Climate Change Policy, A brief history and where we currently stand

Last week came the report of Dr Alan Finkel the Chief Scientist of Australia on how to transition from traditional sources of energy to a more modern renewable source of energy. This week as Parliament has returned the Liberal Party have once again shown signs of division on how to proceed on the issue of Climate Change and future energy security. The Liberal Party has had a number of positions on Climate Change over the last ten years and before discussing the current situation it would be worth re visiting how the Liberal Party has progressed on the issue over the last 10 years.

In 2007 with Kevin Rudd having secured an election winning lead in the polls for a sustained period John Howard released his plan to bring in an Emissions Trading Scheme (1). This policy was aimed at lowering the popularity of Kevin Rudd and Labour on the issue of Climate Change and was a practical measure investing money in incentivising Businesses to use lower emission methods for energy and water use as well as seek to invest in Nuclear Power. Given the announcement of the policy occurred so close to the election and given that Howard did not invest as much money as what the Labor Party proposed the idea was seen as not to go far enough. Indeed the Liberal Party went on to lose the 2007 election which led to his plan becoming redundant.

Post the election loss Brendan Nelson became the Liberal leader (quite the feat given video footage of him addressing a crowd saying he’d never vote Liberal in his life), under his leadership the Liberal approach to climate change appeared to be a wait for America or China to move on Climate Change to take a policy position. This approach was not popular with the Shadow Treasurer at the time Malcolm Turnbull and he would continually make visits to the oppositions office to call Brendan Nelson weak and useless. As a result it was with little surprise that in September of 2008 Malcolm Turnbull challenged for the leadership and won.

Malcolm Turnbull started his leadership well and was able to land some blows on Kevin Rudd for claims of going too far with spending in reaction to the financial crisis that had hit the global society. His leadership took a terminal turn however when a treasury advisor created a fake email that claimed electoral fraud on behalf of Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd that became known as Utegate, the fallout of the matter was that the public believed that Malcolm Turnbull had a tendency to react ferociously to policies without considering the impact of an issue rationally. The final straw on Malcolm Turnbull’s first leadership however was the issue of climate change and in particular his support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. (2) The CPRS scheme essentially looked to place a cap on how much emissions could be released by businesses and then sets up a trading scheme for businesses to trade greenhouse emissions. How the trading scheme works is that if a business was at their cap for greenhouse polluting then they could pay money to buy more emissions from a company who were below their emissions cap. This effectively penalises companies who emit too many greenhouse gases and reward the companies that emit less greenhouse gases. When the government announced this scheme Malcolm Turnbull announced that he would support the scheme with some amendments which he was able to secure through the shadow minister Ian McFarlane for Agriculture sectors. However by this point the Conservative base of the leadership had grown tired of Turnbull’s leadership and spoke out against the issue. This led to a Coalition cabinet meeting that ended in Turnbull saying the issue had passed the party room despite their being clear opposition to the policy. This led to the famous quote by Peter Slipper saying that Malcolm Turnbull had acted like a Zimbabwe election being set up by Robert Mugabe. Shortly afterwards there was a three way contest between Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull and given Joe Hockey’s non committal view on the issue he lost in the first round of the leadership ballot which led to a shock Tony Abbott win by one vote.

Having taken the leadership and with the recent vote down of the CPRS issue by the Liberal Party conservative members and the Greens for the measure not being strong enough Abbott launched a strong negative campaign on the issue of the CPRS. With Kevin Rudd also not able to secure a global consensus at the Copenhagen climate change summit the Labor party walked away from their policy position that Kevin Rudd had once described as the biggest challenge of our generation. This combined with internal criticism about Kevin Rudd’s leadership style and poor implementation of the Mining Resources Tax led to Julia Gillard challenging for the Prime Ministership and after a night that saw the numbers drift away from the incumbent PM, Kevin Rudd chose to stand down as leader rather than lose comprehensively in the leadership ballot.

During the 2010 election Julia Gillard promised no Carbon Tax under a government I lead while Tony Abbott proposed a Direct Action policy. The Direct Action policy (3) aimed to incentivise businesses who reduced emissions as well as set up a Green army to have young people take part in conservation activities to help improve the environment directly. There was a lot of criticism of this plan for not doing enough to fight climate change and also that the cost to actually reduce emissions to the climate agreement level would be greater than what the level the Liberal Party were claiming. This scrutiny on the policy became less after the 2010 election because as a result of the Greens forming an official coalition with the Labor Party to help give Julia Gillard minority government the Liberal Party and particularly Tony Abbott could run the line that Julia Gillard had lied during the election and that this new tax would make energy prices rise through the roof and hurt several job industries. As with most political attacks there was a large amount of spin however with the Financial Crisis already having hurt Australian’s middle class society, the public were ready to revolt over this promise and Gillard spent the 2010 – 2013 period fighting off poor polling as well as an internal campaign from Kevin Rudd to return to his place as PM. With this is in mind even though the Carbon Tax was passed there was a sense that this would only be temporary as the public and businesses knew that the Liberal Party would win the next election and their first policy move would be to unwind the Carbon Tax. Indeed the Labor Party returned to Kevin Rudd just before the 2013 election but the matter of the leadership spill left him a bruised political figure compared to his first election campaign in 2007 and the Labor Party were comprehensively defeated by Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party in the 2013 Election.

On the eve of the 2013 election Tony Abbott made a promise of no cuts to the ABC, Health and Education. In the 2014 Budget Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott made a number of unpopular decisions in order to bring about budget repair and this combined with Tony Abbott already being a divisive figure to the public led to a significant drop in the polls, indeed there were significant concerns amongst Coalition MPS about the Liberal Party being a 1 term government. Before losing his leadership to Malcolm Turnbull Tony Abbott was able to get his Direct Action policy through parliament with the support of Clive Palmer (4) and his Palmer United Party senators. This was despite Clive Palmer earlier coming out to a press conference with Al Gore to present the merits for an Emission Trading Scheme similar to what Kevin Rudd had proposed back at the end of 2009. That press conference with Al Gore was a confusing one for many analysts given Clive Palmer’s history as a mine and Al Gore’s history with the environment!

With Malcolm Turnbull winning the leadership and Prime Ministership back in 2015 many members of the public hoped to see movement on climate policy. However that reaction ignored the practicalities of leading a party, having taken the leadership from Tony Abbott who was criticised for making “Captain’s Calls” and himself being criticised for doing as much in his first leadership tilt, any dramatic movement on issues would have seen a revolt from a large number of Coalition MPs and would have seen him replaced by another leader. This reality was only exaggerated by the 2016 double dissolution election where the Liberal Party suffered a swing against them and were left with a one seat majority. Now the argument should be that the Liberal Party were headed to a large loss under Tony Abbott and that Malcolm Turnbull deserved clear air to improve the electability of the Liberal Party but sections of the Liberal Right have shown that this is not possible and indeed the defection of Corey Bernadi to become an independent senator showed the tough balancing act that Malcolm faces now.

So that’s the 10 year history of Climate Change debate in this country, I think it speaks volumes to the divisiveness of the issue that so many politicians have lost their jobs over the issue and so many policies have been attempted to be implemented and yet we are still in the same place essentially as back in 2007. For this both major parties deserve criticism but for mine the Greens also deserve some criticism that they majorly seem to avoid on this issue. If the Greens had of accepted Kevin Rudd’s position on climate change in 2009 then the CPRS would have passed through the Senate and Kevin Rudd would have most likely won the 2010 election. Having won two elections Kevin Rudd may have then been more likely to smoothly transition to Julia Gillard at some point and given she was a popular politician before the 2010 coup she may have been a much better Prime Minister with the clear air of a united cabinet. Sometimes in order to get to the ultimate destination you need to accept a midway point and it’s then easier to negotiate to your desired position from the middle ground.

The Dr. Finkel review analysed an Emissions Intensity Scheme which is something closer to the Labor Party policy in that it penalises companies that emit too much greenhouse gas and would see coal generators and big greenhouse gas emitting companies close earlier allowing for a higher renewable energy target. This is not feasible for the Coalition Party who are against there being penalties for businesses that continue to emit at higher rates and also there is a concern about the transition from coal to renewable energy too soon. This worry is because something like solar and wind energy provide less reliable voltage and frequency than traditional energy sources then if something extreme happens weather wise power supply may be cut which leads to situation like in South Australia last year where a large amount of people lost power for an extended period of time. The bigger vote impacts of this transition are that if there is a switch to renewable energy sources too quickly then coal workers are suddenly left out of work and in a job market that has been unpredictable since the financial crisis there are worries for whether older workers will ever re find work. Also the price of gas has increased dramatically recently and the transitioning stop gap from coal to renewable energy has been gas and as the price of gas has increased it has led to price rises in electricity for public members. This has led to the government being able to run the attack that Labor State Governments are not supplying enough energy and transitioning to renewable energy too fast has led to increased power prices. With this in mind the Finkel report suggested a Clean Energy Target. This is a market initiative that sets a target on how much energy use should come from clean energy that encourages businesses to invest in cleaner energy resources. What makes this more sellable to the Liberal Party is that it does not favour one method of technology over another which means that as long as coal is used in a cleaner way that can still be used in the near future while eventually more renewable power sources are implemented. The report also ensures that if a Coal Power Plant is to close then there needs to be at three years notice which avoids a sudden gap in energy supply from an unexpected closure such as the Hazlewood and Port Augusta Power Plant. The problem for Malcolm Turnbull is that business will pass on the costs of using lower greenhouse gases to customers which then makes it another price on carbon. Given the legacy of Tony Abbott and his opposition to pricing carbon it has come as little surprise that he and other coalition members of his political persuasion have come out against the CET and Tuesday saw a heated Cabinet debate that saw the policy broadly supported by the party room but with a not insignificant amount of members opposed to the issue. If at the stage the reader is getting a sense of dejavu then that’s not surprising as their are more than a few similarities between this debate and the one that ended Turnbull’s leadership in 2009. The added difficult is that with the polls showing Turnbull behind Bill Shorten in the 2PP vote there is not the political capital to spend on this issue. In order to get this CET through Parliament Malcolm Turnbull will need Labor support and while Bill Shorten has offered some bipartisan support there is a temptation for Labor to play politics on the issue as a divided Coalition will only help Labor electoral position.

Lastly is the issue of Nuclear Power which continues to be the elephant in the room when energy supply is discussed. As I mentioned earlier when John Howard announced he would consider an ETS in 2007 part of his policy included funding towards nuclear power. This has been considered both by states and federal parties over the years however has never been implemented as any move has faced strident opposition. There seems to be general Scientific consensus that Nuclear Power is an important part of energy supply due to being able to supply a large amount of energy that will be required if we completely move away from coal in the future. This is something that is questioned as to whether renewable energy can do, can it be used as the sole energy source for a country. The Scientific argument against nuclear energy is as to how clean uranium mining is and whether there is a significant difference in emission rates for Nuclear Power considering the levels of uranium mining that would be required to provide sufficient energy. The publics concern seems to stem from issues of safety with Nuclear Power. The major concern stems from how nuclear waste will be stored and the nuclear weapon testing by the Brits in the 1950’s has led to medical issues for affected communities that rightly is concerning when any new plans for nuclear waste storage is discussed. The other main safety concern is the impact of a Nuclear Power Plant reactor spill and despite the evidence that suggests that Nuclear Power is indeed safe and that when there has been issues it been man made error, it’s hard to eliminate the images associated with the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters that are used as evidence of the dangers of Nuclear Energy.









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