Opinion Pieces


July 05, 2017

In the lead-up to the 2015 general election in the United Kingdom, the leaders of the three major parties sat down together and signed a statement on climate change policy that would seem unimaginable to Australians. They agreed that “climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today” and undertook to “to work together across party lines to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act”. They pledged “to accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient, low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation”, meaning that the last coal-fired power station will be closed in the United Kingdom in 2025 at the latest.

The 2015 UK election – true to the pledge signed by party leaders – saw no real debate over climate change or energy policy, other than a minor skirmish over the balance between on-shore and off-shore wind power. In the context of the deep cuts in pollution and the profound transition in the energy sector agreed by the parties, the absence of bare-knuckled fighting over these policies was amazing for Australian observers. Within 12 months, UK politics was then thrown into turmoil by the referendum decision to terminate the nation’s membership of the European Union – Brexit. But in the wake of that momentous vote, the Committee on Climate Change still recommended an ambitious carbon reduction target for the five-year period 2028-32 that is equivalent to Australia committing to a 61% cut against the 2005 baseline used by the Australian government. The budget was quietly endorsed by both parties shortly after.

The politics of climate change could hardly be more different in Australia than they appear to be in the UK. Climate change – or “global warming” – only emerged as a political issue across the world less than 30 years ago. In that time, Australia has been unable to reach an enduring consensus about even the core elements of a policy response to an issue that scientists agree will present enormous challenges to our vulnerable continent. And, on the rare occasions a consensus has appeared to be forming, it has been struck down by a combination of industry, media and political opposition.

In the earliest days of climate change politics, the parties were much closer. The global Toronto conference of 1988 had called upon the world’s developed nations to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, and to reduce them by 20% by 2005. Just before the 1990 election, Labor’s Graham Richardson convinced cabinet to adopt the Toronto position as an “interim” target. Liberal leader Andrew Peacock took an even more ambitious position to the 1990 election: which lasted through John Hewson’s leadership and the 1993 election.

But those plans – and the political consensus that underpinned them – started to unravel in the wake of the 1991 recession. A number of state Labor governments fell to new Liberal administrations that were heavily influenced by hardline neoliberal thinking. And, across the world, industry groups and rightwing thinktanks started to push back against the momentum that had been building around global action on climate change since Toronto. This pushback was built on two pillars; to emphasise the economic downside of taking action on climate change, and to introduce doubt into the public discussion about the science.

John Howard embraced the rightwing handbook. While every additional scientific report added to the consensus about human activity’s role in changing the climate, Howard and most of his ministers framed the matter as a continuing “debate” that was not yet settled.

Howard’s ability to express his true views about this policy area expanded with the election of George W Bush in 2000. Under Bush and Howard, Australia and the United States became the only two developed nations not to ratify the Kyoto protocol (until Kevin Rudd did so in 2007). But things were not all going Howard’s way. Labor state governments moved to fill the vacuum in climate and renewable energy policy Howard had left at a national level. States enacted a range of programs to support greater energy efficiency and the spread of renewable energy. They also established the National Emissions Trading Taskforce in 2004 to build pressure for a market mechanism to bring down carbon pollution.

A range of other factors started to swing the momentum back in favour of action on climate change. The devastating millennium drought in Australia almost certainly increased public consciousness of a changing climate, as well as support for action.

And globally, Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, popularised the cause of climate action. Howard started to look out of touch, finally yielded to that pressure and announced that his government would introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to commence in 2011.

It’s tempting to view Howard’s capitulation to pressure on the ETS as evidence of a broader acceptance of the science of climate change and the need to take strong action. But in 2013, Howard himself admitted that his 2007 policy was simply a political device – nothing more than a pragmatic recognition that he was facing, to use his words, a “perfect storm” politically against a Labor opposition that had more “fashionable views” on such matters.

Rudd became prime minister in 2007 with huge public support for his plan to take strong action on climate change. Rudd decided to act on the basis that the major parties had reached a consensus on the establishment of an ETS.

Throughout that period, though, the Liberal opposition argued that it should all be put off until after the Copenhagen climate conference scheduled for the end of 2009, a tactic that helped to delay the day of reckoning within the Liberal party room.

Rudd has been criticised for not being more conciliatory to Turnbull. This conveniently ignores the broader political environment of the time. While the government’s climate policy was an important one, Rudd was locking horns with Turnbull over a range of other contested policy areas. Turnbull’s problem was not that Rudd wasn’t being nice enough to him – it was that the right wing in the Coalition was on the move.

In November 2009, Penny Wong and the Coalition’s climate change spokesman, Ian Macfarlane, negotiated a package that could be passed through the parliament, but Turnbull was replaced as Liberal leader within days by Tony Abbott and a secret ballot of the Coalition party room rejected the Wong–Macfarlane agreement. Any prospect of consensus between the major parties had been dealt a death blow.

On Abbott’s first full day as Liberal leader, the Greens inexplicably delivered him an enormous strategic victory, voting with him to defeat Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. This short-sighted tactical manoeuvre allowed Abbott to begin to build the momentum that has hamstrung long-term climate action for almost a decade. Had the CPRS passed the parliament in 2009, an emissions trading scheme would likely have been operating for some years before Abbott was able to become prime minister. And it’s likely that Abbott would not have been able to build a platform to tear down such a large reform after that time.

In the wake of that Senate defeat, Rudd invested enormous political capital in the prospects of the annual climate conference to reinvigorate momentum around climate action in Australia. But the Copenhagen conference proved to be a disaster. The optics of the meeting were dominated by a breakdown between developing nations (especially China) and the developed world. Rudd reached the end of 2009 confronted by a broad sense in the community that the consensus around climate change that appeared to have existed in 2007 lay in tatters.

Labor’s political position on climate change was allowed to drift through the first few months of 2010 while the new opposition leader, Abbott, worked tirelessly attacking Labor’s “great big tax on everything”. The drift ended when a decision by the government’s leadership to put the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme “on ice” was leaked to journalist Lenore Taylor. The community reacted strongly. Labor lost the support of around 1 million voters in just a fortnight. One voter told me in my electorate of Port Adelaide, “I was never really sold on the whole climate issue, but was willing to back you in anyway – but when you just suddenly dropped the thing because things got too hard, you lost me. I thought you were all piss-weak.”

Within weeks, Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard as Labor leader and prime minister. The new PM immediately reiterated her support for strong climate policy, promising to “reprosecute the case for a carbon price at home and abroad” if re-elected later that year. But Gillard was alive to the ferocity of the attack on climate policy by Abbott and the deterioration in community confidence about the best way forward. She tried to break the logjam by announcing a citizen’s assembly that would be tasked with developing a consensus, an idea Gillard later conceded was “probably very naive”. Gillard was judged more for her commitment that “there will be no ‘carbon tax’ under the government I lead”. Though she also said near the end of the campaign, “I don’t rule out the possibility of a CPRS, a market-based mechanism.”

In late 2011 Gillard and minister for climate change Greg Combet achieved passage of a world-leading package of measures to reduce carbon pollution and shift the Australian economy to a clean energy future. This period was undoubtedly the low-point for any political consensus around climate change in Australia. Abbott led a campaign against the “carbon tax” that was unprecedented in its relentless and hysterical nature. The Liberals and their fellow travellers repeated lie.

Outside Parliament House, Abbott and other Liberal frontbenchers joined protests featuring signs describing Gillard as “Juliar” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”.

Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones suggested on radio that the prime minister should be taken “out to sea in a chaff bag”, and that her father had “died of shame”.

The lived experience of the government’s reforms demonstrated his claims to be massively overblown. Many areas of the economy saw no impact whatsoever. Woolworths confirmed that only five products increased in price as a result of the “carbon tax” from its range of 40,000. The most significant price impact was seen in electricity, given the high reliance in Australia on coal-fired power. But that impact was modest compared to the price increases seen in previous years from the gold-plating of the electricity networks. And Labor’s household assistance package lifted pensions and benefits to cover the projected price impacts, as well as tripling the tax-free threshold for wage earners

There is little evidence that Labor’s price on carbon had much to do with our eventual election loss in 2013. Polling conducted by JWS Research found that only 3% of Coalition voters nominated “repealing the carbon tax” as the most important in the Coalition toolkit, less than the number motivated to vote for the Coalition on the basis of its roads policy.

To the limited extent that the carbon tax did contribute to Labor’s loss of government, it was more a product of the attack Abbott made that Gillard’s decision to introduce an ETS was a breach of her promise that there would be no carbon tax under her government. In early 2017, Peta Credlin admitted that Gillard’s policy “wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know … but we made it a carbon tax”. It’s clear, that we underestimated the power of this point of attack. Gillard’s dismissal of Abbott’s accusation as a “silly little collateral debate” fell flat with too many voters.

The truth is that we in Labor had sent too many mixed signals about climate policy in the previous few years. When he described climate change as the “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”, Rudd gave voice to many in the community whose frustration at Howard’s inaction on climate change had reached breaking point. But then, Rudd’s decision to drop the legislation we’d argued would meet that challenge led many people to doubt the depth of Labor’s commitment and courage.

Abbott’s repeal of all of Australia’s climate change laws represented the first time any country had reversed a decision to place a price on carbon. It was a heavy blow, but one that had been clearly telegraphed. By contrast, Abbott had given no indication of any intention to walk away from the long-standing bipartisan support for Australia’s renewable energy Target (RET). Bipartisan support for the RET was a critical factor in attracting local and overseas businesses to make investments lasting several decades.

But, in just one infamous radio interview with the well-known opponent of renewable energy, Alan Jones, Tony Abbott brought that all undone. Abbott announced that he would conduct a review of the RET “because the renewable energy targets are having an impact on prices”. Unsurprisingly, investors were shellshocked by Abbott’s decision to walk away from this election commitment. Investment collapsed by 88%, and thousands of jobs were lost.

Labor was deeply concerned that, if the investor uncertainty around renewables was allowed to drift, the industry would simply walk away from Australia. For that reason, we accepted the calls from the renewable energy industry to negotiate a revised bipartisan position on the RET.

The revised RET will ensure that around 23% of Australia’s electricity is generated from renewable energy by 2020 – higher than Labor’s original 2007 election policy to achieve 20% by 2020.

After only two years in the job, Abbott was replaced as prime minister in September 2015. Pollsters reported widespread relief among voters at the demise of Abbott and his abrasive brand of hard-rightwing politics. Many Australians remember that Turnbull said in 2009 that he “would not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am”. And people broadly respected that principled stance.

Any hope that Turnbull’s return to the leadership would herald a shift in climate policy faded quickly. Coalition MPs told reporters that Turnbull was only supported to return as leader on the condition that he promised to retain Abbott’s climate and energy policies in full. Turnbull described Labor’s 50% renewable energy commitment (by 2030) as “reckless” and waxed lyrical about the effectiveness of Abbott’s Direct Action policy.

Abbott’s Direct Action legislation requires a review of the scheme to be conducted in 2017. Some optimists held out hope that the Turnbull of 2009 would again find his voice, but Turnbull’s announcement of this review just before Christmas 2016 removed any doubt about his intentions. His minister Josh Frydenberg quite reasonably indicated that the review would consider adopting an “emissions intensity scheme” in the electricity sector, a rare opportunity for a bipartisan reform in energy policy. But Abbott and rightwing warrior Senator Cory Bernadi opposed the scheme even being considered. Their public warnings to Turnbull frightened him into overruling his minister in just 36 hours. And, with that, any real hope that the 2017 review would yield positive change on climate change policy disappeared.

This opinion piece was originally published in Guardian Australia. It is an edited extract of Climate Wars by Mark Butler, out 3 July from MUP.