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Emails show the man hired to review Scott Morrison’s climate model helped Angus Taylor with last election’s climate scare. By Mike Seccombe.

The man behind Scott Morrison’s climate panic

Former head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics Brian Fisher.
Credit: Supplied

In the lead-up to the last election, just as now, the Morrison government was in political trouble on climate change policy. Labor had a comprehensive plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. The government had nothing new to propose.

But it had a secret weapon and on February 20, 2019, it used it. That day, Rupert Murdoch’s national broadsheet, The Australian, ran a front-page headline that read: “Carbon cut apocalypse: cost of ALP energy plan”.

The story below that headline was replete with big, scary numbers. It said Labor’s policy would “push electricity prices 50 per cent higher, cost workers up to $9000 a year in lower wages and wipe $472 billion from the economy over the next decade”. This was “according to the first independent modelling of the energy policies of both the government and opposition”.The story quoted the work’s author, Brian Fisher, a former head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) and go-to numbers guy for Australian fossil fuel miners. He voiced his frustration at “how deficient and even outright dishonest the climate debate continues to be” when the “inescapable” reality was that whoever won the election, Australia would suffer an economic hit.

Fisher told The Australian he expected to be “kicked” by both sides of politics for this assessment.

But Fisher was never going to be “kicked” by the Morrison government. When The Australian ran its story, he had already been in communication with the government for many weeks, if not months. Energy Minister Angus Taylor and his office were liaising with Fisher as he drafted his modelling.

An email trail obtained under freedom of information and given to The Saturday Paper makes that very clear. Seven weeks before Fisher’s modelling came out – and instantly landed on the front page of The Australian – Taylor sent an email to his staff “team”, saying he had begun working on a piece for publication that compared electricity prices state by state, using draft numbers from Fisher, but “these will need to be updated when we get the final ones”.

In the meantime, he told his staff, they should start working on a comparison of electricity prices “Labor v Coalition” and exploring the “implications” of Labor’s emissions target.

“We need to think about the timing of this with respect to Fisher’s modelling work,” Taylor wrote.

A great deal of the FoI material obtained by The Australia Institute was redacted, so it is unclear how long the minister’s office and the modeller had been exchanging information. But clearly the government had detailed knowledge of what was coming, and saw it as important that “one of Australia’s most respected advisers on climate change and the economic impact of current and future climate and energy policies” should provide support for its claim that Labor’s proposal would put a “wrecking ball through the economy”.

On the day Fisher’s work became public, a list of talking points and a draft media release were ready to go. And the government hammered the issue of the alleged high cost of Labor’s climate policies relentlessly until the election, aided by repeated interventions in the debate by Fisher.

In fact, the work that informed The Australian’s original story – entitled “Economic consequences of some alternative Australian climate policies” – was only a four-page taste of what was to come. Months later, when questioned at a seminar at the Australian National University, Fisher said he only put up a summary because the full modelling was out for review, and claimed he did not know how the newspaper found his report within minutes of it being uploaded to his website.

The full version was released on March 11. On May 1, Fisher released a third effort. Abandoning all pretext of political impartiality, it was titled: “Economic consequences of Labor’s climate change action plan.”

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, Fisher defended his work largely by referencing the complexity of his model.

“The model that I use, which is basically my version of the government model, updated and changed many times since I left government in 2006, has got over a million equations in its most detailed form,” he said. “So, you know, these things are difficult to use. And difficult to understand.”

The report he released was roundly condemned by most other economists and energy experts. As The Australia Institute summarised: “Brian Fisher’s latest model of climate costs was off-the-chart. It shows cost to GDP [gross domestic product] impacts that were five to ten times larger than every other economy-wide model, including those from Warwick McKibbin, Climateworks, ANU, CSIRO, Victoria University and three major reports from Commonwealth Treasury.”

Kane Thornton, chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, said: “This report, its input assumptions and modelled outcomes, are total garbage. Any politician using this to compare/critique energy policies should be laughed at.”

Almost three years on, the Morrison government is again playing games with climate modelling – and again Fisher is involved.

A couple of weeks ago, on October 25, officials from Taylor’s department confirmed to a senate estimates committee that Fisher had been paid $100,000 for help in its climate modelling. He is listed in the modelling's acknowledgements as one of its peer reviewers.

Fisher tells The Saturday Paper there may be more to his involvement than has been revealed. “There is potentially other work that might be mentioned in the future in the context of the model when it’s released. I do have a contract. And I can’t discuss it with you.”

The day after the estimates revelation, the government’s much-hyped but insubstantial plan for getting Australia to net-zero emissions by 2050 was released.

Morrison said the modelling would show Australia’s gross national income would grow 1.6 per cent under the plan. Nearly 62,000 new regional mining and heavy industry jobs would be created and the average Australian would be nearly $2000 better off.

The modelling, finally released yesterday, is starkly at odds with the Fisher modelling it used at the last election, which said that even the government’s modest 26-28 per cent reductions target would lead to 78,000 fewer jobs, a $9000 cut to real wages and a $19 billion hit to GDP by 2030.

How can this be?

The explanation, says one economist with 20 plus years as a modeller, first at ABARE when it was headed by Fisher and then for several big consulting companies, is that underlying every one of the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of equations that modellers run through their computers are assumptions.

“And the assumptions you put in define the space the model can move in when you run the simulations,” he says.

If you are, for example, modelling future electricity prices: “Before the model starts, you basically have to dial in what are the relative costs of all the technologies – coal, oil, gas, brown coal, nuclear, hydro, other renewables. If you dial in a very expensive renewables price, then … the cost of addressing climate change turns out very expensive.”

And the fact is, 20 years ago, renewables were relatively expensive. Their cost has come down dramatically and is likely to continue to come down dramatically. Thus the inherent problem for modellers: how do you make accurate projections of the future when technology costs are rapidly changing? Do you assume current costs or take a guess at future costs?

Historically, says the expert, even the best-intentioned modellers tended to make conservative assumptions. Still, he says, all around the world, modelling was a well-intentioned exercise, usually done by academics, with the results couched in terms only understandable to, and sometimes honestly contested by, other experts.

Australia, however, has led the world in the politicisation of modelling, he says. And Brian Fisher, as executive director of ABARE, played a big role in that. Under his leadership, says the former ABARE modeller, the organisation developed a model called Megabare.

“ABARE spent a lot of time and money converting theoretical, academic-type models into a tool that spoke the language of government, that convinced the public that these models were producing numbers that made sense in a political context.”

In February 1998, the federal ombudsman issued a scathing critique of the way ABARE operated under Fisher, following a complaint by the Australian Conservation Foundation that it had been denied membership of a group called the Gigabare steering committee, which provided input to its modelling activities.

Membership of the steering committee cost $50,000, which the ACF could not afford, unlike other members including Exxon and the Australian Coal Association. The ombudsman’s report found that ABARE had “adopted a funding structure and administrative practices for its climate change research projects which failed to adequately protect ABARE as a public sector research agency from allegations of undue influence by vested interests”.

Fisher has a long record of producing work that supports fossil fuel projects and attaches enormous assumed cost to emissions abatement. Under the Howard government, he played an integral role in negotiating Australia’s minimal commitment to emissions reduction at the 1997 Kyoto climate change conference.

His critics are many and harsh, none more so than Guy Pearse, a staffer to former Environment minister Robert Hill, whose insider account of the Howard government’s climate failings in his book, High and Dry, included Fisher among a “Prime Minister’s Eleven” of people most responsible.

“Time and again results that Fisher presented in his [ABARE] reports to government and the scenarios and assumptions behind them lent themselves to misrepresentation by the Howard government,” Pearse wrote. “They routinely overstated the costs of cutting emissions, and they never factored in the financial benefits of action, or the costs of inaction.”

After leaving ABARE, Fisher went into consultancy, sometimes for government, often for the proponents of fossil fuel projects.

Rod Campbell, economist and research director at The Australia Institute, notes Fisher continues to get government work. In January he was appointed to the emissions reduction assurance committee (ERAC) to provide advice on expenditure to the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund.

In estimates, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young called Fisher a climate denier. That’s not accurate; he accepts the science, he says, he just thinks dealing with it will be significantly more expensive than most people think, and probably won’t achieve the outcomes the science says the world must achieve.

“Unfortunately, if people think the world is going to be net zero by 2050, and we’re going to reach a 1.5 degree increase target, then I don’t think that’s happening,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “I’d say we’re on a pathway greater than two, at least.”

How does he square those beliefs with his involvement in a government modelling exercise that suggests – on the limited evidence available so far – that Australia can reach net zero and prosper at the same time?

He doesn’t. He had nothing to do with the assumptions – just the simulations or sims. “I was engaged to try and give them some guidance on how best to run particular sims in the model,” he says. “I haven’t been involved in the modelling directly.”

Fisher still largely stands by the results of his 2019 modelling, notwithstanding a few minor “parameter” changes.

“Basically, I just cannot see how you can transform the Australian economy from one that’s been … heavily based on fossil fuels for living memory, to one that effectively doesn’t use any of them at all. Or if it is using them, has to sequester the emissions.”

So why is he not producing modelling to that effect? Like everyone else, he says, he’s waiting to see the details of the government’s plan.

“I might do the same thing again, before the next election,” Fisher says. “Just depends on how I’m feeling on the day.”

Possibly. But it remains highly unlikely, even with the Morrison government’s new commitments to change, that we will see a Murdoch front page to match the shifting reality: “Carbon cut apocalypse: cost of Morrison energy plan”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "The man behind Scott Morrison’s climate panic".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.