Sinclair Davidson at Catallaxy has a post musing about whether carbon emissions trading permits would be regarded as property rights which would entitle the holder to compensation if abolished by a future federal government. The obvious context is the fact that Tony Abbott has promised that the Coalition would “roll back” Labor’s carbon pricing regime if elected. Apparently there’s been a debate about it in the AFR (to which I don’t subscribe).
Frankly, I think any such debate is misconceived at least to the extent that some (e.g. Labor’s Assistant Climate Change Minister Mark Dreyfus QC) seem to be suggesting that Abbott could not abolish carbon pricing without running the risk of incurring a large compensation bill to emitters whose permits were cancelled. My understanding of Labor’s proposal is that a tradeable carbon permits regime would not commence until at least 2015. The regime to commence next year as an interim measure is simply a carbon tax levied at a fixed price per tonne on particular emitters. It isn’t transferable nor does it set any specific limit on permitted emissions. The designated emitters simply pay the fixed price for whatever they emit. On no sensible view could that be regarded as a property right. It would be like suggesting that one’s income tax liability was a property right!
The carbon permits regime to be introduced in 2015 may well be a different matter, but if Abbott wins the next election (which currently looks long odds-on) it will never see the light of day. As far as I know the legislation to be introduced this year will not itself create the tradeable permits regime. In that situation I don’t see any constitutional impediments to Abbott abolishing Labor’s scheme following a 2013 election win.
Nevertheless, the question of whether carbon permits would be property for constitutional purposes is quite an interesting one in a purely abstract sense. I copy a relevant extract from my constitutional law study guide over the fold, followed by my tentative view about the constitutional status of carbon permits.
Purely statutory interests may be distinguishable from property rights and therefore not attract a constitutional requirement for payment of just terms compensation
Important cases on this issue include Health Insurance Commission v Peverill (1994) 179 CLR 226; Bienke v Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (1996) 63 FCR 567; Commonwealth of Australia v WMC Resources Ltd (1998) 152 ALR 1; Georgiadis v Australian and Overseas Telecommunications Corp (1994) 179 CLR 297. Also see Santos Ltd v Chaffey (2007) 231 CLR 651 (which dealt with entitlements under NT workers’ compensation legislation. The Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act contains a just terms guarantee effectively identical to s 51(xxxi) of the Commonwealth Constitution).
Mason CJ, Deane and Gaudron JJ explained the distinction between property rights and mere statutory entitlements in Peverill:
It is significant that the rights that have been terminated or diminished are statutory entitlements to receive payments from consolidated revenue which were not based on antecedent proprietary rights recognised by the general law. Rights of that kind are rights which, as a general rule, are inherently susceptible of variation. That is particularly so in the case of both the nature and quantum of welfare benefits, such as the provision of medicare benefits in respect of medical services.
Clearly government would become almost impossible if statutory entitlements once granted could never be cancelled or reduced without the Commonwealth incurring an obligation to compensate those whose entitlements were reduced or cancelled. However, the distinction between mere statutory rights and “property” rights is not without its conceptual problems. Almost all modern property rights are grounded in statute. Even property rights in land are grounded in Torrens or Strata title-type legislation. Hence the above distinction between mere statutory entitlements and ones “based on antecedent proprietary rights recognised by the general law”. Proprietary interests in land predated their statutory enactment, and were previously creatures of the common law; hence they are proprietary.
However, an argument along those lines failed in Bienke v Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (1996) 63 FCR 567, where the Full Federal Court held that reduction in the catch entitlement of prawn fishermen in the Northern Prawn Fishery was not an acquisition of property, but a variation of entitlements that was inherent in the very nature of the rights as created (i.e. those rights were inherently defeasible):
Mr Bennett argued that the appellant’s right to reap a resource was “analogous” to a profit a prendre or to a cause of action. This submission was primarily directed to the question whether the fishing boat licence could be regarded as property for the purposes of s.51(xxxi). The argument might also be relevant to whether the licence was based on “antecedent proprietary rights recognised by the general law” and therefore not inherently susceptible of variation: Health Insurance Commission v Peverill, at 237. As Georgiadis shows, legislation extinguishing a cause of action against the Commonwealth arising under the general law can constitute an acquisition of property for the purposes of s.51(xxxi), in part because the cause of action is not inherently susceptible of variation. But a fishing boat licence granted under s.9(2) of the Fisheries Act does not vest in the holder a cause of action under the general law, nor does it create an interest based on antecedent rights recognised by the general law. …
Legislation which prohibits the public from exercising a common law right, so as to prevent uncontrolled exploitation of a resource, and confers statutory rights on licensees to exploit that resource to a limited extent, might be regarded in one sense as creating a right analogous to a profit a prendre: Harper, at 335. However, the right is not a common law right, but rather a new species of statutory entitlement, the nature and extent of which depends entirely on the terms of the legislation.
Probably, the critical determining feature between property rights and “mere statutory entitlements” lies not so much in whether they have pre-existing common law equivalents, but whether the legislation itself manifests a sufficient intention that the rights created are proprietary in nature. For example, is statutory right/entitlement just an annually renewable licence or is it granted in perpetuity? Is it cancellable at will or only for cause after a hearing? Can it be used as security for a loan? Is the entitlement transferable as of right?
Would carbon permits be “property” having regard to those principles? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. The question of whether entitlements created by statute are proprietary in nature can only be answered by detailed consideration of the exact bundles of rights, obligations and conditions the legislation creates, and carbon permits legislation does not yet exist. However, my educated guess is that they probably would be held not to be proprietary in nature. They will certainly be tradeable, and that’s a key element of property rights. However, either the number of permits to which a holder will be entitled, or the amount of CO2 each permit will allow to be emitted, will vary from year to year and be progressively reduced over time depending on what carbon reduction targets the government adopts from time to time and what international agreements they may enter. Permits or licences that are created purely by statute and whose attached rights may vary from year to year at the whim of the government do not look at all like property rights. They’re much more like the “inherently defeasible” fishing licence catch entitlements considered in Bienke and held not to be property.
Update – See especially Tim Macknay’s comment at #5 below and my response.