Climate Change Authority's Move To Canberra Raises Independence Concerns

The Guardian

Exclusive: Department of Environment confirms agency's 'mid-September' move from Melbourne 'to improve operating efficiency'
The move comes after members David Karoly, left, and Clive Hamilton refused to endorse the Climate Change Authority's report. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP
The Climate Change Authority will be moved from Melbourne to Canberra within the next fortnight, putting its independence from government under the spotlight.
A spokesperson for the Department of Environment has confirmed the move in "mid-September" to Guardian Australia, and said it was being done "in order to improve its operating efficiency".
Guardian Australia understands none of the authority's staff, besides the chief executive, will stay with it after the move, which has been known about in relevant circles for some time.
The move has raised concerns it will bring the authority, which was set up in 2011 in Melbourne as an independent statutory agency, closer to government and limit its independence.
The Department of Environment spokesperson said the authority would continue to have "its own staff". But whether those staff would be on secondment from the department is not yet known.
Several people close to the authority warned that since the expert staff of the authority did much of the agency's work – including writing the reports that are directed and signed off by the board members – how close they were to government could affect the degree of independence it maintained.
Bernie Fraser, former chair of the Climate Change Authority and former chair of the Reserve Bank of Australia, told Guardian Australia that "the independence is one of the great features of bodies like the Climate Change Authority".
Fraser said the personnel – both the staff and the board – need to work to uphold the independence of the authority. He said when he was head of the authority, the staff were "tremendously impressive".
"Unfortunately that started to erode, after the change of government, and the talk of abolishing the authority – those good people thought the government isn't going to listen and is going to get rid of the authority at the first opportunity," Fraser said.
He said there was "something to" the concerns about independence if it was moved to Canberra, and particularly if the staffing turned out to be seconded from the department rather than hired independently.
Ian Chubb, a former member of the authority and the former chief scientist of Australia, said if the board was expert enough, then the independence of the staff shouldn't impact the independence of the authority itself.
"I don't think moving the secretariat to Canberra is moving the authority closer to government, other than literally," he told Guardian Australia. "There are lots of organisations in Canberra at arm's length from government. The independent board ought to have enough knowledge collectively not to let the wool get pulled over their eyes."
The Coalition attempted to abolish the Climate Change Authority in its last term in government but failed to get the legislation through the Senate, and continues to maintain its policy that it should be abolished.
In the Coalition's 2016-17 budget, the Climate Change Authority was provided with an operating budget from existing Department of Environment funds until the end of 2016 only.
The move follows a dispute between members of the authority over a report on whether Australia should have an emissions trading scheme, leading to two members releasing a "minority report" and receiving a sharp rebuke from the authority's chair, Wendy Craik.
Craik released a statement saying their report was "misleading". She said while it "purports to be a minority report to the authority's third and final report of its special review", it "was not released or endorsed by the authority, and has no status as an authority report".
Asked about whether the two dissenting members would continue on the board of the authority, a spokeswoman for the Climate Change Authority told Guardian Australia: "Whether the two members who wrote the dissenting report continue as members of the authority is a matter for them."
Both dissenting members, the economist Clive Hamilton and the climate scientist David Karoly, said they would not resign over the matter, and they didn't believe there were any grounds for them to be dismissed.
Fraser said he had read both the majority report and the minority report. "I thought the points in the minority point were very well made and deserve serious consideration, he told Guardian Australia.
Asked about the dispute and the future of the organisation, the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, said the disagreement was a matter for the authority but the government had no plans to commission any further reports from it.
The authority is still required to complete two more reports: a review of the carbon farming initiative legislation and a review of the national greenhouse and energy reporting legislation.


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