Comment: Wicked policy problems and the devil's own job

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, speak during a joint press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, June 19, 2014. (AAP)

In Canberra, the plight of asylum seekers has become a numbers game and climate change policy confusion is rife.

When it comes to journalists talking about policy, quite often you’ll hear them say that “the devil is in the details”.

It’s an annoying cliché because a journalist’s job is to discover the details.

Quite often there is a devil there. This week the government introduced the Migration Amendment (Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2014. Among the measures contained in the Bill was a change to the threshold required to be met to determine whether or not Australia owes an asylum seeker any protection obligations.

“It’s not often you see a nation take its asylum seeker policy inspiration from Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men, who would give his victims a chance to flip a coin to see whether or not they would live.”

Currently the threshold is for Minister to have “substantial grounds” to believe “there is a real risk that the non‑citizen will suffer significant harm” if returned back to his or her country.

Significant harm includes being “arbitrarily deprived of his or her life” (i.e. murdered), or receiving the death penalty, or being subjected to torture.

Currently the “real risk” is set at around a 10% chance. A pretty low bar - but when we’re talking the chance of being murdered it doesn’t seem quite so low. You don’t hear too often people saying to their partners in the morning, “Have fun at work today dear, I know there’s only a 10% chance of you being murdered, so I’m not too worried.”

The government would like to change this threshold to one where “the Minister considers that it is more likely than not that the non-citizen will suffer significant harm if the non-citizen is removed from Australia to a receiving country.”

And, “more likely than not” means “that there would be a greater than fifty percent chance that a person would suffer significant harm in the receiving country.”

In effect, asylum seekers would have to prove that their chances of being murdered if returned to their home country are better than the odds of calling a coin toss correctly.

It’s not often you see a nation take its asylum seeker policy inspiration from Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men, who would give his victims a chance to flip a coin to see whether or not they would live.

But that’s the world we’re in at the moment.

It’s also a world where Clive Palmer is setting himself up as an environmentalist. Trying to discern the details in Palmer’s latest policy on climate change is a rather devilish affair.

On Wednesday evening, with Al Gore alongside for show and to generate headlines (spoiler alert: it worked), Palmer announced that his party would block the government’s attempts to dismantle the Renewable Energy Target (RET) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), and the Climate Change Authority. It also will vote against any “Direct Action” legislation.

These steps have quite substantial policy impact, especially as the RET is designed to ensure by 2020 that 20% of Australia’s energy comes from renewable sources. It’s a vital policy for reforming the electricity market. Losing that would in some ways be a bigger blow than losing the carbon price.

So his decision on these things was a big win for environment policy, even if given how few people would know about them, it has little political impact.

But after that it all gets a bit confused. Palmer suggests his party will vote to get rid of the current carbon tax legislation but he proposes to introduce an emissions trading scheme which “will only become effective once Australia’s main trading partners also take action to establish such a scheme”.

The countries Palmer listed as needing to establish an ETS included China, Japan, the European Union, Korea, and the USA. Given the European Union, Korea, parts of China and numerous states in the USA are already either part of an ETS or are establishing one, it’s pretty easy to argue that the requirements have already been met.

Equally, given the USA is unlikely to have a national scheme in the foreseeable future it’s also easy to argue that our trading partners have not met the conditions and never will.

Given Palmer’s language echoes that of climate change deniers who argue Australia moved first on carbon pricing, it suggests Palmer does not regard the ETS schemes in place in these countries as having passed his test.

It all depends on how the legislation is framed, and on this point Clive Palmer also isn’t very clear.

On Lateline he suggested they’ll use a lot of the existing legislation. But it is very much easier to state that as of a certain date the carbon price will align with the European market (as is currently the case) than it is to suggest that once certain (as yet unspecified) conditions are met in various countries then the price will be errr something.

Do all those countries need to have their ETSs aligned first?

Palmer also told Tony Jones he intends to vote against the carbon tax legislation and to attach the amendment to establish his ETS model to the bill to abolish the Climate Change Authority – a bill he is voting against!

So his voting to end the carbon tax is in no way contingent on the government supporting his ETS.

Thus even if his amendment passes the Senate, there is little reason for the Government to vote for it in the lower house because they will have already removed the carbon tax.

The Government might agree to support it because it will make them look like they’re doing something for climate change and they can do so knowing that the legislation means will we have a carbon price of zero until the never-never.

As an added bonus they don’t have to pay for their dopey direct action programs.

A political win-win.  

The full details of Palmer’s amendments are yet to be outlined, but for now, the chances of him being either an environmental devil or devil are both more likely than not.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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