NO WONDER the Opposition is struggling in its efforts to pick a fight with the Government over its emissions trading scheme. The green paper model differs only marginally from the one John Howard endorsed last year.
The main variation is in timing. The Howard scheme, based on a report from a task group headed by then Prime Minister's department secretary Peter Shergold, was to start in 2011 or 2012. The Rudd plan is due to kick off in 2010.
For the rest, the similarities are great, including compensation in each scheme for the trade exposed sector and for other badly affected industries, notably electricity generators (although the green paper is rather tougher on both, as well as focusing on the household sector, brushed over in Shergold).
Notably, Howard had petrol in. As he boasted, "this emissions trading scheme will be world class in its coverage and governance" and would avoid "political fixes".
He did not propose any "fix", as the Rudd scheme does, to neutralise petrol's inclusion. Of course oil prices have shot up in the past year. The Coalition has shifted ground: it urged, and Labor adopted, an offset to ensure petrol prices don't rise as a result of the scheme.
In light of its history, it is a bit rich for the Opposition to be jumping up and down about the Government's plan to review this offset after three years' operation — which means five years from now.
There is continuity even in the bureaucratic work behind the two schemes. The Coalition's task group was serviced by a secretariat headed by Martin Parkinson, then a senior Treasury officer. Parkinson drafted the group's document. Now he is secretary of Penny Wong's Climate Change Department, established by this Government, and the most important bureaucrat in putting together the green paper.
In preparing the Shergold report, the challenge for the task group was to come up with something acceptable to Howard, at heart a climate change doubter, whatever his latter-day conversion under political pressure. Howard personally wrote the terms of reference, which inevitably made the report conservative.
The task group was successful: Howard adopted the report, more or less holus-bolus, although his government didn't last long enough to implement its measures.
The green paper is a statement of Rudd Government policy. In this case, the challenge has been to err on the side of caution and a slow start for reasons of political necessity, despite Labor's rhetoric about the imminent threat from climate change.
Approaching the task from different perspectives, the two exercises converged on a common centre.
At least so far. This brings us to another point. Although it is clear the green paper model would make a gentle start, just how robust or wimpish the plan would be over its first decade can't be known yet.
That judgement must wait on the Government announcing targets late this year. Treasury modelling to underpin those targets is still to come. Howard started the Treasury work, as a basis for setting his government's targets.
The Greens have already written off as inadequate the Rudd Government plan, denouncing it as simply the Howard one. But they should at least hold fire until they get the target range being proposed for 2020. The Government will be under dual pressure in setting this range. On the one hand, it will want something politically manageable at home. On the other, if it is to play a prominent role in the coming international negotiations, it needs targets seen as reasonably ambitious.
The Opposition has homed in on the green paper being issued without the Treasury modelling. "It's asking households, individuals, businesses to make submissions to the Government about that scheme in total ignorance of what the Treasury thinks," shadow treasurer Malcolm Turnbull complained.
He's got a point. Without knowing how much is going to be demanded of them over a decade, it is hard for firms to "consult" effectively with the Government. Climate Minister Penny Wong's reply is that there will be more rounds of consultations.
There is method in this madness. The Government didn't want argument about targets diverting discussion on the scheme's design. It likes to distinguish between building the car (the model), and then setting the speed at which it is driven (the targets).
Because we don't know the core of the scheme yet, talking about the position of the parties in the Senate next year is guesswork.
It would seem, however, that the Greens at the end of the day will surely have nowhere to go. They can make a lot of noise and try to get changes. But from their point of view, what they consider an inadequate scheme must be better than none at all.
Family First's Steven Fielding will pursue the consumer angles and push for alterations. Fielding wants a Senate inquiry. Independent Nick Xenophon will also no doubt have ideas on the detail.
If the Government can manage to reach a broad deal with industry, it would be hard for the Opposition, on its present policy, to oppose the whole thing (as distinct from details) in the Senate.
There are Liberals who would like the Coalition to use emissions trading as a major point of differentiation from Labor. But they have not so far succeeded in their attempt to win over Brendan Nelson.
Inevitably, there is speculation about whether Labor would consider a double dissolution if it couldn't get its plan through. Given that quite a few ordinary people will be bearing some cost, it would be pretty rash to do so. The Government's best course lies in give-and-take negotiation. The GST might be the worse for the Howard government's having to remove food to persuade the Democrats, but at least it was brought in.
Michelle Grattan is political editor of The Age