Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The hot topic of climate change

The ghosts of leaders past are haunting the political firmament as climate change, the one issue that played a major role in their demise, flares spectacularly. While Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten ruminate on their contributions to and prescriptions for the nation, fierce unseasonal bushfires are offering a brutal reality check.

The irony is that a former Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is most in tune with the thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters disrupting major cities here and around the world. Turnbull does not baulk at laying the blame for Australia’s faltering response on his own party. He told Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper The Australian, “The failure to have a coherent national energy policy is a major problem but it is founded on this rock of climate denialism inside the Liberal Party and inside the media, including by the newspaper you [the interviewer] work for.”

Turnbull defends himself as a “true conservative” against those who dumped him as prime minister on the pretext he was too left-leaning and “not really one of us”. He says, “There is nothing conservative … [in] denying the science of climate change. That’s not a conservative position. That is just, well, that is just denying reality. You might as well deny gravity.”

His successors in government have no compunction about denying anything that doesn’t suit them. Energy Minister Angus Taylor insists Turnbull is wrong to claim the government’s policy is incoherent, because carbon emissions and energy prices are both falling. Except the government’s own figures show this claim to be wrong, or at the very least a giant fudge. Total yearly emissions have been rising every year since Tony Abbott scrapped Labor’s carbon price in 2014.

On energy prices, Taylor says an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission report shows his new regulations forced retailers in South Australia, New South Wales and south-east Queensland to lower their standing offers by $130 to $190 a year. Victoria was the standout, with its retailers decreasing their standing offers by $310 to $430 a year.

Labor’s spokesman for Climate Change and Energy, Mark Butler, rejects Taylor’s argument that electricity bills are shrinking, saying only 10 per cent of households are on standing offers. He quotes analysis by JPMorgan showing wholesale electricity prices rose by 12 per cent from June to August.

On Tuesday, Butler said the latest work from the Grattan Institute reported that under the Coalition the big three private power companies have earned “an extra $1 billion in additional mega-profits … all paid for by Australian households and businesses”. He added that, since the energy crisis sparked by Abbott in 2015, wholesale power prices have risen “by about 158 per cent, and the market expects those prices to continue rising, with forward prices up 29 per cent just in the last 12 months, since Malcolm Turnbull and the national energy guarantee were dumped back in 2018”.

With interventions like that from the knowledgeable Butler – who’s written a book on the subject – you’d imagine Labor would agree with the Extinction Rebellion protesters, who say there is an urgent need to declare a climate emergency and take greater action to reduce emissions. Instead the party is subjecting itself to some very public open-heart surgery on its climate change and energy policy.

Bill Shorten, in his first major interview since the election, told another Murdoch paper, the Sunday Herald Sun, “It pains me to realise after the election that I’d misread some of the mood in Queensland and Western Australia. There they saw some of our policies as being green-left, not for the worker, not for the working people.” Labor failed to win new seats in the west and saw swings against it of 11 to 12 percentage points in the Queensland coal seats of Dawson and Capricornia. In New South Wales, the  hitherto-safe Labor seat of Hunter had a swing of 9.5 percentage points against the party.

The swing in Hunter has certainly alarmed Joel Fitzgibbon, who managed to hold on by his fingernails. One Labor insider says that, as a result, “Joel has gone rogue.” But Anthony Albanese added Resources to Fitzgibbon’s Agriculture portfolio after the election, and Fitzgibbon has now set about pushing the party to a new climate deal that is closer to the government’s weak ambitions.

Fitzgibbon ventured to reactionary champion Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute on Wednesday to run up the white flag. He largely blames the three consecutive election losses on Labor’s more ambitious climate change policies. “How many times are we going to let it kill us?” he asked, adding, “How many leaders do we want to lose to it?” He said it was time “to reach a sensible settlement on climate change”.

His settlement: to match the prime minister’s 26-28 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030. But, unlike Morrison, he wants to achieve the higher target of 28 per cent. “If we could get to 28 per cent by 2030, and also demonstrate that we could do so without destroying blue-collar jobs or damaging the economy, then we would have a great foundation from which to argue the case for being more ambitious on the road to 2050.” The Liberals’ most strident coal spruiker, Craig Kelly, couldn’t have put it better. How it squares with Albanese’s and Butler’s assurances that Labor will always take climate change more seriously than the Liberals is the question. It sets the scene for a mighty brawl at next year’s Labor Party national conference.

The Greens’ Adam Bandt says the public will never forgive Labor if it abandons climate action. He says if Labor walks away from its already weak target of reducing emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, “it walks away from the Paris agreement goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees”. He accuses Labor of joining the Tories.

It’s a pretty serious accusation on the day Angus Taylor outraged even the energy regulator by announcing he was going to use taxpayers’ money to underwrite coal-fired power stations. Taylor tried to mask his intention by lumping it in with funding for new gas and pumped-hydro plants. He told the Australian Financial Review National Energy Summit there was a need to strengthen the process for retaining coal generators.

The Malcolm Turnbull-appointed chair of the Energy Security Board, Kerry Schott, was unimpressed. She told the same conference, “Government interventions to both cap prices and effectively subsidise certain generation projects will not encourage the considerable new investment and innovation that is needed. The ongoing and costly efforts to keep aged coal plants running for extended periods is also ill advised.”

“Ill advised”, because it also flies in the face of market realities and downgrades the climate change risks that insurers and investors are now factoring into their decisions. And one would think it is ill advised because climate change, according to recent opinion polling, is increasingly seen as Australia’s No. 1 threat.

The yearly Lowy poll published in May found 64 per cent of adults saw the issue as “a critical threat”. It was the first time in the 15-year history of the poll that global warming topped the list of threats. And at the beginning of October, an Essential poll found 70 per cent of Australians thought Morrison was wrong to snub the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

But there is a cynical calculation on the government’s part. Morrison, in the run-up to the May 18 election, pivoted his rhetoric to accepting the science, dressing up his half-baked responses as more serious than they are. This ploy, which he also used in his address to the UN General Assembly, did not survive informed fact-checking. However, at face value it worked at the election. Morrison won. But one veteran Liberal says there were many other factors at play. Bill Shorten’s mea culpa on his tax agenda and having “too many messages” backs this view. You could also throw in Clive Palmer’s $60 million advertising spend, demonising Shorten relentlessly in the final two weeks of the campaign and reinforcing the serious doubts that voters already had about the Labor leader. One senior Labor MP says, “If we’d had $60 million to throw at Morrison, we could have killed him too.”

For the thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters, all this is fiddling while the planet burns. Former Greens senator Scott Ludlam, who was one of the protesters arrested in Sydney, said calls to shut down the demonstrations were “like turning off the smoke alarm in a burning building”. But that’s not the way Resources Minister Matt Canavan wants anyone to see it. On social media he attacked the Queensland government for sitting “idle for months while it has let a bunch of activists take over the streets of Brisbane”, ignoring the Palaszczuk government’s recent crackdown. He is likely to agree with his colleague Peter Dutton, who believes the protesters should be “named and shamed”, face mandatory jail terms and have their welfare payments stopped.

These “authoritarian populists”, as Turnbull would call them, are desperate for the real message of the protests to be lost in outrage over traffic jams.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "Ghostly climate". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.