As the government walks away from pricing carbon and dismantles climate initiatives, it reveals itself as our most radical in decades. By Mike Seccombe.

Greg Hunt’s hostile attack on the environment

Environment minister Greg Hunt.

A couple of weeks ago, when the United Nations Environment Program released its annual update on the progress the world’s major countries were making towards their greenhouse gas reduction targets, it did not get a lot of coverage in Australia.

This was understandable, in the circumstances. The report got a bit lost amid all the controversy that accompanied the G20 leaders’ meeting in Brisbane, where a succession of world leaders – the United States’ Barack Obama, China’s Xi Jinping, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron, France’s François Hollande, India’s Narendra Modi – embarrassed Prime Minister Tony Abbott by indicating in various ways that they were serious about the global climate crisis that Abbott would rather have ignored.

The detailed but somewhat dense “emissions gap” report by the UN simply was not as sexy in news terms as the serial discomfitures of our prime minister by a succession of the world’s most powerful people.

Yet the UNEP report was actually more direct in its criticism of the Abbott government’s performance than any of those big politicians.

“Brazil, China, the EU, India and the Russian Federation are on track to achieve their pledges,” it said.

“Conversely, Australia is no longer on track, due to the abolition of its carbon-pricing mechanism.”

Even if Australia’s media – with one or two exceptions – did not pay much attention to this smackdown of the Abbott government’s climate policy, it sure looks as if someone in the government noticed.

For this week, even as delegates from around the world were gathering in Lima, Peru, for the latest round of negotiations towards stronger action on climate change, it was revealed that the Abbott government was cutting its funding to the UNEP by more than 80 per cent.

Instead of $1.2 million this year, Australia would kick in just $200,000. Over the next four years, the cuts would total $4 million.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said it was simply a matter of priorities. The government had better things to do with the money than donate it to “bureaucratic support” people at the UN.

“You’ve always got to make choices in a difficult budget environment,” said Hunt.

He seemed sincere. But then he seemed sincere too when he was the Coalition’s spokesman on climate change under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. At that time, the policy was to support an emissions trading scheme.

The foppish Hunt is apt to become petulant when it is noted that his university thesis argued for market-based solutions to addressing pollution issues.

These days he advocates the government’s so-called Direct Action policy, which would pay carbon-polluting industries to reduce their emissions. 

In the grand scheme of things, of course, the withdrawn UNEP funds were small beer, but that’s not the point. The decision looked very much like payback.

And the suspicion is made stronger by the record of this government in targeting those who advocate for environmental issues in general, and climate change in particular.

Heck, this government is prepared to go after anyone. Even the president of the United States, who made the entirely reasonable statement that climate change poses a threat to the Great Barrier Reef.

1 . Showing hostility

As we hit the halfway point of the Abbott government’s first term (it is 15 months old and the average time between Australian federal elections is 30.3 months), it seems fair to say its unceasing attacks on the environment and environmentalists mark this as the most hostile federal government in many decades.

It has been relentless virtually from day one, as Tim Flannery, former head of the Climate Commission, can attest.

“Almost the first act of Greg Hunt was to phone me and say we were being abolished,” says Flannery.

“Not only did they abolish it – we knew that was coming – they took down the website, on which millions of dollars had been sent, and [which] was being used by people like teachers, farmers and others all around Australia.

“So we got together with some bright young people to look at crowdfunding. And within a week we had come back as a not-for-profit organisation, the Climate Council. We now have a budget of about $1.75 million a year, thanks to individual Australians. And we find we can be more effective outside government than inside.”

The Abbott government saved itself some money there, but there is good reason to believe its action was motivated as much by ideology as by fiscal restraint. It and its backers in the fossil fuel industry just don’t like anyone talking about climate change.

Consider its attempts to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The CEFC is commonly derided by members of the Abbott government as “Bob Brown’s Bank”, but it was set up with a board and staff of hard-headed finance and energy sector experts, and chaired by Jillian Broadbent, one of Australia’s most prominent businesswomen and a Reserve Bank board member.

The CEFC’s role is to co-invest in and secure finance for renewable energy projects, on commercial terms. Thus government stands to make money from its operation.

Yet the Abbott government remains intent on shutting it down. So far the senate has blocked their plans.

So why the determination to abolish a body that not only helps preserve the environment, but also looks to return a tidy profit?

2 . Broad attacks

David Ritter, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia, sees it as part of a broad opposition to “green” concerns.

“They seem to see this as another front in the culture wars,” he says.

“I think that’s deeply sad. In the liberal tradition, the relationship with the natural world is fundamental to our experience of freedom,” says Ritter.

“In order to bring on this attack on the environment they have to ignore major parts of the ideological heritage that underpins their party.”

The reality is, the Abbott government is way out in right field on the environment, even by comparison with past Coalition governments and conservative governments overseas.

Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, points to concrete examples of this.

Another instrumentality the government is trying to kill is the National Water Commission, which was established to give expert advice on the allocation of scarce water resources in this, the driest inhabited continent.

At time of writing, a bill to abolish it was listed for debate in the senate. It appeared likely to be defeated. 

“The National Water Commission was set up by the Howard government,” says O’Shanassy. “The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act also was put in place under Howard.”

The EPBC Act, which was designed to protect and manage the effects of development on fauna, flora and heritage considered to be of national or international significance, is considered to be Australia’s key federal environmental protection law.

But the Abbott government considers it a hindrance to its plan to devolve environmental approvals back to state governments so as to allow the acceleration of major resource projects.

“Coalition governments have in the past put some good environmental policies in place. There are a number of others I could name which were done under Howard.

“These people are way out to the right of the Howard government. I can’t recall another government as bad as this one. They seem almost to take pride in showing ignorance and causing outrage.” 

She quotes Tony Abbott’s blunt assertions that “coal is good for humanity” and that Australia has “too many trees locked away in protected forests”.

Then there was Joe Hockey’s declaration that the sight of wind turbines erected near Lake George ruined his drive from Sydney to Canberra. He found them “utterly offensive”.

One might wonder then what the treasurer makes of the flight of renewable energy investment from Australia, propelled by uncertainty about government policy.

 Perhaps this pleases the aesthete in him.

“People were looking at investing billions, for a return over decades,” says Flannery. “Obviously they get a bit nervous. They don’t want to invest into uncertainty.

“We’ve lost about $1.8 billion in potential investment to overseas just this year. That’s about 70 per cent of the investment that would otherwise have been made here,” he says.

3 . Hockey blinkered

All the indications are that Hockey truly doesn’t get the reality of climate change. Not at all.

When asked by Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders program last month whether he thought climate change constituted a risk to economic growth, he answered bluntly, “No. No, I don’t. Absolutely not.”

Little wonder then that many environmentalists despair.

Space does not permit a comprehensive list of all the government legislation, funding cuts, appointments, comments and other actions that have outraged environmentalists, but let’s touch quickly on a few more examples,
in no particular order.

The government asked the United Nations to delist 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian World Heritage forests. It was refused.

It has initiated a review of Australia’s network of marine reserves, much of which is also a legacy of the Howard government, as well as the Rudd and Gillard governments. Years of scientific analysis and community and stakeholder consultation will be redone. The clear intent is to reduce protection.

The government has defunded Environmental Defenders Offices around the country.

Even given Abbott’s reluctance to engage with the scientific evidence of global warming – you might recall he once called it “crap”, although he has latterly said he accepts the reality – he saw no need to have a minister for science.

And the budget suggested the government does not think it needs nearly so many scientists either. It cut more than $110 million in funding from the CSIRO over the forward estimates, resulting in some 500 job losses, many of them in environmentally related areas such as marine and climate science.

Then there were Hunt’s rushed approvals of massive new coalmines and port facilities in Queensland, apparently driven by the desire to push more coal into the world market while there still was a world market for coal.

The indications, as we’ve reported here before, are that they were not quick enough. The massive coal deposits of the Galilee Basin now look uneconomic due to the plunge in coal prices.

Community opposition also resulted in a change to the plan to dump millions of tonnes of dredge spoil from the associated Abbot Point coal terminal expansion in Great Barrier Reef waters. They will now be dumped in sensitive wetlands instead.

Hunt also approved the West Australian government’s controversial, and now abandoned, plan to catch and kill sharks to protect swimmers.

But his pre-election promise to send a customs ship to Antarctic waters to monitor Japanese whaling was broken.

Coincident with last month’s G20 meeting, the United Nations pressed the world’s rich countries to contribute to a new climate Adaptation Fund, a $10 billion pool of money intended to help poor countries adjust.

The US has pledged $3 billion. Britain, under a conservative government, agreed to $1.1 billion. Japan, also under a conservative government, promised $1.5 billion, and Germany and France about a billion each. Even Tony Abbott’s “ideological soulmate”, Stephen Harper of Canada, has committed $265 million. Most developed countries – Korea, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands – have pledged, as have other less-well-off countries such as Mexico and the Czech Republic.

Not Australia though.

4 . RET review

Perhaps the most cynical of the government’s anti-environment ploys was the review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), under which the previous government had committed to having 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity sourced from renewables by 2020.

The fix was in from the start, with the appointment of a self-declared climate change sceptic (read “denier”), septuagenarian businessman Dick Warburton, the former chairman of the petrochemical company Caltex, to lead the review.

Things did not go to plan, however. Modelling conducted for the review showed that while the RET would push up electricity prices in the short term, it would bring them down in the medium term.

In any case, the Warburton report findings became irrelevant because it became apparent the government could not muster the numbers in the senate to knock off the RET.

Instead it proposed to keep it but cut the target from 41,000 gigawatt-hours to about 25,000. The Labor opposition agreed to negotiate, but only on the basis of a much smaller cut. The negotiations failed to find a compromise, leaving the RET in limbo, which no doubt suits the fossil fuel industry fine. The uncertainty is stopping investment in renewables.

Now we come to the biggest issue of all, and arguably the government’s biggest win since the election, the abolition of the Gillard government’s carbon tax and its replacement with Greg Hunt’s Direct Action policy.

Put simply, the new scheme differs from the old one in that, instead of taxing big polluters for polluting, it will pay them to pollute less.

But the details are anything but simple, as a result of amendments demanded by the Palmer United Party and independent Nick Xenophon in return for their support in the senate.

The consensus among environmentalists who actually understand it all is that the legislation was significantly improved as a result.

In particular, they like safeguard provisions inserted by Xenophon, which ensure that industry cannot simply take the government’s money for emissions reductions and then not reduce them. 

These provisions are seen by some as a backdoor way of allowing the Direct Action policy to evolve into a means of putting a price on carbon, by exacting penalties from recalcitrant polluters.

Which, if they are reading it correctly, poses an interesting question. Did Hunt sneak one past his colleagues? He was once a fervent believer in market-based solutions.

That 1990 university thesis he co-authored was titled “A Tax to Make the Polluter Pay”, and its conclusion was that “harnessing natural economic forces” was the best way to effect change.

Others think that theory altogether too Machiavellian. At best they see Hunt’s position in the Abbott government as being analogous to that of the minister for women’s affairs in Saudi Arabia: that he is more enlightened than the others, but not much. He looks good only in comparison with those among his colleagues who would have preferred to have no carbon abatement scheme at all.

Others don’t even give Hunt that much credit. They see a careerist politician prepared to shift his position as required for advancement.

In any case, he has delivered big time for his leader and his colleagues. They went to the election promising to abolish the carbon tax, and Hunt made it happen.

That’s very important to members of the Abbott government, given all the promises made before the election that were subsequently broken or blocked in the parliament, or that were, like the “no cuts to the ABC” pledge, simply lies.

5 . Promises, promises

In times of stress, there is a mantra they all repeat: “We promised to repeal the carbon tax and the mining tax and stop the boats.”

Whenever there is a suggestion they have not achieved much that is positive in more than a year of governing, they refer to that holy trinity of promises kept.

Let’s go to examples.

On Monday this week, when Abbott held his epic press conference and mea culpa over the ABC and various other snafus of the preceding week, he repeated it. Likewise in parliamentary question time on Wednesday, Hockey was doing his best to appear like a man with a plan for the economy, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary.

New official statistics had just come out showing Australia’s gross domestic product had all but stalled in the previous three months. It was far worse than even the most pessimistic analysts’ forecasts.

Respected economists were talking of an “income recession”, a new term referring to the fact that while Australia is not yet in recession according to the traditional measures, the net disposable income of Australians has declined by 0.8 per cent in the quarter and a whole per cent over the year.

The dollar is falling like a stone. The outgoing head of treasury, Martin Parkinson, was warning of declining living standards without major economic reform. Meanwhile the government’s benighted attempts at reform – $22 billion of them – remained stuck in the senate, for the very good reason that non-government senators know the measures are recognised by electors as being grossly regressive in their impact.

The government’s core election promise of returning the budget to surplus was disappearing into the distant future, and the bottom line had just deteriorated by another $3.5 billion, that being the extra cost to reform the university sector, after the senate rejected the original plan the previous day.

The treasurer sounded tired. It was another dispiriting day in a long succession of dispiriting days at the fag end of a dispiriting parliamentary year.

Naturally, Hockey fell to talking about the abolition of the carbon tax.

“Thank God we got rid of the carbon tax, which hit at the beginning of the September quarter,” said Hockey. “Energy consumption lifted, that is quite a stark indicator of how significant it’s been.”

Well, yes, the abolition of the carbon tax has been very significant, but not in the way Hockey suggested.

The true significance of the abolition of the carbon tax was shown in this week’s carbon emissions index report, from analysts Pitt & Sherry, which flatly contradicted the treasurer.

In fact demand had fallen, the report said. What had increased was emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to climate change. They rose some 3.2 million tonnes. The abolition of the carbon tax resulted in the share of electricity generated from renewable sources falling and the share generated from fossil fuels, particularly the dirtiest of them, brown coal, increasing.

“If the trend continues,” says Hugh Saddler, who wrote the report, “by the end of the current financial year, it will amount to an increase of about 1.5 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.”

Saddler notes Australia’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent by 2020.

“So the task has got about a third harder in just one year,” says Saddler.

 Of course the treasurer did not mention that. Nor did he mention the fact that the abolition of the carbon tax is part of the reason the government is having so much trouble finding the money to spend on things such as health and education.

Hockey’s own budget papers show the total revenue foregone as a result of scrapping the tax is $6.22 billion over the next three years.

Add to that the $3.2 billion cost of Direct Action, and you begin to see that the government’s environmental agenda is actually pretty expensive.

Costly to the budget, to taxpayers. Costly in terms of services not provided. And, above all, to the planet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "On the Hunt for an environment plan".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.