Former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has demolished Tony Abbott’s climate action plan and backed the Government’s amended CPRS legislation in a long speech explaining his decision to cross the floor in support of the Government’s ETS bills.

Last week Tony Abbott launched a climate action plan that rejected any market-based emissions abatement mechanism in favour of $10b worth of handouts for businesses and farmers to reduce emissions.  Turnbull rose in the chamber early this afternoon to speak on the Government’s CPRS bills, reintroduced as promised last week.  Watched by colleagues Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, Paul Fletcher and, interestingly, Joe Hockey, Turnbull tore apart the proposed plan as economically inefficient, environmentally ineffective and unable to meet the task of reducing Australia’s emissions by 5% by 2020.

After quickly discussing the need to address climate change, including that the 2000s had been the hottest decade ever after the 1990s and 1980s, Turnbull emphasised the similarity of the Government’s CPRS with the Howard Government’s intended CPRS, declaring that the bills were “as much the work of John Howard as it is of Kevin Rudd” and outlining why the Howard-era Shergold taskforce had rejected non-market approaches like regulation or subsidies to address climate change.

Without mentioning the new Coalition plan or Abbott by name, except with an indirect reference to “as we have seen in recent days”, Turnbull attacked a subsidies-based approach, warning it was “a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a vast scale… a slippery slope that can only result in higher taxes and less effective abatement.”  As a Liberal, Turnbull said, he supported a market based solution that allowed businesses and consumers to determine the most effective means of reducing emissions.  A price signal was critical in order to drive the large-scale transition of the Australian economy necessary for lower emissions.

“In the absence of a clear carbon price,” Turnbull said, “no new investment will be made or investment will be made in new carbon intensive infrastructure.”

Turnbull also took aim at soil carbon, which would under the Coalition scheme provide most of the reductions needed to ostensibly meet the 5% target.  As leader he had supported soil carbon, Turnbull said, and he believed it had great potential, but much work needed to be done before it could play a significant role.  Moreover, its benefits would be more easily obtained through an ETS, and he had negotiated amendments to the CPRS that would allow exactly that.  He quoted one biosequestration expert who said he supported soil carbon initiatives but was “horrified by the prospect of a fund from which public servants hand out money to grow trees.”

Turnbull also directly undermined the Coalition’s campaign to portray the CPRS as a tax, saying that the impact on prices would be less than the GST and that the CPRS was not intended to operate as a tax but return revenue to households and businesses.  He also attacked the argument that Australia should wait for the rest of the world to take action, noting that progress had been achieved at Copenhagen by getting developing countries to commit to emissions abatement and that the Howard Government had been much further away from global action when it committed to an ETS.  “How can we credibly expect China or India to take out call for global action seriously if we a wealthy developed nation are not prepared to act ourselves?” Turnbull asked.

The  CPRS, Turnbull concluded, was the “only policy on offer that will enable us to meet 5% emissions target” and move to higher cuts if a global agreement to do was reached.

Turnbull spoke for longer than the usual 20 minutes, and the Government readily allowed him extra time to continue.  The only downside for the Government was Turnbull effortlessly put the case for the CPRS far more eloquently and coherently than Kevin Rudd or any of his ministers has so far managed – a result that says more about the Government’s failings than Turnbull’s rhetorical gifts.

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