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The environment and energy superportfolio can deliver real action – here’s how

By Anna Skarbek | July 21st, 2016

When Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews reshuffled his cabinet in May, most of the headlines were about Wade Noonan’s return after suffering mental health issues, and Lisa Neville who became the state’s first female police minister.

But from an environmental perspective there was another significant change. Energy and resources, long regarded as twin portfolios, were split. Instead, the energy brief was partnered with climate change and environment under a single minister, Lily D’Ambrosio.

On Monday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull followed suit, creating a new super-portfolio of environment and energy, with Josh Frydenberg as the minister.

Linking policy development and decision-making for the energy and climate change portfolios makes sense. As a result of the historic Paris Agreement struck last year, the world – including Australia – is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

This calls for a major transformation, shifting the world’s energy away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources like solar and wind, newer technologies such as wave and geothermal energy, and innovations like battery storage and energy demand management.

In that sense, energy and climate (and therefore the environment) go hand in hand. Decisions about energy sources have direct implications for our ability to deal with climate change. Conversely, decisions taken to reduce emissions will invariably impact on the energy portfolio. The two sectors have been crying out for better integration.

Many of the technologies needed to decarbonise our electricity system are already available. But we need to move faster. Our research at ClimateWorks Australia shows we will need at least 50% renewable electricity by 2030 if we are to decarbonise the electricity sector in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

This means we need policies that will push harder to help large-scale clean energy technologies reach the necessary level of commercialisation and integration.

Within these broad portfolios, there are particular policy areas that also need to be linked more closely with one another. In particular, renewable energy policy needs to be combined with measures to promote energy efficiency.

There is a natural synergy between renewable energy and energy efficiency, yet the two have never been systematically linked at either a national or state level. The better our energy efficiency performance, the less investment we need in new renewable energy sources to replace carbon-intensive ones. This in turn helps to lower the overall network costs and can protect households against rising power bills.

While unit prices of electricity are expected to rise as we modernise and decarbonise the energy system, household bills need not. If governments promote energy efficiency at the same time, households can reduce their energy use to offset the rising energy costs, keeping bills flat or even reducing them.

The lack of joined-up thinking between these two areas has led to missed opportunities. Some 1.5 million Australian homes have solar panels, thanks in part to the federal incentive scheme. Meanwhile, there are separate state-based incentive schemes for household energy efficiency. Why have these two never been linked? If solar panel installers could also provide household energy efficiency audits, householders could kill two birds with one stone and further reduce their demands on the electricity grid.

Household battery storage technology provides the next key opportunity to link installation incentives with renewable energy and energy efficiency. But this opportunity will again be missed if policies are not better integrated within the portfolio.

The National Energy Productivity Plan is a new policy with 34 measures aimed at improving energy efficiency. Frydenberg led this process when he chaired the COAG Energy Council last year. He has retained these responsibilities within his expanded portfolio, giving him a golden opportunity to take a truly integrated approach.

In the meantime, D’Ambrosio has taken the opportunity to review Victoria’s upcoming action plans on renewable energy and energy efficiency, to take advantage of the opportunity in her joint portfolio to ensure energy and climate policies have the close integration they need.

Of course, integrating the energy and climate portfolios is not the whole solution. Cabinet support will still be needed to introduce integrated policies in other areas that are critical to hitting Australia’s emissions reduction targets. Examples include: putting specific regulations on emissions-intensive industries; creating market enablers for low-carbon technologies; ratcheting up green standards for buildings, vehicles and infrastructure; and ensuring planning approval systems are designed to take account of these targets.

The real work will need to happen in the federal government’s 2017 review of policies to achieve Australia’s Paris emissions target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. A recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers report found that “Australia will need to nearly double its historic rate of decarbonisation, to 4.4% annually”, if it is to meet even the lower end of this goal.

Ministers often talk about taking a “whole-of-government approach” to major issues. Yet plenty of silos still need breaking down if we are to achieve meaningful action on climate change.

The moves in both Canberra and Spring Street to bring environment, climate and energy under a single umbrella are a positive step towards better policy and real action. But, as ever, there is still plenty of hard work ahead.

Anna Skarbek is CEO of ClimateWorks. 

This article was originally published at The Conversation


Does Lobbying Promote or Challenge Democratic Principles?

By Sue Cato | September 30th, 2015

While it may not be the oldest profession in the world, organised lobbying shares a similar image problem to the one most often associated with that tag. Lobbying has, in some company, become a dirty word, and nobody has yet applied for the job of lobbying for its redemption.

The Australian government’s Code of Conduct on lobbying describes it as ‘a legitimate activity and an important part of the democratic process’. There are countless examples of reasoned lobbying campaigns shaping good policy outcomes in areas as diverse as taxation, conservation and anti-discrimination. But rightfully or wrongfully, the reputation of the lobbying industry, more specifically the practice of paid lobbying, is wallowing in the badlands. There is a fixation on how much money is expended on lobbying and how much influence these so-called masters of the dark arts wield, often with little regard for the merits of an argument. The great challenge facing lobbyists and public officials is how to encourage more people to engage in the political process, rather than putting more hurdles in the way.

It is not a challenge confined to Australia. In 2013 the American League of Lobbyists changed its name to the Association of Government Relations Professionals. It saw the writing on the wall after Barack Obama took hardline measures to avoid the scandals that plagued the former Republican administration, and it reached for the sugar soap. Back home, a string of highprofile corruption hearings in New South Wales has cultivated a perception that any encounter between a paid lobbyist and a public official leads down a path to secret deals and acts of corruption. While claims of a minister falling asleep on a masseuse and the story of a premier being undone by a bottle of red wine make great media fodder, the everyday reality of most encounters between lobbyists and public officials is far less interesting and often more productive.

So should we care that lobbying is on the nose? Do we even need lobbying? The answer to both questions is an emphatic yes.

Contrary to some reports, lobbying is not a practice reserved for the top end of town to peddle influence for narrow benefit. It occurs on many levels and contributes to the development of policy settings covering every spectrum of society. Whether it is World Vision advocating for increased foreign aid, a solarpanel manufacturer promoting the virtues of renewable energy investment, or a neighbourhood traffic group calling for a new roundabout, lobbying will always involve one party attempting to influence the decisions and spending priorities of public officials. In a democracy, elected officials can’t do their job properly without this type of consultation.

Changes to legislation support changes to the way our society operates. State and federal ministers are rarely experts in their portfolio areas. They are not expected to be. Their job is responsibly to apportion the allocated budget for each portfolio area in line with government policy and public need. It is therefore incumbent on them to seek advice from departmental advisers and experts external to government.

Take the technology sector as an example. Google spent $16.8 million on lobbying in the United States last year. Amazon, Apple and Facebook also set new records, and the top fifteen tech companies spent just shy of $117 million on lobbying in 2014. This prompted Consumer Watchdog, a prominent lobby monitor, to lament that ‘Policymaking is now all about big bucks, not big ideas.’

The truth is that big ideas are not developed in a vacuum by politicians with little understanding of industry challenges and public views. When you consider the average age of representatives in the US Congress is sixty-three, the need for consultation with industry leaders in this fastest growing of all sectors becomes apparent. While age should never be viewed as a barrier to the adoption of technology, it is safe to assume few members of Congress have been at the forefront of technological innovation. Lobbying efforts in this space are as much about education as they are about persuasion. Combined with broader consultation, that translates into benefits across the community.

So what can be done to address the negative perception about lobbying and reinstate its original purpose as a channel that facilitates direct communication between policymakers and the community on matters of public interest? The answer lies, as it does in every other area of regulation, in strong guidelines, effective enforcement and transparent practice.

Public officials the world over are forever tinkering with rules of engagement for corporate lobbyists in the vain hope of perfecting a model that will be universally accepted as sufficiently robust. In the United States and Canada, statutory lobbying regimes cover external and in-house lobbyists and include sanctions from large fines to prison terms. In most Australian jurisdictions, the disclosure requirements for lobbyists are not as onerous, the penalties are less stringent and in-house lobbyists are not required to be registered.

Too much time has been spent on the potential for a handful of rogue operators to act improperly. Just like the rules governing political donations, there is an obligation on parties on both sides of the political divide to comply with lobbying rules. In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, in the age of unprecedented access to information, those who flout the rules are dinosaurs that will soon become extinct by their own hand. The time is ripe to align our lobbying regulations with world’s best practice and get on with the job of governing without fear of constructive engagement with third parties, including lobbyists.

A change of approach from public officials is also required. Everyone has a right to engage with their elected representatives. With the technological tools at our disposal today, this type of dialogue should be easier than ever. Organisations such as GetUp!, whether they identify as lobbyists or not, have blazed a trail in using technology to help more people express a view on issues important to them. Ministers, MPs and local councillors need to embrace this opportunity and broaden their interaction with the community at all levels, rather than just talking at each other on Sky News. If they don’t get on board with this concept they will miss the bus and further lose relevance in the eyes of the community.

There will continue to be a role for corporate lobbyists as the interface between business and government, but they need to be smart about how they work. Progressive lobbyists have known this for some time. They are empowering their clients with the tools to engage more effectively with policymakers, using cogent, evidence-based arguments, rather than promising favours because of some old connection or relationship. Those days are nearing an end.

Lobbying will always present challenges in a democracy where the motives behind every decision are scrutinised with a cynical eye. But when conducted ethically and responsibly, lobbying has the ability to connect individuals and organisations to decision-makers and help them articulate their views. That is an outcome that surely promotes democratic principles, and one that is worth supporting.

This article was published in Meanjin, Vol. 74, No. 3, Spring 2015: 166-168.

Joan Kirner: the voice of women in Australian politics for 25 years

By Mary Delahunty | June 3rd, 2015

Joan Kirner’s handwriting was strong, like her personality, and her words are indelible.

Always have something positive and clear to say about what you want to achieve and who benefits, she wrote to me in November 1999, a few weeks after I had been sworn in as Victorian minister for education and the arts. Her advice was generous and practical, born of decades of public service and an instinct towards the pastoral care of women who followed her into the parliaments of Australia. Joan was the matriarch of mentoring and, around the country today, we grieve her loss and salute her legacy.

Eighteen years ago she founded EMILY’s List Australia to propel progressive women into parliament. Always the political strategist, she insisted the organisation sit outside the ALP, independent, but capable of goading the party towards affirmative action on female preselections and policies such as changes to equal pay principles in the Fair Work Act and the inclusion of the abortion drug RU486 on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The top female Labor leaders in the land are or have been supported by EMILY’s List – from former prime minister Julia Gillard and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek to every female premier of Australia. And all Labor’s female MPs have had a mentor, thanks to Joan’s foresight. It could be a call at the end of a bad day – “How are you?” – or a note of advice and support.

She never failed, even recently, as oesophageal cancer drained her strength; her voice on the phone was robust, the conversation immediately dissecting the political issues of the day. I last saw her on Mother’s Day. I took her a rose, the last of the season from my garden, a book and soup. We all sat in our regular circle in her lounge, women discussing politics. Joan was quieter than usual. The next day she was taken to hospital.

Joan’s community activism as a parent led her into Parliament. Her belief in the transformative role of education made her a formidable minister in that portfolio. Her passion for the planet made her a practical minister for conservation. She set up Landcare, working with farmers’ representatives such as Heather Mitchell.

In politics, as in life, Joan was a bridge builder. Becoming premier in 1990 – Victoria’s first female premier and Australia’s second – she took over a shaky administration. The state was reeling from the collapse of financial institutions Pyramid and Tricontinental and Labor factions were jostling as premier John Cain resigned. Joan had the numbers to lead, but the men assumed one of their own would be elevated. She told me of a meeting based on this assumption. She told them, “I have the numbers, I can be premier”.

The polls were terrible for Labor and her job was to stem the losses. She governed under ceaseless pressure as the economy worsened and parts of the media lampooned a female leader. They tried to ridicule her as the housewife in the polka-dot dress; the cartoons were sexist and relentless. In her 1999 note to me, she urged  against finger waving or that would be the next cartoon.

There was something constant about Joan. She ran a dignified campaign in 1992, clawing back some support. Never enough, though; it was too late for Labor.

With humour and intent, she reclaimed the polka dots as a proud mark of feminism. On ABC late-night television, wearing a black leather jacket, the premier morphed into Joan Jett singing I love Rock’n’Roll. It went viral.

Nearly a decade later there was a reprise. Under the ornate arches downstairs in the Regent Theatre, I joined Julia Gillard, trade union leaders Sharan Burrow and Jennie George, comic Jane Clifton and the former premier herself onstage. We were “Joan Jett and the Fishnets”, the gala attraction at Joan’s 60th birthday bash and a Labor fundraiser.  There was only one rehearsal (half an hour before the doors opened), but the audience roared its appreciation and the dollars rolled in. Despite endless encores, led by Joan, and rave reviews, we stopped at one performance and all went back to politics. The red-head in the black leather skirt went on to become prime minister.

Joan lent every major birthday as a fundraiser, every anniversary of her premiership an event to promote women in leadership

She spent 12 years in Parliament, concentrating on the trend lines, not the headlines, determined to respect the policy and the process, but it was her later work that was transformative. She chaired the Employment Services Regulatory Authority In 1994, she was elected president of the Victorian ALP and that year she moved the historic resolution to entrench the ALP’s affirmative action rule. She raised a generation of Labor women, policy smart and campaign ready; she imagined the Victorian Women’s Honour Roll, acknowledging the often forgotten contributions of women in history; and she travelled the state as our first commissioner for communities. She was the voice of women in politics for 25 years.

Her portrait in red, clear eyes arresting the viewer, is bright among the other dark-suited premiers arrayed around her in Parliament’s Queens Hall. She alone was not granted a parliamentary pension, and that is a disgrace.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald.

Sectors: Government