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The new minister for the environment and energy, Josh Frydenberg, is ready to balance his portfolios and disappoint critics on the left and right. By Karen Middleton.

Josh Frydenberg’s approach to environment and energy

Josh Frydenberg’s ministerial office is crammed with his heroes: black-and-white portraits of one of his predecessors in the Victorian seat of Kooyong, Sir Robert Menzies, and British wartime prime minister Sir Winston Churchill; and a casual colour shot of United States president Ronald Reagan in a bomber jacket and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a long coat, strolling at Camp David.

In the corner, looking down over the ministerial desk, is the official portrait of a fellow Jewish Australian and long-time mentor, the former governor-general Sir Zelman Cowan, at whose state funeral Frydenberg gave a moving eulogy in 2011.

The new minister for the environment and energy – who previously worked as an adviser to Alexander Downer and John Howard, and then for Deutsche Bank – is struggling to shoehorn his combined portfolios and their associated staff and furniture into these new digs. Meetings in the conference room require participants to shimmy around a table that’s too big for the space and squeeze into chairs that don’t really fit. Photographs of Australia’s marine wildlife – penguins on the Antarctic ice and a gigantic turtle gliding through the waters of the Great Barrier Reef – bring calm to the enforced clutter.

A lawyer and holder of master’s degrees from Oxford and Harvard universities, in international relations and public administration respectively, Josh Frydenberg is a proficient student.

It’s an invaluable skill as he absorbs the detail of a big portfolio where he has no junior ministerial back-up.

“I want to just give you some thoughts,” Frydenberg says, sitting down to an interview with The Saturday Paper, an A4 notebook of filled handwritten pages in front of him.

“I think this is an extremely important machinery-of-government change. It was the most significant machinery-of-government change announced by the prime minister with the reshuffle, and bringing climate change and energy policy together I think will create better outcomes for Australia.”

Changed message on coal

In response to those who fear the former resources minister dubbed “Mr Coal” may focus on one element of his job at the expense of the other, Frydenberg says they are “two sides of the same coin”.

“My goal is affordable, accessible, reliable energy as we transition to a lower emissions future. You can’t have one without the other… without taking into account our global commitments or our international commitments to reducing carbon emissions. Likewise, you can’t talk about transition to a low emissions future without taking into account the considerations related to a reliable, affordable and accessible energy supply.”

Concerns among environmentalists about the minister’s credentials stem from his comments in October that there was a “strong moral case” to approve the controversial Adani Carmichael coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a mine that now appears increasingly unlikely to go ahead on the grounds of commercial unviability.

“Most importantly of all, it will help lift hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty, not just in India but right across the world,” he told the ABC’s Insiders program at the time, having just returned from overseas where he heard about the 1.2 billion people struggling without access to power.

While the minister doesn’t resile from those remarks in his new portfolio, his tone has changed.

“What I would say is coal remains an important part of the energy mix but it is a declining share of the energy mix and that is not a bad thing.”

It’s a line he has been practising elsewhere as he absorbs and recites statistics in defence of the Coalition’s record on the environment.

The minister acknowledges that protecting the environment is about more than addressing climate change.

But for all the pages of notes he has assembled, he isn’t able or willing yet to nominate the priorities.

“The beauty of the environment portfolio is it covers everything from climate change to whales, the Great Barrier Reef to the EPBC Act, right?” he says, referring to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. “And within this vast portfolio there are clear priorities for me in promoting clean air, clean water and clean land, and protecting our flora and fauna. And so, without saying one issue is a greater priority than others, I think they’re all important.”

Conservatives’ environmental record

Frydenberg is keen to emphasise what past conservative governments have achieved in environmental protection, suggesting they didn’t get adequate credit.

“The first Australian minister for the environment was Peter Howson in the McMahon government,” he says.

He doesn’t mention that when Howson was allocated the portfolio of environment, Aborigines and the arts in 1971, he complained he had been given the job nobody else wanted – minister for “trees, boongs and poofters”.

Frydenberg goes on, somewhat insistently, to list historical conservative achievements.

“Sir Robert Menzies ensured Australia in 1960 was a foundation member of the Antarctic Treaty,” he says. “The Fraser government saw an end to mining on Fraser Island, saw Kakadu and Uluru listed as a heritage site.”

Later, he would add: “The other thing the Fraser government did, it banned whaling in our fishing zone.”

“I think it’s important to remind people the Howard government created the first renewable energy target and obviously had the… [Natural] Heritage Trust,” Frydenberg says. “And the Abbott government and the Turnbull government have put in place the Reef 2050 plan, the billion-dollar Great Barrier Reef fund. Greg [Hunt, his predecessor] put in place the first Australian clean air act. The Green Army fund. Do you know who the first head of the Australian Conservation Foundation was? Sir Garfield Barwick.”

Leadership Forum on Energy Transition

After the current ACF president, Geoff Cousins, penned an open letter in last week’s Saturday Paper urging Frydenberg to temper some of his comments around coal and reminding him he was “now the minister for the environment, not the minister against it”, Frydenberg phoned him and said “it would be good to catch up”.

“And he was very nice,” Frydenberg says. “I respect his passion and commitment to the environment and we’re going to meet in person in the coming week. It’s important to look for as much common ground as possible, recognising that there will be some different positions on different issues.”

He describes it as “a positive, friendly call”.

Geoff Cousins says the same.

“It was extremely amicable,” Cousins tells The Saturday Paper. “I would say more than amicable, very positive… It was a very positive conversation. He did say he’s very keen to co-operate with the ACF and get into dialogue.”

Nevertheless, Cousins is not counting his chickens. “Having had some involvement in giving political advice… I’m very aware that until you see a policy change, one can easily get carried away with discussions that don’t lead anywhere.”

On its own initiative, the ACF has been convening meetings for the past four months between leading Australian figures in business, community organisations and academia to draft a road map for what they call “a rapid transition to clean energy”.

Calling itself the Leadership Forum on Energy Transition for Australia, the group comprises the chiefs of AGL Energy, Infigen Energy, the CSIRO, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Council of International Development and ClimateWorks Australia. There are specialists in ethics and communications and representatives of the ACF. The vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Professor Ian Jacobs, is its chair and former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce is also among the members.

Announcing its formation in late-April, the group said: “Without a national plan to transition from emissions intensive energy to clean energy, the growth of clean energy in Australia will stagnate and forum members fear the nation’s contribution to international greenhouse pollution will continue to rise.”

It aims to produce a blueprint in early October.

Cousins’ open letter pointed to the apparent contradiction between Frydenberg’s public championing of coal and some of his earlier statements lamenting the slow pace worldwide of action to address climate change.

He particularly noted a 2007 opinion piece Frydenberg published in The Age, suggesting then US president George W. Bush was “playing catch-up” on climate change but still “falling short”.

“Of course, people change their views over time,” Cousins observed in print, “but these seem to come from two separate identities.”

Cousins hoped Frydenberg would begin speaking “for our rivers, mountains, forests and reefs”. And it seems, he is – or at least is trying to.

“The Great Barrier Reef is a national treasure,” Frydenberg tells The Saturday Paper. “It’s the equivalent in size to Italy or 70 million football fields. It’s more than 2000 kilometres long from Cape York down to Bundaberg and there are so many jobs that flow, whether it’s in tourism or [the] Indigenous community for fisheries. So we really have to make it an absolute priority to protect the reef.”

He is conscious of the sometimes-opposing constituencies he now serves.

“It’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity,” he says. “It’s an opportunity because there is this significant transition taking place in the Australian energy market and new technologies are opening up incredible opportunities for renewable energy. And Australia is this mega-diverse country with over 140,000 different species, one of the largest marine reserves in the world, and that creates enormous opportunity to promote and protect our environment. At the same time, it’s a challenge, because there are often competing interests.”

Labor optimistic

Asked about the diversity in his own politics, Frydenberg says it’s not for him to assign ideological “badges”.

“I have my values and I have my specific policy areas and as to what the cumulative view is of me – whether I’m a conservative or a moderate or somewhere in between – is for others.”

But he concedes some of his views could be categorised at the progressive end, including his recent support for same-sex marriage. “And I’ve been a republican,” he prompts.

But he concedes he is unlikely to please all those engaged in the environmental and energy debate.

“In this portfolio, no matter what I say, I will disappoint Bob Brown, who criticised me before I’d even made my first comment in the portfolio. And dare I say, I will disappoint people like Alan Jones on a number of issues. But the job is to find the best possible outcomes for Australia and to move away from this false choice between the environment and the economy, between protection and development. We must enhance environmental outcomes and to do that effectively we also need to take into account other interests. And that is sometimes a balancing act.”

In the short term, he is also focused on the electricity market, following problems with the cost and reliability of renewable energy-based systems in South Australia and Tasmania, which he describes as “a wake-up call” on the need for better interconnection and national planning.

He’s due to meet state and territory energy ministers at the Council of Australian Governments’ energy council on August 19.

The opposition’s spokesman on environment, climate change and water, Mark Butler, is taking an optimistic approach to Frydenberg’s elevation.

“The appointment … presents an opportunity for Malcolm Turnbull to make a break from the hardline policies on climate change and energy driven by their predecessors, Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt,” Butler tells The Saturday Paper.

“Labor merged the climate change and energy portfolios late last year, and we welcome the government’s decision to do so as well.”

But Butler agrees Frydenberg is presented with “some very serious challenges”.

“Most seriously: the reality that Tony Abbott’s Direct Action policy is failing to constrain, let alone reduce, carbon pollution levels,” he says.

“Data released by the government in May confirms that pollution levels are rising again for the first time in a decade, and that they are projected to be 3 per cent higher than 2000 levels rather than the bipartisan commitment to a 5 per cent reduction. We are now pretty much the only major advanced economy where carbon pollution levels are rising. The new minister needs to admit that Direct Action has failed and bring forward a process to start to build a credible policy framework to reduce Australia’s pollution levels.”

Defence of Direct Action

Frydenberg rejects the suggestion that Direct Action isn’t working well enough. He is adamant there will be no carbon pricing system, despite the prime minister’s longstanding personal support for such a system.

“We’re not talking about any new taxes. We’re very comfortable with the current policy settings… There is no doubt the Emissions Reduction Fund is working, and then on top of that you’ve got the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and then the Renewable Energy Fund and the programs that we’ve funded under ARENA.”

Both the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation were slated for abolition under the Abbott government but after the senate blocked both measures, the Turnbull government retained them.

“So there is a suite of mechanisms,” Frydenberg continues, “that are looking to invest in renewable technology research and development, commercialise renewable technology, implement renewable energy technology and have a market-based mechanism through the Emissions Reduction Fund to look for the lowest cost abatement.”

Frydenberg’s office later issued a statement refuting Butler’s figures: “Official projections released by the department of environment in April 2016 show that Australia is on track to meet and beat its 2020 emissions reduction commitment by 78 million tonnes. Australia has closed the emissions gap from a 755 million tonnes shortfall estimated in the 2012 emissions projections under Labor.”

Geoff Cousins endorses the suggestion that there are ways to use market mechanisms to encourage clean-energy use that don’t involve a tax.

“Subsidies are a form of market mechanism because they distort the market,” Cousins says of concessions offered to the fossil fuel industry. “You could shift them from fossil fuels to renewables.”

But Frydenberg insists the market is already working.

“Over the last five years alone, eight out of the 12 most energy intensive emissions [power] stations have closed and they’ve all been coal,” he says.

For all his public commentary about the value of coal, in his new incarnation the minister is now talking increasingly about “transition”.

“The transition is under way and I see it as my job to ensure there is a smooth transition and that this is explained to the Australian public – the reasons for it and also the costs of doing so.”

He leaves the distinct impression that he believes having a conservative leading that debate may persuade industry that under the Turnbull government, change really is coming.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Meet the minister for trees and coal". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.