The sound of splitting
A few years ago, Greens leader Bob Brown was facing the Senate vote to sell off Telstra. He was opposed to the privatisation of the giant telco but, he said, he might change his mind if the then Howard government agreed in return to stop logging all old growth forests and end land clearing in Queensland.
When asked if he was placing a greater value on the environment than his party's commitment to public ownership, Brown said: "When you ask Australians in 50 years' time what the issue was that they wished politicians had dealt more effectively with, it will be the environment."
Brown never had to negotiate over Telstra because his plans were scuppered by a firm no vote by his party's national council. That was in 2002 when Brown was the only Green in the Senate. Now there are five Greens in the Senate who, along with the independent Nick Xenophon and Family First's Steve Fielding, hold the balance of power.
In a parallel universe they could have delivered the Government its emissions trading scheme. That was before Steve Fielding discovered he did not believe in man-made climate change and the Government discovered the deep fault line the issue had opened up in the Opposition.
Earlier this year Brown appeared to be willing to at least talk about some kind of deal.
Again, the end of old growth logging was named as the price.
But the Greens rapidly came to the conclusion that the scheme would not deliver enough environmental gains to justify the billions of dollars of compensation being offered to industry.
Neither would their membership have copped support for a scheme that did not have at least a chance of drastically reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
The Greens have consistently argued for a tougher scheme to deliver reductions of the kind that the science says is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change – 40 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.
Without a seat at the negotiating table their arguments have been made mostly to the Senate chamber while the schism within the Coalition has dominated the wider debate.
The environment movement, as with the Coalition, has been split over whether to support the scheme. Some environment groups, such as Greenpeace, rubbished it from the start. Others, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Climate Institute, were willing to stay at the table with the hope that a scheme they saw as deeply flawed could be made better. Both copped a mountain of flak for this position.
They were traitors, some Greens MPs and staffers said, and did not deserve to belong to the environment movement.
Last week the Australian Conservation Foundation walked away from the scheme, saying the billions of dollars offered to industry as compensation were offensive. For this the ACF earned a sniping press release from the Greens, welcoming it back to the environment movement. There have been few signs of graciousness anywhere in this debate.
The Climate Institute still takes the view that having a basic scheme in place is at least a step in the right direction. It is worried about the magnitude of compensation but it argues the framework is there for this and future governments to take bolder action.
How the Greens respond to the scheme in the coming years will be interesting. Will they continue to discount it as useless or begin to work to toughen it up? The latter option would allow them to re-enter the debate with a fresh perspective on how to tailor the scheme so it delivers better environmental outcomes.
This would take the debate in a new direction. So far, it has not been about the scheme's merits or otherwise – rather it has been on the likelihood of it happening.
As this was debated last week, The Daily Telegraph ran a page-one story warning consumers of the cost increases. The Government was a bit flummoxed. That information had been available for at least 18 months and was widely reported. But the story demonstrated just how little attention has been paid to the mechanics of the scheme and what it means for anyone who does not own a power station.
In some ways the debate about the scheme has only just begun.