It is rare that all-party select committees of Parliament cannot agree on some improvements to a Government bill even if some parties continue to vote against it. The failure of the finance and expenditure committee to agree on practically anything in the Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Bill is another ignominious moment in the passage of this backward legislation.
The committee's failure can be blamed partly on the ridiculously short time it was given to hear public submissions and study the bill. Submissions closed barely a month ago. About half of the 300 organisations and individuals wanted to speak to the committee. They were given about 10 minutes apiece. The committee had to complete its work by yesterday.
Unsurprisingly, it can report only that it has been unable to agree on anything. Even the Government's supporting parties are not inclined to support the bill in detail, though it appears Act will give National the necessary numbers. Act remains unconvinced global warming has a human cause but says it will support legislation that would delay the scheme Labour enacted.
The Maori Party, which did a u-turn to support the bill's introduction, now wants the inclusion of a clause to deal with Treaty of Waitangi implications.
If the Maori Party had kept to its original opposition to a trading scheme, and Act had refused to go along with any global warming response, National and Labour might have been forced to find common ground on this project.
A bipartisan approach to a subject of such far-reaching importance was briefly in prospect after a parliamentary review of emissions trading a few months ago. With all minor parties (even the Greens) preferring a carbon tax to a trading scheme, the Labour Party indicated it would give up elements of its scheme if National wanted a bipartisan solution.
Sadly, National did not. John Key preferred to deal with Act and the Maori. Talks with the latter resulted in the Maori Party claiming it had won concessions that could not stand up to scrutiny. The bill, when it appeared, was an emasculated version of a cap-and-trade scheme.
It does not effectively cap industry emissions, it caps the price they would pay for emission rights. If the international market price of carbon exceeds $25 a tonne, as it probably will, the Government will give them additional rights at a fixed charge. At that point the price ceases to be an efficient allocating device and becomes just a carbon tax.
Critics have called it the emissions trading scheme you design when you do not want one. The Government is legislating in haste only so that it has something to show the world at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen next month, where targets are supposed to be agreed for the next period of greenhouse gas emission reductions.
Fortunately for us, the international community seems no more serious about pursuing this subject. Expectations for Copenhagen are low. Typically of recent leaders' gatherings, last week's Apec summit produced nothing of consequence on climate change. The leadership many had expected from President Obama on this issue and others has yet to be seen.
New Zealand has already fallen well behind the reduction targets it accepted at Kyoto. A reducing cap on free emissions should reflect those targets. Additional emission rights should carry a charge that will enable the country to pay the penalty it incurs for missing its targets. But National has largely transferred that liability to taxpayers.
When a true global emissions market begins to take shape, this country will join it. Meantime, Parliament should not waste much debate on this miserable offering to the international effort.