On 30 April, 2021 The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan asked me to comment on climate politics. His question and my full reply are set out below.
Thanks for taking the time.
I’m doing an Inquirer piece for tomorrow making the point that your position on trying to change the Coalition’s climate change policies is making you the Leader of the Opposition on climate change because there is a superficial truce within the Coalition and a vacuum left by Labor’s changing position.
I would like your response/comment to Coalition MPs’ fears that your public campaign and position as former Prime Minister is a danger to Government’s re-election because:
1. You can re-open the old divisions on climate change within the Coalition which are momentarily and tenuously subsumed by the COVID-19 response.
2. Your warning that progressive independents strongly supporting zero net emissions targets and renewables over coal and gas can threaten Liberal MPs in seats vulnerable to demands for more action on climate change will encourage and support such candidates.
3. While you’re not advocating a vote for Labor your criticisms of Scott Morrison, which you are fully entitled to make, will weaken Coalition support and encourage independents which could mean a hung parliament which will lead to the removal of the Morrison Government.
4. Finally, do you think the pandemic response has changed people’s priorities to the extent climate change concerns are less important?
Thanks Dennis, in terms of climate policy I am simply making the same case I did as PM which is that we need a coherent and integrated national climate and energy policy. That is what the NEG sought to do. It should be reinstated. It had, as you will recall, very broad support from industry, business and State Governments including Liberal ones. When we decided in August 2018 not to put the legislation into the House until we had a better handle on the numbers, all of us, including Scott, were very emphatic that it remained our, and the best, policy. So I was disappointed when, as PM, Scott dropped it but understood the political pressures. However once he was re-elected he could and should have reinstated it.
I am a strong critic of the way in which climate policy has been turned into a values or identity issue, in large part by your employer, News Corporation. The melancholy reality is that the populist right within the Coalition, supported by right wing media (again largely that owned by your employer) and the fossil fuel lobby has sabotaged sensible climate policy, whether it was John Howard’s ETS or my NEG.
There are currently three independents in what had been hitherto ultra-safe Liberal seats: Indi, Mayo and Warringah. In each case they are held by small “l” liberal women who share a commitment to taking effective action on climate change. In those seats traditional Liberal voters, fed up with what the Party has been presenting them, have chosen to vote for the candidates, or type of candidates, they believe the Party should have presented. In all three cases unpopular Liberal members were defeated and that was a big motivator behind the independent vote. But Sharkey has been re-elected twice and Cathy McGowan was not only re-elected but was able to transfer her support to the current independent member Helen Haines. I would be surprised if Zali Steggall does not retain Warringah. And, yes, I do think there is a real prospect of more Liberal and indeed National seats falling the same way. The Liberal moderates are far less influential than they were at least in the national parliament. The Liberal Party appears to be less progressive on climate and more conservative on social issues. And this presents a real political vulnerability for a moderate Liberal incumbent. They may say, truthfully, that they take climate action seriously, but if they are self evidently lacking in any influence, voters may look to a progressive liberal independent who will not be so constrained.
As to Coalition members’ fears….they should be fearful that traditional Coalition voters will not support a Government that they believe is failing to respond responsibly to the climate crisis. They expect their Government to rely on engineering and economics, not ideology and idiocy. Those voters will have been shocked to learn that the Energy Minister Angus Taylor directly pressured Audrey Zibelman, the CEO of the independent Australian Energy Market Operator to change their recent Integrated System Plan to be more favourable to the economics of gas.
The Government’s failure to adopt an integrated climate and energy policy means that we will have both higher emissions and higher energy prices than we otherwise would. This is a point Scott, Josh and I made repeatedly when we were trying to get the NEG adopted. Liberal voters can see the reasons energy prices are currently lower is because of more renewables.
The fetishization, or politicisation, of energy policy has meant that the political debate has become untethered from the facts. Reflect on the wild lies told about electric vehicles in 2019 – all gleefully amplified by the Newscorp papers.
The truth is that renewables keep getting cheaper and as Kerry Schott observed today this means coal generation will be displaced and likely sooner than currently expected too. So there needs to be a recognition of that and long-term planning. In short, we need more long-term leadership like Snowy 2.0. We need to get on with the Tasmanian Battery of the Nation projects and many others. The lack of a coherent federal policy means the States will all do their own thing – we have a national electricity market but we don’t have an integrated national energy policy.
Now to cut Scott some slack, he has to deal with the same crazy politics I did, and he doesn’t want the right to turn on him as they did on me. I would like to think the same rational person I discussed energy with when he was Treasurer is still there as PM. But voters are not interested in the political machinations, they want to see action and not just on climate.
You haven’t raised this in your question, but the failure to address the discrimination against, and disrespect of, women is another issue that will lead traditional Liberal voters to consider an alternative.
Increasingly the federal Liberal Party room looks like one in which the much reduced moderate liberal voices are held hostage by an increasingly right wing majority. The broad church looks narrower all the time. Many traditional Liberal and National voters feel they are being taken for granted. Scott’s swipe at “inner city dinner parties” the other day only underlined that perception.
Right now, internationally, we are out of step with our closest friends and allies on climate. The White House is obviously very disappointed with Australia’s failure to increase its 2030 emission reduction target and has recently actively briefed Australian journalists to say so.
Voters will also recognise that this failure is despite our having enormous opportunities in clean energy. We can be a clean energy superpower, we could be a leader in green hydrogen. The drive and leadership here is largely coming from the private sector which is why I am very pleased to be helping Andrew Forrest with his green hydrogen agenda. But again, we need to get on with it and start building.
As to the pandemic, that’s a longer discussion, but I think an important take out is that the societies which have handled it the best, right around the world, are those whose leaders have followed the science and, as a consequence, been trusted by their community. And the clear connection with climate is that we should do the same: trust the science and take the action we need to reduce emissions and avoid ever more dangerous levels of global heat