Why Abbott should spend a weekend at Bernie's

A diverse Climate Change Authority board, headed by Bernie Fraser, is now in place – if the Coalition wants to show it is serious about achieving emissions reduction targets it should embrace the Authority and its board.

On Thursday, climate change minister Greg Combet announced the board members for the Climate Change Authority that will join chair Bernie Fraser and CEO Anthea Harris. It is a diverse group that will do a good job of holding any government honest, including one headed by Tony Abbott.

The Climate Change Authority is a bit like the angel of conscience on the shoulder of government. Its function is to advise the government on whether Australia is on track to achieving its emission reduction goals and evaluate the effectiveness of the carbon pricing scheme as well as other greenhouse reduction policies such as the Renewable Energy Target. Importantly any recommendations and inquiries the Authority undertakes will be made public.

While the government is ultimately free to ignore the advice of the Authority, the fact that recommendations are made public will mean the government will face some degree of discomfort and questioning from the media and general public making these recommendations difficult for the government to ignore.

This publicly transparent advisory body has the potential to play a major role in shaping government policies to reduce emissions, so the make-up of its board and senior management is incredibly important.

Overall, one would have to say the government has brought together an extraordinarily diverse and knowledgeable group. One would suspect that given their incredibly different backgrounds and perspectives, they will find themselves in some extremely heated discussions as they try to reach agreement on the advice they should provide government. But providing they can co-operate effectively, this board should be able to bring all the issues to bear in assessing the science, economics, social and environmental factors  that need to be considered in making climate change policy. They include:

-- Former Reserve bank governor – Bernie Fraser – as chairman.

-- John Marlay a senior executive and board member of aluminium, cement and other emissions intensive and trade exposed industry who notably was part of John Howard’s Taskforce on Emissions Trading.

--  Heather Ridout, former lobbyist for the Australian Industry Group that spent probably the last 12 months of her time at the AiG trying to water-down the carbon price initiative.

-- Lynne Williams, an economist from the dry as a bone Productivity Commission and the Victorian Treasury.

-- Clive Hamilton – a firebrand economist and passionate advocate of action to reduce carbon emissions who used to head-up the think tank the Australia Institute

-- John Quiggin – another almost equally fiery academic economist from University of Queensland that has written extensively on climate change policy, including via a regular column in the Australian Financial Review.

-- David Karoly – a Professor of Climate Science in the University of Melbourne’s School of Earth Sciences.

-- Australia’s Chief Scientist, presently Ian Chubb.

-- Elana Rubin – the Chair of Australian Super and also a director at Mirvac.

While there are members of the board that will cause concerns for polluting industry and also environmental NGOs, neither can complain that their perspective will not be strongly represented at board meetings.

Beginning in the late ‘90s Clive Hamilton has spearheaded efforts to debunk economic myths that Australia could not afford to act to reduce emissions. No one can doubt his deep concern for the dangerous impacts of climate change and view that Australia has a responsibility to make a contribution to reducing emissions.

At the same time John Marlay used to be the chief executive of Alumina Limited, whose combined assets have one of the largest emissions footprints in the country. And now he sits on the board of Incitec Pivot, Tomago Alumium Smelter and cement manufacturer, Pioneer – also very large energy consumers and carbon emitters. Few people in Australia would have as great an insight into the economics of Australian emissions intensive industry than him.

The Chief Executive of the Authority, Anthea Harris, is an inspired choice. Her experience in energy and climate change policy and understanding of energy and carbon markets is second to none.

As an economist at Frontier Economics she cut her teeth on models of Australia’s energy markets and economy and played an important role in the establishment of the world’s first compliance-driven emissions trading scheme – the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme. After Frontier, Harris steered the Australian state governments’ co-operative attempt to develop a national emissions trading scheme. This was an incredible feat of herding cats when you think about it, and the trading scheme design developed was then shamelessly copied by John Howard’s Task Group for Emissions Trading. Thankfully the federal government bureaucracy was willing to acknowledge her talent and hired her to help them develop its carbon price scheme.

Harris tends to be disarmingly friendly, but hiding behind her pleasant demeanour is a sharp intellect and an ability to see through the weaknesses of arguments from all sides of the debate. This has earned her the respect of just about all the protagonists.

The Climate Change Authority has the personnel in place to play a very effective role as the watchdog of Australia’s efforts to reduce its emissions.

If Tony Abbott wanted to convince people that the Coalition was serious about delivering on its emission reduction targets, there would be few better ways than agreeing to keep the Authority in place.