Issue Has Proved Too Big For Run Of Australian Leaders

Fairfax - John Hewson*

Climate policy has now proved a defining element in the demise of a run of Australian political leaders, from John Howard through to Malcolm Turnbull.
Illustration: John Shakespeare

Each of the fallen increasingly played short-term, opportunistic politics, mostly for personal political advantage, on an issue upon which most Australians agree - the need to address climate change. How can it be that voters don’t get heard by our politicians, who claim to listen to and be in touch with their constituencies?
While in all this, we have come close to putting a price on carbon, and developing a deliverable transition pathway, we are really no closer today than we were a decade ago - indeed, in many respects we are further away. As leaders fail and fall - Howard, Brendan Nelson, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Turnbull - we have squandered a host of growth opportunities, investment, and jobs.
Climate change policy has proved just too big an issue for our politicians and our political system to handle. It is reasonable to doubt the new Scott Morrison government will do any better - indeed, we may slide even further backwards.
For Howard, it was that he, stubbornly, wouldn’t ratify Kyoto, despite his support for an emissions trading scheme and a renewable energy target.
Then Brendan Nelson ran hot and cold on an ETS.
Tony Abbott has held most positions, switching from his initial support for an ETS to an undermining of Turnbull because he was prepared to negotiate with Rudd on an ETS. He opposed Julia Gillard’s carbon tax and the RET, then opposed an emissions intensity scheme, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target and, most recently, the National Energy Guarantee. While he did initially commit to the Paris emissions reduction targets, he has recently wanted to exit that agreement as well.
Malcolm Turnbull announces he will challenge Tony Abbott for the leadership in 2015. Photo: Andrew Meares
Rudd failed to deliver his promised ETS, baulking, post Copenhagen, to call the promised double dissolution election on the issue, thereby laying the basis for his initial demise.
Gillard switched from total opposition to a carbon price, to an awkward attempt to introduce one, ultimately losing to Rudd, and he, in turn, losing to Abbott on that attempt.
But, perhaps the hardest to understand and accept, was Turnbull. Having introduced an ETS in the Howard days, and then attempting to support Rudd’s efforts before being rolled by Abbott for doing so, he seized the prime ministership with the strong expectation that he would finally deliver.
The expectation was that he would clearly state a climate policy and transition strategy, and then go out and fight for them, both within the government and throughout the community. The electorate would have cut him a lot of slack if he had done so.
John Howard and Kevin Rudd at The Lodge in 2007, after Howard lost the election. Photo: Glen McCurtayne
Electoral support for decisive climate action has fluctuated over the past couple of decades but the majority of voters have consistently been in favour of it, well ahead of our politicians.
In the most recent Lowy poll, almost 60 per cent of voters thought "global warming is a serious and pressing problem" and that "we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs". About 84 per cent supported renewables, with only 14 per cent believing we should continue to rely on coal and gas.
Inexplicably, while Turnbull did boldly put energy and the environment together under one minister for the first time, he never used that to match those electoral expectations. Indeed, he compounded that weakness with support for the NEG, the fourth best solution, only to finally weaken even that position by attempting to "appease" the Abbott forces, as his leadership became more untenable.
This was further compounded by his leather-jacketed helicopter flights in pursuit of the "dream", rather than the commercial reality, of Snowy Hydro 2.0, and the continuing hint that he would find a way to support a new coal-fired power plant.
New Energy Minister Angus Taylor with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Government House on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Now, enter Morrison, who carries little or no voter expectations on climate, especially given the entrenched image of him bringing a lump of coal into the Parliament and his warning that "we shouldn’t be afraid".
His first act has been to undo the Turnbull innovation, by splitting the environment and energy portfolios, and ranking them second last, and last, respectively, in his list of new ministers, a clear attempt to downplay the significance of both.
While Morrison has said that he won’t abandon the Paris commitments, he has gone out of his way to try to keep the focus on electricity prices, labelling Energy Minister Angus Taylor as "minister for getting electricity prices down".
Taylor has been a long-term opponent of the RET and wind farms in particular - so it is not sure how he will deliver his assigned task.
Bridget McKenzie and Scott Morrison join Stephen and Annabel Tully to see how the drought has affected their property in Quilpie, south-west Queensland on Monday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
On his trip this week to drought-stricken regions, Morrison refused to comment on climate, or any link between climate and the severity of the drought, attempting to simplify matters by insisting on an exclusive focus on drought impacts and assistance.
I doubt Morrison will be able to sustain this dichotomy, although they will try to do so through to the next election, simply arguing, essentially by way of a slogan, that a Morrison government will get electricity prices down, while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s renewable energy targets and strategy will put them up.
In these terms, there will be some reluctance to keep the NEG, because of its linking of energy and emissions reductions, even though it could easily be accepted as simply a framework, that addresses both, with the benefit that it can depoliticise the issue, with this framework being managed by an independent National Security Board.

From a single-father household to journalist, barrister, businessman and politician, it seemed Malcolm Turnbull had his eyes on the PM's office for a long time. 

To keep it, they will make much of the ACCC’s recommendations to toughen up on the "gentailers", default price "guarantees" etc - pretty much where Turnbull left off - but still with a nod in favour of new coal-fired power. Hardly a responsible climate policy.

*John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.


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