Originally published in The Canberra Times on December 12, 2020

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published by the Canberra Times, 12 Dec 2020]

2020 has seen a shift in the balance of power. Not in the Senate, but between the Federal Government and the States.  

All last summer during the bushfires—while the Prime Minister was infamously not holding a hose—it was the Premiers and Chief Ministers who were right beside emergency services leaders, working to keep people safe and informed.  

When the pandemic hit, it was the State leaders who took the lead again. Shutting down state borders early, enforcing strict COVID-19 rules, appearing beside their Chief Health Officers each day to update the public on the number of cases, the number of cases with unknown sources, and on new restrictions.

While none of us were in the National Cabinet’s Zoom meetings, from the outside it appeared that the differing responses of State and Federal Governments were driven by two different primary concerns. For the Prime Minister it was the economy; for the Premiers and Chief Ministers it was hospital intensive care units being overrun. This tension makes sense, given the States run hospitals and the Federal Government has the biggest economic levers at its disposal (and had already congratulated itself on a budget surplus for May 2020).  

For a brief time, the National Cabinet gave us a glimpse into a world where our leaders worked cooperatively, if not in consensus 100 per cent of the time, and genuinely seemed to be putting the public good ahead of party politics.  

The bushfires, and then the pandemic, elevated the State Premiers and Chief Ministers to the national stage—putting them on equal footing with the Prime Minister. During the course of the year they proved themselves willing to go it on their own when necessary, something voters seemed to approve of wholeheartedly. 

And in recent months, State governments have stepped in to lead on another huge public policy issue where the Federal Government has failed: climate change. Federal Energy & Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor has achieved little except to spruik a “gas-led recovery” and complain there’s too much wind and solar in the grid. The Federal Government has done nothing but weaken Australia’s clean energy investment infrastructure, and prop up gas and coal-fired power, sending mixed signals to the market and effectively stalling any progress.  

In contrast, every State and Territory has a net zero emissions by 2050 policy, if not better —like the ACT’s 2045 policy—and State Coalition Governments now have some of the most ambitious climate plans in the country. And with the UN Climate Summit scheduled for Saturday evening it is the States, not the Federal Government, that have been noticed for their climate ambition.

NSW Energy & Environment Minister Matt Kean, has achieved what his Federal counterpart Angus Taylor could not: uniting the Liberals, Nationals, Labor, Greens, and most of the crossbench, to pass a massive clean energy package in NSW—expected to drive $32 billion of investment in private renewable energy infrastructure, up to 12 GW of new wind and solar plus 2GW of storage, and generating 6,300 construction jobs and 2,800 ongoing jobs over the next ten years. 

Kean told the Australia Financial Review’s Energy and Climate Summit: “I’m not here to support vested interests. I’m here to support the community interest and that’s exactly what this policy does … I’m here to put consumers first.”

Here in the (100% net renewable) ACT, Minister Shane Rattenbury, welcomed the competition from NSW, observing that the NSW plan to electrify its entire fleet of 8,000 buses by 2030 beats the ACT’s 2040 target for ambition.  

“I’m all for competition on climate change action!” said Rattenbury, “NSW’s efforts will increase the volume of electric buses, help drive down prices, and benefit the ACT as we transition our own bus fleet to emissions-free. Our two governments may also be able to co-operate, and we may be able to move our ACT target forward.” 

In January this year, if you had told me I’d be watching a Greens Minister publicly championing the climate policies of a Liberal Minister I’d have laughed right in your face. But here we are. And it’s maybe the most hopeful I’ve felt about climate change all year. 

Unfortunately, the States are flexing other muscles they haven’t used in a while too. Victoria’s Treasurer has secretly drafted up plans for an Electric Vehicle Tax, despite warnings it could discourage the uptake of EVs and slow greenhouse gas cuts. These moves by Treasuries, which also includes South Australia and NSW, will make it harder for each jurisdiction to meet its net zero targets for 2050, given Australia’s transport sector accounts for 18% of annual emissions.  

The road bill, like most services, is covered from consolidated revenue which we all contribute to, including of course EV drivers. If the Victorian Treasury had recommended moving to road user charges for all vehicles, including heavy trucks that do the most damage to our roads, well that’s a debate worth having. But the current proposal is an ineffective cash grab punching down on the handful of early adopters of EVs and driving up transport emissions. 

And while the Federal Parliament is contemplating devolving its EPBC powers to States, it worth considering that if State governments always had their way, Australia may no longer have a pristine Great Barrier Reef or Daintree Rainforest, and the Franklin River would not run free.

Sometimes State’s interests are not in the national interest, and perhaps the Premiers and Chief Ministers will fade from the national stage. But in the meantime, as Minister Shane Rattenbury says, a little extra competition is good for the Prime Minister and the nation.

Ebony Bennett is the Deputy Director at independent think tank The Australia Institute @ebony_bennett

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