and Sherry. But Hunt is up to paint a rosy picture and then take all credit. And some. He flaunts his innovative agility with an incredible back somersault on a high wire before 400 hard-nosed global investors, rent-seeking analysts at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference, in Shanghai.
It’s some back flip. Old Hunt did everything he could to abolish the national renewable energy agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation when Abbott was PM. New Hunt, the agile 21st century appropriator, now wants to show them off. He preens and parades them before his Shanghai audience like any proud foster parent. These bodies prove Australia ‘excels’ at climate change. ‘Seize the day’, the PM so rightly says – and anything else not nailed down.
Hunt, an environmental intellectual, according to George Brandis, is one of the poster boys and girls of a Turnbull revolution that is seizing the day all over the show. ‘Freedom Boy’, Tim Wilson, our commissioner of human rights holds a conference about religious freedom but fails to invite Aboriginal or Muslim representatives. Julie Bishop spends $ 140 million on her trendy InnovationXchange which ticks all the boxes for agility and bean-bags. Beneath the PM’s borrowed robes, his posturing, his lofty rhetoric and his rounded vowels, is the hide of an old goanna. Compared with many of his ministers, however, he is but a babe in arms.
Penny Wong challenges Julie Bishop’s financial priorities. Having cut $11.3 billion from Foreign Aid, how can the emoji-speaking Foreign Minister blow $140 million on an InnovationXchange which has nothing to do with helping people in need overseas? Wong does not ask if Bjorn Lomborg, whom Bishop has shrewdly installed as one of the directors of her trendy exchange also commands a fee. Or Michael Bloomberg. ‘Weather vane’ Hunt strangely makes no mention in his keynote address of the climate change sceptic being on ‘team Turnbull’ but he’s keeping all his options on the table.
Not ruling anything in or ruling anything, a key strategy in Malcom Turnbull’s revolutionary, 21st century approach to agile government by keeping everything on the table is looking more and more like an avoidance of commitment. The week is notable for its crush of hopeful rent-seekers such as BCA’s Catherine Livingstone who are all over the new PM in the hope he would lower company tax rates. ‘Nothing will stimulate innovation and growth more’, she claims, despite not a shred of evidence. Nothing would be gained, however, if every interest group got its wishes, should the government decide to lift the GST to 15% or expand its base.
What the government wants to do is to lift the GST and offer tax breaks but as Scott Morrison wastes our time repeating, he’s not saying that. Not when you can get others to do it for. National’s David Gillespie says he’s won over by New Zealand which has licked all its economic problems with 97% of goods incurring a GST at 15%. ‘They seem to be going from strength to strength in their economy’ he warbles wistfully again without a scrap of evidence. It’s Turnbull-shit, but that does not deter experts such as Livingstone from repeating the claim .
New Zealand is staring down the barrel of a recession after dairy export receipts from trade with China have fallen and given that, courtesy of El Nino it faces the worst summer drought for twenty years. The elephant in the room, however, is not so much the deluge of misinformation that pours forth from coalition MPs and their media minions and business backers. The elephant is a former captain’s call to cut billions in health and education.
States have been corralled into contemplating a GST hike because Tony Abbott made massive cuts to health and education. It was a captain’s call, done without consulting the states and without any thought given as to how the states would find the $57bn for hospitals and $28bn for schools slashed in his 2014 budget. This fact should at the very least be the table’s centrepiece if everything is truly on the table, a table which is about to collapse under the weight of the spread it carries and the dead weight of an ever-increasing deficit.
On Friday, the RBA downgrades its growth estimate to 2.25% for the current fiscal year. This could blow out the deficit by a further $11 billion. Scott Morrison clings to his claim that we have an expenditure problem and not a revenue problem. He continues to maintain that any increase in the GST would not be used to boost the overall tax intake. The truth is that the coalition budget is based on some unreal expectations of economic growth and although it has abandoned its ‘credible path to surplus slogan’, its calculations are clearly seriously awry. And it shows.
Of course, a slowing economy with serious structural flaws should not worry us unduly when we have a PM such as Malcolm Turnbull for whom boxes were invented to think outside of. The secret, as he told Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor, Glynn Davies, whom he labelled ‘defeatist’ for not being Turnbullish about commercialising university research. Davies, who rightly observed that our economy does not include the big corporations to invest in R&D. For the PM, this was missing ‘the vibe. You haven’t got the new zeitgeist — that is to believe in yourself, have a go’. To the rest of us Davies was simply being realistic; practical.
Turnbull’s own cabinet may be missing the vibe, also. Or just getting it hopelessly wrong as does our treasurer who is out dog whistling for a GST hike to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. ‘I say, we have got a tax system that is penalising people who are out there making a contribution in the economy. We want to back them and we want a tax system that backs them’ Scott Morrison said as he blitzed the airwaves on Monday in his monologue which he insists is a conversation about tax.
It’s not that we are a long way from everyone else and that have too small a population to sustain manufacturing causing an overreliance on primary produce and extractive industries which puts us at the mercy of falling commodity prices as the world boom in iron ore prices declines. No. It’s our unfair tax system.
Morrison has clearly not been in conversation with Greens MP Scott Ludlam who challenges the fairness of the 50% capital gains tax exemption. ‘Work for a living, get taxed at the full rate. Play the stock market or load up with investment properties, and half your earnings are tax-free.’ But then, Morrison is simply conveying neoliberal ideology which favours small government and lower taxes for the wealthy. ‘Reform’ in this context, means making the poor pay more in regressive taxation such a GST.
The week sees an incredible change in Karma Chameleon Hunt, our agile environment minister who goes all green and renewable in public in Shanghai but who is still in bed with coal back at home. No change at all, on the other hand, appears in our NeoCon treasurer whose overladen table makes him as much of a commitment-phobe as the PM who having seduced the nation in a whirlwind romance by not being Tony Abbott will not reveal his real intentions.
Let Julie Bishop hold hackathons to her heart’s content. Let Hunt be loud in praise of renewables. Beneath the din, the clamour of the claque, it is difficult to see or feel the new ‘vibe’ as Turnbull puts it as adding up to more than another conga-line of suck holes frantically currying favour, each determined to deny that in reality their new emperor wears no clothes.
- Read Crikey: Turnbull still has a major problem on climate: