South Africa

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Carbon Tax Bill: Correcting a distortion

Carbon Tax Bill: Correcting a distortion
There has to be an appropriate balance between the need to address climate change and economic growth. says Yunus Carrim, chairperson of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance. (Photo: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash)

In their article, Carbon Tax Bill gift-wrapped for big emitters, in Daily Maverick on 15 February 2019, Noelle Garcin and Nicole Rodel misrepresent me as saying: ‘The carbon tax could undermine the economy. We cannot just care about the environment.’

I have never spoken to Ms Rodel in my life and I had a fleeting exchange with Ms Garcin about a submission their organisation, African Climate Reality Project (ACRP), made on the Carbon Tax Bill.

When confronted about this in a telephonic exchange on 15 February, Ms Garcin admitted that she had not recorded our conversation, had not taken notes, was not doing an interview with me (after all I phoned her out of the blue, as it were), had recalled what I said from memory, and failed to check with me whether she could quote me and whether the “quote” was accurate.

She apologised and agreed to rectify this in a brief statement to Daily Maverick, but despite several robust exchanges with her, she has since reneged on this. So now I send this delayed response, following her failure to correct the matter.

My very brief response:

Obviously, Ms Garcin and Ms Rodel have every right to express their views; basically, that the carbon tax rate we opted for in the Bill is too low, and that we sold out to the big greenhouse emitters in the interests of investment, economic growth and jobs in a false dichotomy between economic growth and environmental sustainability. That’s a reasonable argument from the point of view of a climate change NGO and others, and there are several points that they make that I, in fact, agree with.

But Ms Garcin had no right to slide in a crude, skewed, over-simplistic, tendentious, out-of-context “quote” from a fleeting overall exchange I had with her over the phone without checking the “quote” with me first, given the purpose and context of our conversation. There was, in fact, absolutely no need to misrepresent me to make the reasonable overall argument that ACRP holds to.

Let me explain. The standing committee on finance takes submissions from the public until the time we are about to vote on a bill. And on the very day we voted on the Carbon Tax Bill, 6 February 2019, we considered a further submission from the ACRP, even though the issues raised in its submission had been covered already. I rang her to facilitate this and explain to her our approach.

So there I was, in a rushed call to her while driving through congested traffic on my way to Parliament, speaking without the rigour and precision I would have, were I chairing a meeting, like almost all people in that situation; and I certainly cannot recall exactly what I said, but I am very clear that to reduce our conversation to that “quote” from me above is just so crude and so wrong.

When we have highly contested bills, as the chairperson of the committee, acting within committee mandates and complementing other subcommittee negotiations, I often reach out to the contesting stakeholders to see if there are any possibilities of agreement on at least some issues in a bill in a “give-and-take approach” and I report back to the committee for it to process matters.

It has never, ever before happened, not since I first started chairing parliamentary committees in 1998, that a stakeholder publishes in the public domain what I am supposed to have said to them before or after a Bill has been voted on. And what is more reprehensible in this case is that Ms Garcin did not bother to ask if she could quote me and whether the “quote” is accurate.

How does a committee chair try to negotiate at least some compromises on a highly contested bill for a committee to process further if stakeholders spell out in the public domain what they think the chair has said to them as part of an intricate mediation process?

Parliament’s Legal Services Unit confirms that it was unethical in the context of the nature of our conversation for Ms Garcin to “quote” me, especially without checking with me. It violates the norms that apply to an exchange such as I had with Ms Garcin on 6 February.

Our committee worked, in fact, with the portfolio committee on environmental affairs on the bill. They largely decided on policy issues. So what are the views of the majority in these committees? Of course, we believe we have to care enough about the environment. How can we not? And, of course, we shouldn’t counter-pose economic growth and the need to tackle climate change! We have to find the right balances, not sacrifice the one for the other.

Actually, we would have preferred a higher tax, but we agreed that we should phase the tax in the beginning with the rate we voted for. It will be reviewed over time.

It’s the same approach the standing committee on finance and the portfolio committee on health took on the sugar beverages tax — and we arrived at the balances after endless negotiations with Cosatu and other trade unions concerned about job losses, NGOs determined on the highest sugar beverages tax possible, and African emerging sugar cane farmers and big business totally opposed to the bill (see, for example, Health-e News, Sugar war is a microcosm of SA’s political rot, Daily Maverick, 27 November 2017).

We even took the Bill through Nedlac to try to get some consensus on at least some issues.

With the Carbon Tax Bill, we had similar balances to consider: Cosatu and other trade unions concerned about job losses, the private sector mainly opposed to the carbon tax, and NGOs wanting a high carbon tax. We took the Carbon Tax Bill through Nedlac too. In the case of the sugar beverages tax, the NGOs were hot on our heels, mobilised civil society, and presented excellent submissions, including from very accomplished technical experts.

But in the case of the Carbon Tax Bill the NGOs were much weaker in terms of numbers and quality of engagement, and I many times said in the meetings that it was disappointing that the NGOs were not more active on this bill, as Ms Garcin herself acknowledges. And while we have to do right, whatever the performance of the NGOs, it may partly be that the final balances we arrived at in that stage in the processing of carbon tax issues are also a reflection of the ACRP’s weaknesses.

As I see it, the ACRP was rather lazy; it was included as an organisation in the submission on the public hearings on the bill by a network of organisations it belongs to and made a single formal submission of its own (Who knows? Maybe because they needed to show to their donors that they’re doing something? I can’t say for sure, but maybe their Daily Maverick article was partly a rationalisation for their inept engagement on the bill?). In both the case of the sugar beverages tax and the carbon tax there was huge pressure on us to postpone the bills — but we refused to budge.

Just consider the complexities of Cosatu’s position. Cosatu is a 1.6 million-strong, progressive, socialist-oriented trade union federation which is committed to tackling the health dangers of high obesity and climate change, and, at the same time, ensuring that there are no job losses. So it’s just not true that it’s the big emitters alone who raised job losses in the Carbon Tax Bill debates, or that our decisions on the bill were made to purely suit them.

Cosatu was tough with us on the Carbon Tax Bill because it argued that the commitments made in Nedlac before the sugar beverages tax bill was passed had not been implemented and so it was sceptical that Nedlac would be able to enforce any commitments made in regard to saving jobs with the implementation of the carbon tax.

Ms Garcin and Ms Rodel say that there needs to be an effective carbon tax in the interests of people generally, “particularly the workers and the poor”. Agreed. But are they implying that Cosatu’s approach to the Carbon Tax Bill goes against the interests of their worker members and the poor?

Ms Garcin and Ms Rodel also accuse the committee of not ensuring enough public consultation. Yet the ACRP’s submission was considered even on the day we voted. It’s interesting that they don’t mention that. Nor do they say that in our 6 February telephonic exchange, I told Ms Garcin that the ARCP was welcome to send a Cape Town representative to make a short presentation at the committee (yes, it was short notice, but still) even though the two key issues raised had already been covered.

And that in the committee meeting that day I summarised their two key arguments. National Treasury replied to ACRP’s whole submission in writing for the committee to consider. Actually, we had eight meetings on the bill between 13 February 2017 and 6 February 2019. So we certainly didn’t rush the bill.

There were public hearings on the bill, with National Treasury replying to the submissions in the following meeting, stakeholders responding to National Treasury’s response and National Treasury then replying to the stakeholders. The finance and environmental committees directed National Treasury and the Department of Environmental Affairs to meet stakeholders in between parliamentary committee meetings to seek to address the differences on the Bill and report back to the committees to take final decisions.

This entanglement followed an eight-year process of consultation with stakeholders by the National Treasury and the Department of Environmental Affairs.

I also don’t think Ms Garcin understands the way money bills are usually processed in Parliament.

In brief, we initially process a draft bill through having public hearings and subsequent deliberations on it, constantly engaging with public stakeholders, and when we have finalised a bill it is sent to the minister, who then usually introduces the bill with the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement in October each year.

We do not then go through the whole process of engaging with the same bill again after it has been introduced by a minister. This process is followed in part because of the onerous requirements in the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Amendment Act (MBA) to effect amendments to money bills.

We are reviewing this process and have effected changes to the MBA and have requested the Finance and Appropriations Committees in the 6th term of Parliament after the 8 May elections to consider making further amendments, including to provide for more public participation in the processing of the budget and money bills.

In respect of inadequate civil society participation in the bill, Ms Garcin and Ms Rodel say in their article that “civil society raised this problem regularly” with the committee. I’ve checked with Mr Allen Wicomb, our extremely hard-working, experienced and efficient committee secretary and he says that he has no knowledge of either the ACRP or “civil society” raising this with the committee. “Regularly”?

It’s possible that part of my differences with Ms Garcin’s attitude is to be explained by the very different roles we play.

In a talk on “Towards a more activist parliament more engaged with civil society” in 2010 I noted:

Often civil society organisations can be very narrowly focused and quite dogmatic. It is sometimes surprisingly difficult to get civil society organisations to see their demands in the context of the whole terrain in which there are other competing demands and for them to accept a ‘give-and-take’ approach.

Some of these attitudes are understandable given the very specific causes many civil society organisations invest considerable energy in. But then if MPs are to be more understanding of the nature of civil society organisations, civil society organisations also need to be more understanding about the nature of MPs’ (roles and responsibilities).”

This spat with Ms Garcin is the first I’ve had with an NGO since becoming an MP in 1994 and this reply to Ms Garcin’s and Ms Rodel’s article could easily have been avoided if Ms Garcin had in the first place done what she agreed to do in our telephonic exchange on 15 February: Write a few lines to Daily Maverick to explain that she used that “quote” from me without my consent, and that in the context of our 6 February telephonic exchange it was not appropriate to do so.

The spat with Ms Garcin has a surrealistic feel. My main area of activism in the UDF in the ’80s was in the civic movement; I am very committed to tackling climate change; I am a Gramscian Marxist oriented to active public participation in decision-making; one of my areas of interest since 1994 has been on active public participation in legislatures. I have spoken and written about this many times.

I hope that this dismissal of Ms Garcin’s behaviour will not be seen as a typical politician’s dismissal of the value and importance of civil society in the legislation-making processes. No, please, no! We need more active public participation in the legislatures, now more than ever before, given the huge challenges we confront and the capacity constraints of the state, as the ANC and government have been increasingly drawing attention to.

In short: it’s not that we believe that climate change must be sacrificed to the economy. We believe that in the present context, given many competing interests, there has to be an appropriate balance between the need to address climate change and economic growth as part of a phased approach in the context of our country’s needs.

For now, this is where our committees have got to — basically, opening the door of a carbon tax. It’s no more than a phase in an ongoing process. It’s for the NGOs and others in civil society to work for further improvements. But, very importantly, they need to engage with Cosatu and other trade union federations and trade unions worried about job losses as much as these unions are committed to tackling climate change.

The NGOs also need to engage more with the private sector. And they certainly need to engage with National Treasury, DEA and MPs more vigorously and adroitly.

Of course, Ms Garcin and Ms Rodel have every right to have a fundamentally different view from our parliamentary committees, but Ms Garcin does not have the right to distort my views the way she did. And even if she did quote me correctly, what she did was unethical, unprecedented and unnecessary. DM

Yunus Carrim is the National Assembly Standing Committee on Finance Chairperson and an SACP Central Committee and Politburo member.

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