Abbott's public service carbon revenge?

Getting rid of departmental secretaries Parkinson and Comley, key architects of the carbon price, as part of some crusade to deny climate change would represent an act of blinkered ideological recklessness.

Within hours of being sworn in this week, the Abbott government pushed out two of the key architects of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme: Blair Comley (Secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism); and Martin Parkinson (Secretary of the Treasury).

In addition, the other central player in its design, Anthea Harris, will also be lost to the public service if Abbott manages to repeal the Clean Energy Act and with it the Climate Change Authority that Harris heads up.

According to reports in The Australian Financial Review, Comley was sacked without explanation. The official explanation was that Parkinson informed the Treasurer he would resign mid-2014. Parkinson, however, had apparently told colleagues he’d like to stay as Treasury secretary only a week ago.

The real underlying motivations for these changes are not clear at this moment. It could have nothing to do with their roles as architects of the carbon price. 

But if it is due to their prominent role in introducing carbon pricing, it suggests an ideological fervour within the Abbott government bordering on the irrational. The ideological blinkeredness within sections of conservative ranks surrounding all things climate change was personified today by columnist Terry McCrann dismissing Parkinson and the Treasury’s competence, arguing it had declined as a “consequence, in part, no doubt, of pouring Climate Change Kool-Aid into the computers in its basement".

Such ideological fervour will lead the Abbott government to self-harm if not held in check by the more grounded and pragmatic senior members of Cabinet.

Both Comley and Parkinson are sharp and talented economists, first and foremost. Parkinson has a PhD in economics from Princeton University while Comley has a masters in economics from Monash University. Both could be described as cut from the same Treasury cloth of dry, free-market economists. They are extremely wary of industry rent-seekers and very conscious of the limitations and dangers of government regulatory intervention. 

These are the kind of guys that John Howard and Peter Costello would mostly agree with on matters of economic policy. Indeed, both served with distinction under the Howard government – Parkinson as deputy secretary in Treasury and Comley as a general manager handling tax and macroeconomic policy matters.

My own interaction with Martin Parkinson was relatively limited, indeed the first time we met involved a heated argument over the recommendations of the Howard government’s Shergold Emissions Trading Taskgroup. But from that interaction and my discussions with others that know him better, he is anything but some left-leaning, green crusader, drunk on Climate Change Kool-Aid.

As for Blair Comley he is incredibly intellectually sharp. You don’t go into an argument with Comley without having done extensive homework, unless you want to leave with your tail between your legs. Comley is not some meek bureaucrat who just quietly notes stakeholders views for transmission to his minister. If he sees a weakness in logic he’ll pick it out and want to argue about it. This no doubt troubled a range of polluting interests who had grown used to ear-bashing and intimidating public servants over the years.

An acquaintance of mine related such a story to me several years ago when he attended a meeting of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (the chief lobby group for carbon-intensive industry), of which his firm was a member. Shortly after he joined the Department of Climate Change, Comley addressed the membership in a meeting  My acquaintance was filled with laughter explaining how these lobbyists were left in dumbfound shock at a public servant who stood up to them, dissecting and exposing the contradictions and flaws in their logic. 

It’s worth noting that carbon polluters were not the only ones subjected to a cruel dissection of logic. Comley dished out such lessons to anyone with a poorly thought-out argument.

Ted Evans, who loyally served as Treasury secretary under Costello for many years, said of this decision to push aside Comley and Parkinson and two other senior public servants:

“It’s a great pity – we can’t afford to lose people of that quality. It’s hard enough to get top-class people in Canberra these days. To see them treated in a political fashion is more than disappointing, it’s sad for the country frankly.”

Getting rid of Parkinson and Comley as part of some crusade to deny climate change as a problem would represent an act of blinkered ideological recklessness.