Monday, September 21, 2009

What do you get for a study of emissions trading that won you a first-class honours degree and the University Prize?

Bugger all if you are in the Coalition.

Greg Hunt is the Coalition's emissions trading expert.

Its environment spokesman, he was snubbed and silenced on his area of expertise when Turnbull handed the emissions trading job to climate change skeptic Andrew Robb.

When Robb asked for leave because of illness this weekend, Hunt might have expected the gig himself.

But it went to another frontbencher likely to know less about the topic than Hunt... the coal industry's friend Ian MacFarlane.

Now I know the Coalition has bigger things to deal with than putting its best people forward, but.... why should we take it seriously if it doesn't take the problems we face seriously?

While understandable, its treatment of the only emissions trading expert it has is a disgrace.

My colleague Tony Wright spells this out more eloquently at and below:

Gravel mouth brought in to deal with Liberal's hot air

So how did a bloke brought up as a Kingaroy peanut farmer - no, not that one, we're talking here about Ian Macfarlane - get the plumb Liberal Party job dealing with the vexed business of emissions trading?

Macfarlane, you will be aware, was chosen by Malcolm Turnbull to replace Andrew Robb as Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader on Emissions Trading Design when Robb took the gutsy decision at the weekend to reveal he was suffering a depressive illness and decided to step aside to seek treatment.

A little background may be required here.

Nineteen years ago, a young Melbourne University student named Greg Hunt, searching for a thesis for his Honours degree in Law, decided that control of carbon pollution would be the big issue over the following decades.

Thus, Hunt's thesis studied the relative merits of pollution pricing, examining various forms of carbon taxes and comparing them with emissions trading.

He was awarded first-class honours and a university prize for his work.

In 1990, it was an esoteric subject and Greg Hunt's thesis was one of the pioneering studies of the subject.

He went on to become a Liberal MP in the Federal Parliament and, considering his interests, it seemed unsurprising when he was appointed Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water.

The climate change part, of course, was a bit overshadowed by Robb's senior role assisting Turnbull on emissions trading design.

Thus, when Andrew Robb stepped aside, we might have imagined Hunt, an ambitious fellow, would finally get his chance to step up to the role.

Well, you might have imagined that if you thought politics was about academic expertise and long-term interests and the sort of things that human resources departments take into account.

Thing is, Malcolm Turnbull has been having a spot of bother persuading the tougher elements of his Opposition that the Coalition's approach to the Rudd Government's push for a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was hard-edged enough.

Only last week Turnbull faced a coalition party-room revolt when he and Robb told MPs that the business community was insisting the Liberals must negotiate with the Rudd Government to reach a workable agreement on an emissions trading scheme.

The fracas is unlikely to have assisted Robb's state of mind.

Enter Ian Macfarlane.

The gravel-voiced Queenslander has been Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources under Turnbull for the very good reason that he's a tough and pragmatic operator who has been dealing with industrialists and miners for years (he was Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources in the Howard Government from 2001 to the bitter end in 2007).

He has the added benefit of knowing a bit about how Queensland rural folk think and behave - a handy attribute in a Coalition where the Queensland Nationals are the most fractious rump of the show.

As young Greg Hunt was waltzing off with his First-Class Honours degree and celebrating his prize for a thesis on carbon pricing, Macfarlane was being voted in as President of the Queensland Graingrowers Association and as a councillor of the Queensland Farmers Federation.

His electorate of Groom, a rich farming area covering the Darling Downs and the very conservative city of Toowoomba, is now a jewel in the Liberal crown, sticking in the craw of Nationals who think that rural Queensland is their manor.

Indeed, when Macfarlane was thinking of a political career, a herd of Nationals charged so hard to his door that their vehicle actually knocked down his letterbox. The peanut farmer wasn't impressed. He went to the Liberals.

And how did Greg Hunt take it when Turnbull decided to hand over Andrew Robb's pivotal role to the Queenslander who was once the lust object of those cantankerous Nationals?

Bravely would be one description.

"I am extremely supportive of Macka's appointment," he told The Goanna yesterday.

"Macka (Ian Macfarlane) brings the best understanding and history of engagement with industry on either side of politics."

But not, of course, a first-class honours degree relating to emissions trading completed in 1990, when most of us had never heard of the subject.

The environment can be a heartbreaker in politics. Hunt could probably have a therapeutic chat to Peter Garrett about the matter.

Crikey's Bernard Keane adds:

The Liberals will miss Robb, badly. He has been the ballast of the Opposition. With Nelson and Costello leaving, Tony Abbott flapping his mouth off on most anything that takes his fancy, Julie Bishop utterly out of her depth, Joe Hockey speaking first and engaging his brain second, Barnaby Joyce becoming de facto leader of the Nationals and Malcolm Turnbull himself going off the deep end over the faked email affair, Robb has remained rock solid throughout.

Time has shown that he should have been made shadow Treasurer rather than Hockey. Instead, for months he has been trying to navigate the near impossible course of securing enough Coalition support for an ETS to get this killer issue off the political agenda as soon as possible. Unlike Greg Hunt, regarded as a bomb-throwing greenie amongst some his more conservative colleagues, Robb hails from the more sceptical end of the spectrum on climate change, meaning his endorsement of the Turnbull position on the CPRS carries weight with the flatearthers and those otherwise inclined to knock it back outright.

In his stead comes Ian Macfarlane, an outright climate sceptic, card-carrying member of the Greenhouse Mafia and former Industries and Resources Minister. Maybe, like Robb, Macfarlane understands the political need for the Opposition to simply get emissions trading off the agenda; maybe, like Robb, Macfarlane’s endorsement of a negotiating position with Labor will carry some of the more hostile backbenchers over into supporting, or at least not opposing, a deal.

One way or another, Macfarlane’s status as a former member of the “dirty dozen” will alter the dynamics of the Senate negotiations significantly.

The Liberals, and anyone who wants to see the CPRS make it into legislation this year, will fervently pray that Robb makes a speedy and complete recovery. For that matter, so will anyone who has dealt with him and knows the contribution he has made to keeping this Opposition together.