Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Glass half-empty (or 43 per cent full)

The full impact of the change of government nine weeks ago will be clear on Tuesday when the new parliament sits for the first time. It will be an acid test for the Albanese government.

The test is one it has largely set for itself, in terms of raising standards and making a contentious emissions reduction bill its first piece of major legislation. Despite claiming it does not need the parliament to commit to its 43 per cent reduction goal by 2030, Labor has invested too much time and energy to brook an easy defeat. In fact, if it can’t steer the bill through parliament it will suffer a stunning blow to its credibility.

The belated release of the 2021 “State of the Environment” report on July 19 adds urgency to addressing in a meaningful way the destructive contribution of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is not the only factor but, as Environment minister Tanya Plibersek spelled out at the National Press Club this week, “global warming multiplies environmental pressure everywhere”. It heats oceans, deepens droughts, intensifies disease, fuels catastrophic bushfires and creates the unprecedented “rain bombs” that trigger recurrent floods.

The scientific panel responsible for the latest health check on the nation’s habitats conclusively showed that climate change is no longer a future threat but is instead a present and frightening reality. The report, which was given to then Environment minister Sussan Ley last December, was so dire that few doubt she was told to sit on it by Scott Morrison because of the looming election. The last thing his government needed was a damning indictment of its dereliction of environmental management in the five years of Coalition rule since the previous report had been delivered.

Ley, now deputy opposition leader, was nowhere to be seen on the day of the release. National media outlets were told she was travelling and unavailable. Her colleague, Karen Andrews, told ABC TV that Ley had acted within the law by choosing not to release the document before the election. Which might be true but hardly makes it credible.

Even less credible was Senator Hollie Hughes. The shadow assistant minister for Climate Change boldly said “climate change is not an Australian problem”. She fell back on the arguments pushed by the Coalition’s coal champions: that it is “a global problem” and, with Australia’s 1.3 per cent contribution to global emissions, whatever we do to reduce them further won’t amount to much. The sophistry of it is breathtaking.

Like her leader, Peter Dutton, Hughes is doubling down on the Coalition’s climate change inaction, which saw the Liberals lose seven seats to teal independents and the Greens. It’s hardly a recipe for winning those seats back.

This rhetoric is in line with Dutton’s unilateral declaration that the Coalition won’t be supporting Labor’s target but will instead be sticking to its own 28 per cent reduction. Never mind that this was roundly rejected by voters in the most climate-charged election since 2007.

Climate Change minister Chris Bowen says the Coalition has made itself “irrelevant to the process” as he ramps up negotiations to get the numbers to legislate Labor’s target. Ironically, the Greens could make the Liberals and the Nationals very relevant if they join them in voting against the government, as happened in the 2009 rejection of Labor’s carbon pollution reduction scheme.

Their 12 senators are critical to Labor’s legislative ambitions. Leader Adam Bandt is leveraging his party’s position for all it’s worth. He has indicated support for the 43 per cent target, but only if the government is prepared to show more ambition on ratcheting it up. Key to that seems to be the demand for no new coal and gas projects.

Bandt says, “You don’t put a fire out by pouring more petrol on it.” More coal and gas flies in the face of the scientific consensus on the need to dramatically reduce global emissions within the next decade. On Sunday, Bandt was calling for the abolition of the diesel fuel rebate for miners such as Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer, and for billions more dollars to subsidise renewables.

He accuses Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of adopting a “my way or the highway approach”. However, Chris Bowen has now adopted a more conciliatory approach. On Monday he said he understood the Greens had to “go through their party processes” but added that he was looking forward to “a detailed conversation with Mr Bandt”.

Last Thursday, Bowen supplied his draft climate change bill to the Greens and the crossbench in both houses, with the message he is willing to take in good faith any suggestion “they think improves the way the government achieves its objectives”. Bowen says the bill implements the Paris framework, which has a built-in ratcheting mechanism. It obliges a government to accept the target advice of the beefed-up climate change authority. The legislation is by design a “floor and not a ceiling”.

The new 16-member Greens party room – 12 senators and four MPs – held a retreat at Mount Tamborine in Queensland this week but no final position was arrived at. Like in all party rooms, there was a range of views, from the hardline to the pragmatic.

At the weekend Bandt was talking of 100 per cent renewable electricity within a decade, not all that far ahead of Labor’s 2030 ambition of an 82 per cent renewable target. Labor insists its 43 per cent emissions reduction is underpinned by this ambition.

However, this contradicts Australian Greens founder Bob Brown’s claim on 7.30 that the legislation had no teeth, “with no mechanism to make it work”. Bowen says legislating the target would send a strong signal to international companies looking to invest in renewables that Australia has a “framework with certainty”. The parliament’s unwillingness to confirm that framework would be a setback for the massive investment needed to transform the energy mix.

Bowen has already had a number of conversations with the independents. Labor is very keen to show them respect, fully aware that their success is an insurance policy for the next election.

Bowen has an ally in the leader of the house, Tony Burke. He, too, has had conversations with the independents, and though their numbers are not needed in the lower house, where Labor has a slim majority, he is ensuring standing orders will acknowledge their greater presence.

Besides being allocated more questions, they will be accommodated to speak on legislation and amendments. Burke will organise the first fortnight in a way that will enable the new independents to give their formal first speeches ahead of the emissions target debate. Otherwise, given there are 35 new members from all sides, they could have been waiting for months.

By design, the Westminster parliamentary system can be something of a formalised charnel house. The distance between the prime minister and opposition leader at the table in the house is by tradition two swords’ length. But Albanese says Australians are suffering from “conflict fatigue” and he wants to change that.

The onus will be on him and his ministers to deliver on the promise of a “new style of politics” that is more consultative and inclusive. How ministers answer questions and the nature of prearranged “Dorothy Dixers” will be telling. But already Burke has signalled this doesn’t mean an end to contestability or fierce argument.

The Morrison government tended to confirm by its performance in parliament everything the electorate perceived as being negative about it. Answers were predominantly political bagging of the opposition, with government policy more often than not an afterthought. Infamously, unlike in the Howard era, the Morrison government used the gag and arrogantly refused to debate its opponents when they tried to suspend standing orders on burning issues of the day.

Labor will nominate Queensland MP Milton Dick for speaker and, providing all its 77 MPs in the secret ballot support him, he should get the job. How he goes about it is another element in raising the standard. Many see former Liberal speaker Tony Smith as a benchmark, for his willingness to pull Morrison and senior ministers into line. Interestingly, Smith nominated Dick for his speaker’s panel in the last parliament.

But the fact is that in our system a speaker is as impartial as the prime minister of the day is willing to tolerate. Smith’s shock resignation before the last term ended was a sure sign Morrison’s patience had worn thin. The former prime minister is lucky Smith went quietly rather than blowing up the government.

But in Albanese we have a prime minister who is thoroughly familiar with the parliament, its rules and ethos, much in the same way Howard was. If Dutton’s performance as leader of the house is any guide, he doesn’t much care for these niceties and that could severely limit his ability to hold the government tellingly to account in the theatre of parliament.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Glass half-empty (or 43 per cent full)".

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

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