Editorial No 82: Malcolm Turnbull and the politics of climate change

Posted by on March 20, 2016 in Editorial, Home page feature

Editorial No 82:  Malcolm Turnbull and the politics of climate change

Malcolm Turnbull and the politics of climate change


In late September, 54 members of the Liberal Party Parliamentary Caucus voted for Malcolm Turnbull to become their leader; 44 voted for Tony Abbott, the incumbent. Consequently, Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as the Prime Minister of Australia. From the outside, it appeared that Tony Abbott was despatched with some alacrity and a degree of aplomb but with significant dismay within more conservative ranks


The new leader said, 'that is the way it is done under our Westminster system'. The media put little emphasis on the 'how dare they replace an elected Prime Minister' type of criticism that accompanied the removal of Kevin Rudd in 2010. Perhaps part of the difference is that for some of the media the latest change was in the 'natural' party of government. Or perhaps, the lack of criticism was part of a collective sigh of relief to be rid of Tony Abbott; Australia felt, some remarked, a 'better place'. Articulateness and urbanity replaced combativeness, divisiveness and three word slogans.


Progressives may hope that the 'liberalism' espoused by the new Prime Minister will improve on the social conservatism of the previous two years. Indeed, changes in tenor of the language were immediately evident– less demonisation of Muslims, environmentalists, radical artists and even unionists. Even if not quite ‘social democracy in our time’, there might be some policy changes in areas like children in the camps of Manus and Nauru, data retention and climate change.


Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull will not bring back the the 'social liberalism' of Deakin and Higgins (or even Malcolm Fraser). He may be liberal on 'social issues' (topics like euthanasia, the Republic, same-sex marriage and perhaps 'social' drugs) but can be expected to be very strongly pro-market and anti-regulation. The Turnbull Liberals are not about redistribution of income, wealth and power. They are about individual (and individualised) rights not collective ones. Indeed, social welfare, education, health and the like may well become more marketised with more of 'innovations' such as 'social bonds' and public-private partnerships.


Climate change is one area where policy ought to change – and correspondingly a test of whether Malcolm Turnbull has sufficient power and influence within the Liberal part to achieve this. The United Nations Climate Change Conference starts in Paris on 30th November. Australia goes there – irrespective of who is the Prime Minister- as the country with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The announced pre-commitment is among the lowest of the developed countries. No credible commentator has said that current policies (such as Direct Action) will achieve even the low target; moreover, there are no enforcement provisions.


It is easy to say what Australia ought to be doing about climate change. A higher emissions reduction target, mechanisms to enforce reductions on the recalcitrant and a suite of measures including pricing carbon, more use of renewables in power generation, transport and the production of goods and services, energy efficiency measures and carbon storage, including from coal burning power plants. All of these need to be organised nationally and to raise enough revenue to compensate lower income people for higher energy costs and fund an effective transition for those working in carbon intense industries including electricity and coal mining. Put another way, green jobs require a 'visible hand'; they do not grow on trees or descend from the clouds. Also Australia must adequately and appropriately support the Pacific Island States that are already affected by temperature and tidal changes.


It is a matter of the politics within the Liberals, and to a lesser extent, the Nationals whether the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull is able to do some of the above. The Business Council and the Australian Industry Group will accept regulation in exchange for 'certainty' and what might be termed respectability. The Mining, electricity and gas industries are more unknown quantities. Some of the grosser claims like 'the right to burn coal' might disappear without Abbott and his retinue of climate sceptics. One test will be whether the Coalition can find an internal political fix for the conflict between coal and/or gas and agriculture in areas like the Upper Hunter, the Liverpool Plains and the Darling Downs.


Central Queensland is the most fraught area. The coal industry is close to recession, with large job losses as producers including BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, Glencore, Peabody and Ensham have stopped expanding and are making 'efficiencies'. Regional centres such as Rockhampton and Mackay and smaller places like Emerald and Moranbah are in a severe slump, and this was part of the reason for the defeat of the Campbell Newman State LNP government earlier in 2015.


Into this mix come the Hancock and Adani mines proposed in the Galilee Basin. The Adani mine, if it went ahead as planned, would be the largest ever in Australia and one of the largest in the world. The Queensland ALP Government is equivocal and says it will protect the Barrier Reef and not put state money into new rail lines for export coal. Against this, the Government's mantra is jobs repeated and the pro-mining Katter Party is one vote off the balance of power in State Parliament. The Federal Government is even more visibly playing both sides; the 'toughest ever' environmental conditions have been imposed but the mine has been given environmental approval. Likewise, there are strong whispers that Adani might qualify for Northern Development Fund assistance to build 'infrastructure' (aka railways).


The ethical decision should be to leave the Galilee coal in the ground (along with a lot more elsewhere). This, however, requires politics, policies and processes. The politics are a government with the numbers to say no to coal. The policies are those that reduce emissions and create real and meaningful alternatives for workers and communities. The processes are a full dialogue among organisations that have the internal governance to represent and bargain for companies, workers, communities and the environment. The ALP might have the policies after the 2015 National Conference; the irony is that, with the change in leadership, the Coalition might now have the political capacity.

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