Top Carbon Cutters - #2 Anthea Harris

The head of the Climate Change Authority was one of the most instrumental in the introduction of carbon pricing in Australia, but how has Anthea Harris managed to thrive in such a politically charged area of policy?

Anthea Harris is the CEO of the Climate Change Authority, a newly formed body created out of the carbon pricing legislation, which is a bit like a mixture between the Productivity Commission and the Reserve Bank but for climate change policy.

Its function is to advise rather than direct the government on how fast it should reduce emissions and the kinds of policies it is implementing to reduce emissions. Ultimately the government can choose to ignore the Authority’s advice. 

So, much like the Productivity Commission, Anthea’s power only derives from how well she and the board of the CCA can argue their case in public, and the credibility which others attach to their advice. 

In speaking with a range of people across industry, government and lobby groups there was an unusually unanimous view that she was the “natural”, the “obvious” and the “perfect” choice for the job. 

Why? Well there is no other person in the country that could claim to have been heavily involved throughout almost all the various initiatives that have sought to design and implement a price on carbon pollution. 

Back in 2002, as a consultant for Frontier Economics, she was commissioned by the NSW government to review their next to useless Greenhouse Benchmarks scheme. Then Bob Carr decided he wanted it replaced with an emissions trading scheme; and wanted it in place in less than 12 months.  And she’s been working on carbon emissions trading pretty much ever since.

Harris’ next role was working for a coalition of all the state and territory governments on the design of a national emissions trading scheme that could be implemented by the states. A task she says was much like “herding a pack of cats”. Nonetheless the trading scheme design was then picked up pretty much entirely by the Howard government’s Shergold Taskgroup into Emissions Trading. 

At the time of the release of the Taskgroup’s report I remember Martin Parkinson (now secretary of the Treasury) freely acknowledging that they had borrowed extensively from the framework Harris has helped design saying, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. And so naturally when it came to the federal government ultimately designing and implementing a national emissions trading scheme, they hired Harris to help.   

One long time player in the clean energy sector observed, “she is probably the single most instrumental person in the creation and introduction of a carbon price in Australia.”

“People forget just how important the NSW GGAS was,” he added. “It, in conjunction with the Renewable Energy Target, gave other governments the backbone to implement market-based measures to reduce emissions.”

But fell into it by chance

The interesting thing is that while Harris has dedicated around a decade of her career to implementing a price on carbon pollution, she isn’t some climate change crusader. She tells me that she ended up working on the NSW Benchmarks review largely by chance. 

Prior to this she was working on more conventional economic issues at Frontier Economics such as trade practices and airport regulation issues. And she made her start working for six years as the Productivity Commission’s predecessor – The Industry Commission.  

Her qualities

So how has she managed to survive and thrive through what is an incredibly politically charged and bruising area of policy? One dominated by an ideological crusade on the part of some industry lobby groups to crush it dead or at least emaciate it to the point it would become useless.

“Disarming pleasantness, but with an analytical sharpness that can take people by surprise,” one energy sector veteran explains. 

In my own experience interacting with her over the years one finds it almost impossible to get angry, even when there is significant disagreement. What would become a heated argument with say a Richard Bolt (formerly secretary of Victorian Department of Primary Industries and now Education) is an exchange of ideas with Anthea. Through a series of what come across as light-hearted questions she subtly forces you to consider and address the problems with your own point of view.

One source puts it down to her consulting background. He observes that clients can’t be told what to do. Instead they need to be persuaded what’s in their best interests and taken on a journey to better appreciate the best solution for their problems.  

Harris points out that in her work to develop an emissions trading scheme for all the state and territory governments, there was no other way of getting things done than to get them to each transparently and methodically work through the all the various options’ pros and cons to land on an agreed solution.

Although one senior energy policy player has a different and less complimentary take, suggesting that she uses feminine charm to deflect and avoid areas where her argument is weak. “With Comley, Parkinson, and Bolt (all departmental secretaries) you have to work hard to keep up with them, and you know where you stand at the end of an argument. It’s not the same with Anthea. She’s good theoretically, but not so good on appreciating the real-world commercial realities.”

But others see it differently. Because she’s been in this game for a long time she knows where all the bodies are buried and has heard most of the arguments several times over. Another player in the clean energy sector puts it simply, “you can’t bullsh*t her”. 

An energy market propeller head says “she’s a dry economist at her core and very analytically rigorous. She’s respectful but driven by the evidence.” At the same time this person says the analytical rigour is coupled with political pragmatism: “She has a good eye for what can and can’t fly politically.”

The future

Working on the development of a price on carbon pollution has been an incredibly tortuous and drawn out process, with a number of false starts. And it could all come to naught if Tony Abbott is elected and successfully rescinds the carbon price. Plus she could suddenly find herself out of a job.

How on earth does she keep at it, I ask.

Surprisingly she replies that she’s never really thought too much about where her career will go next. 

Another person who has worked closely with her over the years tells me that there’s a tough and resolutely determined person sitting beneath the bubbly and well groomed exterior. When he asked her, ‘Aren’t you getting tired of this [working for government on the ETS]?’, her clear reply was, “I need to see this thing through.” 

One wonders whether she can manage to keep at it if Abbott manages to unwind all her hard work.

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