2 pivotal years in Australian #climate history (2006-2007)

At the end of 2005, climate change was still a ‘non-issue’ for most Australian voters and politicians at the Federal level. Two years later the incumbent Coalition Government was swept from power in what has been called ‘the first climate change election’ (Rootes, 2008). This paper describes what happened, offers explanation as to why it happened (a combination of a) physical signals b) the perception that the incumbent government was stale and incompetent around the salient issue, and c) the arrival of new entrants who had previously been quiescent on climate change, such as farmers, insurers, investors and securocrats)

Waking up is hard to do

“During 2006 it was as if the Australian public suddenly woke up to what scientists had been warning of for decades. The climate was changing as a result of the carbon we were pumping into the atmosphere, and it was starting to change very fast.”
(Brett, 2007: 54)

“But it was one thing for Australians to express concern about climate change and another thing to do anything about it, and it took nine years before their anxiety ran deep enough for them to think about changing their votes. For that period most Australians were in a state of denial about the implications of global warming, simultaneously knowing and not knowing. In report after report, scientists rang the alarm bells ever more loudly, yet Australians would not connect their political or personal behaviour to the emerging crisis they were hearing about. The problem seemed so huge and so intractable that it did not bear thinking about.”
(Hamilton, 2007: 159)

John Howard became Australian Prime Minister in March 1996. By January 2006, having won four elections (1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004), he was 66. His opposite number, Kim Beazely, was 57. Both had been senior federal politicians since the early 1980s. Howard had no credible successors, but there was an awareness that he could not govern indefinitely.

Howard had a long history of opposing action on climate change, and had stated that if he had been Prime Minister in 1992, he would not have signed the UNFCCC [Pearse, 2007:72]. On World Environment Day 2002 he had told Parliament that Australia would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This was widely seen to be a decision that he personally owned. In 2003 he had personally vetoed a cabinet proposal for domestic emissions tradin. His vision for Australia’s prosperity, as elucidated in a 1997 Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper and the 2004 Energy White Paper, hinged on energy exports (principally coal and natural gas) to the booming economies of Asia.

Pressures around climate change had been slowly building in Australia, for various reasons. In the public mind, climate change became linked to the prolonged drought that had been affecting rural Australia, and affecting reservoir levels. Several states built, or planned to build, expensive seawater desalination.

A series of international events in 2005 complicated the denial/delay narrative that emissions trading was impossible and that the Kyoto Protocol was ‘dead’.
• On January 1st 2005 the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme entered into force
• In February 2005, Russian ratification had revealed climate action opponents confidence that Kyoto would not happen as misplaced
• The June 2005 G8 meeting in 2005 had focussed on climate change, with a joint statement of National Academies of Science confirming that there was a consensus
• In August Hurricane Katrina had been regarded as a climate-related disaster
• In December 2005 seven US states instituted an emissions trading scheme

In July 2005 Howard had announced the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (AP6), with its emphasis on clean technology and technology transfer to the developing world. The AP6, which was a proposed partnership of Australia, the United States, China, India, South Korea and Japan, was widely perceived to be an attempt to supersede, or at least weaken, the Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCC.

However, the inaugural January 2006 meeting of AP6, held in Sydney after already being postponed once to accommodate US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (who did not attend the re-arranged event), did not go well. According to Hamilton (2007: 193) it “met with sceptical press coverage and public bemusement.”

Meanwhile, in early February, an ABC documentary was broadcast, alleging that Australian climate scientists were being silenced and that Australian climate and energy policy-making had been captured by a self-described ‘greenhouse mafia’ of industry lobbyists.

Howard’s first attempt at containing rising the pressures around climate change, using the ‘technology’ frame had failed. An isolated failed attempt to neutralize or contain an issue may not harm an incumbent’s credibility, but if failures accumulate, the process can become non-linear.

Howard’s next major attempt to reframe climate change within a wider ‘ecological modernisation’ frame came in May, when he began to talk about nuclear power as a future energy source for an emissions-constrained Australia. This was part of President Bush’s proposed ‘Global Nuclear Energy Partnership’. Australian Green Senator Christine Milne took the view that Howard had done this to curry favour with US President George Bush (Milne, 2007)  If it had worked it would have also created political problems for the Labor party, whose supporters and members were more divided on the issues of uranium mining and nuclear power than the government’s.

However, the nuclear debate did not gain traction in Australia (though it has, again, returned in 2015). Instead climate change had risen on the agenda. Thanks to the aforementioned drought and (potential and actual) water restrictions, alongside a change in perceptions of business interests; in April a report had been released on ‘The Business Case for Early Action on Climate Change)

In June two new entrants to the climate debate made a splash. The National Farmers Federation, a politically conservative group aligned to the National Party and previously silent on climate change, released a report that highlighted the benefits for their sector if an emissions trading scheme were to be introduced. (Pearse, 2007: 341)

Secondly, what Pearse (2007:354) believes is ‘Australia’s first-in-depth consideration’ of the security implications of climate change was published. Written by Alan Dupont, ‘one of Australia’s leading defence and strategic studies authorities’, and the prominent climate scientist Graeme Pearman, who had organised the Greenhouse 87 conference, Heating up the Planet: Climate change and security claimed that ‘the wider security implications of climate change have largely been ignored and seriously underestimated by government, by academia and by the media.’

In July 2006  a BBC survey had found Australians to be particularly concerned about climate change, but this was, according to Hamilton (2007: 209), ignored. However,

“A Lowy Institute survey published in October (but conducted in late June and early July) found that 68 per cent of Australians regarded global warming as the third most critical threat to Australia’s vital interests, just behind international terrorism at 73 per cent, and the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers at 70 per cent.”
(Brett, 2007: 54)

This poll was conducted before Al Gore’s September tour of Australia to promote his film An Inconvenient Truth, and before Howard’s poor performance on an ABC Television program;

“The contrast between Howard and the phalanx of business leaders interviewed on a Four Corners program in August 2006 was stark. After more than a decade in office and a mountain of scientific reports from every credible source in the world, in response to a question about the need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emission Howard could still say: ‘Well, I want to see the evidence, I want to see the science’.”
(Hamilton, 2007: 195)

Two weeks earlier, Howard had told what ‘was arguably the biggest lie in Howard’s thirty-three year political career’ (Pearse 2007:377) when he used economic modelling by ABARE to accentuate the costs of emissions reductions.

“To give the impression that deep cuts in emissions would mean an economy in 2050 10 per cent smaller than today with 20 per cent lower wages than today, Howard’s numbers cunningly excluded the words,; ‘compared with business as usual.’” (Pearse 2007:377)

According to Brett, (2007: 54) “The Howard government was caught entirely off-guard” by the Lowy Institute’s poll. The next Federal election was only a little over a year away. Clearly neither the AP6 nor the nuclear power proposal were going to be sufficient to convince voters that Howard’s government was willing and able to respond to climate change.

The next challenge that Howard faced was the release at the end of October 2006 of the United Kingdom Government’s Stern Review , that highlighted the costs of inaction on climate change. The Howard government, which had long been regarded as competent media managers, seemed in disarray.

“Following the lead of [Environment Minister] Ian Campbell, it conjured up the term ‘new Kyoto’, although there was no scheme, no grouping and no process associated with this term. In fact, it was no more than an incantation, one that left the rest of the world bemused. Labor’s environment spokesperson Anthony Albanese had never heard of the ‘new Kyoto’ proposal, so he googled it. The only reference he could find was to the New Kyoto Hotel, of which, he gleefully told parliament, a reviewer had written: ‘The worst aspect of the room was that the window didn’t open and there was no way to cool the room down or get some fresh air’.”
(Hamilton, 2007: 210)

November started badly, with the Federal tourism minister advocating the erection of shade cloth over the entire Great Barrier Reef as a solution to coral bleaching (Pearse, 2007:121), to widespread derision.

Three separate opinion polls raised the political pressure.
• An AC Neilson/Age Poll found that 91 per cent of Australians thought global warming was a serious problem and only 31 per cent were satisfied with the government response.
• Newspoll found that 90 per cent of Australians wanted a shift away from coal; 80 per cent said polluters should pay for their emission; and 79 per cent of Australians polled said Australia should ratify the Kyoto Protocol, including 71 per cent of Coalition voters.
• Another found, over 70 per cent of people agreed that big business is deceiving us by pretending that climate change doesn’t exist’. Over 70 per cent agreed that ‘the government and big business are in bed with each other to ignore climate change’.
(Pearse, 2007: 379-380)

Meanwhile, Howard, a long-term opponent of not only Kyoto ratification but also domestic emissions trading, consulted with a ‘following hand-picked group: Leon Davis (Rio Tinto), Kirby Adams (Bluescope Steel), Don Voelte (Woodside), Don Argus (BHP), and Michael Chaney (BCA and Woodside)’(Pearse, 2007: 262). He told a Business Council of Australia dinner on 13th November that he would establish a ‘task group’ to examine a (global) carbon trading scheme. (Hamilton, 2007: 211-2).
According to Howarth and Foxall (2010: 172) the terms of reference of the group were ‘designed to ensure the position of the resources sector was maintained.’ According to Pearse (2007: 262) “the taskforce included the big polluters: Xstrata, International Power, Alumina Limited, BHP Billiton and Qantas… and as we’ve heard, the AIGNs chief executive, John Daley has taken leave to work for the PM’s taskforce.”

Days later Howard’s Treasurer, and presumptive successor, Peter Costello, gave a disastrous performance on national television, giggling in response to pointed questioning about the proposed global scheme (Hamilton, 2007: 212-3).

In the same month an important business group that had previously been silent on climate, the Insurance Council of Australia [ICA] held an ‘outlook conference’ that was dominated by the issue of climate change. Its new chief excecutive said that the the ICA would produce a ‘strategic blueprint’ in 2007.
(Pearse, 2007: 187)

December brought no relief. Howard’s age was accentuated by the replacement of Kim Beazely as Opposition Leader by Kevin Rudd, aged 50.

During his period in office, Howard had made some political capital of his religious convictions, his belief in the importance of emissions-intensive export industry to the Australian economy and respected by business. All three of these perceptions were challenged in December.

common belief cover

Firstly, a newly formed non-governmental organisation, the $10m Climate Institute, released a report called Common belief: Australia’s faith communities on climate change which “brought together almost all of the main religious groups in Australia to endorse a statement on the need for action.” (Hamilton, 2007: 208)

Secondly, the investment group Citigroup released a report , Climate Change and the ASX100, that cited Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Caltex, One Steel and Iluka in its warning that focusing on emission-intensive exports ‘obscures opportunities and leaves us vulnerable not just to climate change, but to the greenhouse policy decisions of other countries’ (Pearse, 2007: 313)

Thirdly, Price Waterhouse Coopers conducted a survey of business leaders. The survey revealed that over half expected major change including an emissions trading system in Australia within two to five years, with 10 per cent rating the Howard government’s response to climate change as effective.
(Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 19th 2006)

The National Farmer’s Federation returned to the fray;

Accepting that climate change threatened ‘the long-term sustainability of at least 60 per cent of the Australian landmass, the NFF said their policy council had ‘made a unanimous decision to join with the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change in calling for early action on climate change.’
(Pearse, 2007: 182)

Finally, Howard was again seen to be out of touch with the science of climate change. While bushfires that raged in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, he dismissed the link between increased frequency and intensity of bushfires and climate change as ‘esoteric’.
(Hamilton, 2007: 216)

However, if 2006 was a bad year, 2007 would be much worse.

Howard also began by trying to reframe climate change as a water crisis. He replaced his Environment Minister with Malcolm Turnbull and expanded the title to “Minister for Environment and Water Resources.” At the end of January they together announced a $10 bn scheme for water projects. And according to Hamilton (2007: 219) “whenever asked about climate change and his Government’s indefensible record, he would immediately begin talking about water.”

In February the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released, and in March Nicholas Stern visited Australian briefly, and garnered positive press. Labor continued to make political capital of climate change, holding a well-publicised national summit in Parliament House in late March, having asked respected economist Ross Garnaut to produce a report about the most efficient way for Australia to respond to climate change.

In April, Howard’s lack of answers on even his reduced and reframed agenda of water security was highlighted when, at another joint press conference on the Murray-Darling Basin strategy, he “announced that unless there was heavy rainfall before mid-May, there would be no allocation to irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin. “We should all pray for rain,” he said.”  (Brett, 2007: 56)

Also in April the Federal Treasury Secretary was reported to have told a departmental gathering
‘All of us (in treasury) would wish that we had been listened to more attentively over the past several years (on water and climate change)… There is no doubt that policy outcomes would have been far superior had our views been more influential.’
(The Age, 2007)

At the end of May a report on emissions trading, which the business lobby had heavily shaped, was released. It did not help Howard recapture lost momentum and credibility, partly because he had spent ten years denying both the need for and effectiveness of emissions trading. The delay in the arrival of the scheme (2012) and its large compensation for industry, also weakened usefulness as a vote winter.

In this context Howard’s announcement of minor schemes such as “a program to improve energy efficiency in schools, and rebates for households which installed solar power” (Brett, 2007: 55) and a disastrous foray into internet campaigning, (Brett, 2007: 23; Hearne, L. (2007) made a weakening leader look even weaker.

Howard’s final hope to recapture credibility on climate change came with the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit (APEC) in September, held in Sydney, two months before what was widely regarded as the most likely date for the next Federal election.

Howard’s ‘APEC bounce’ never happened. The security for the event was penetrated by television comedians, leading to the perception of weakness and incompetence. Kevin Rudd gained plaudits for giving his address in Mandarin. Finally, the climate change declaration contained no targets or timetables for emissions reductions, but simply an “aspirational” statement around energy intensity reductions.

Nothing in the election campaign itself helped reverse the momentum of the last two years. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that at a Cabinet meeting in September Howard had once again vetoed ratification of Kyoto, over the wishes of his colleagues.

Howard lost not only the election, but also his seat (only the second time an Australian Prime Minister has suffered such indignity). Kevin Rudd’s first official act as Prime Minister was the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. He then flew to the UNFCCC conference in Bali and received a prolonged standing ovation.

Expectations were high.

Table 1 Howard’s tactics to contain the issue of climate change and why each of them failed.

howards tactics

What made people wake up?
I contend that there were a few international sensitising factors (Hurricane Katrina, Kyoto ratification) that undercut arguments for delay, amplifying factors (the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the fracturing of the united Business front), a perception that the Howard government was aging and exploitation of the issue by the political opposition. Above all else there were physical impacts (water restrictions, drought and bush fires) to which the Howard government’s response was perceived as inadequate.

For Brett (2007: 57) “The Howard government’s record on climate change is a casebook study of the policy weakness of Strong Leadership: its propensity to construct policy problems in terms of friends and enemies, its lack of interest in new ideas, it’s imperative to control, and its vulnerability to seduction by special interests….”


Brett, J. (2007) Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard Quarterly Essay 28
Melbourne: Black Inc

Hamilton, C. (2007) Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Hearne, L. (2007) “Howard clip becomes spam magnet” Sydney Morning Herald 18 July 2007

Howarth, N. and Foxall, A. (2010) The Veil of Kyoto and the politics of greenhouse gas mitigation in Australia. Poltical Geography Vol. 29, 167-176.

Milne, C. (2007) Correspondence to ‘Reaction Time’. Quarterly Essay 28, p.112-114.

Pearse, G. (2007) High and Dry:John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future Melbourne: Viking

Rootes, C. (2008) The first climate change election? The Australian general election of 24 November 2007 Environmental Politics Volume 17, Issue 3, pp. 473-480.

Sydney Morning Herald (2006) Business would welcome carbon trading

The Age (2007) ‘PM and ministers round on treasury head’ 5th April

2 thoughts on “2 pivotal years in Australian #climate history (2006-2007)

Add yours

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting it.

    Point of readability: I was disoriented when I read, “However, if 2006 was a bad year, 2007 would be worse,” and needed to rescan the document. I think all the (2007) references had some programming effect on me. I think 2005 / 2006 / 2007 year subtitles might have anchored me a bit more. I wonder whether other readers might benefit from that.

  2. Hi Justin,
    I completely see what you mean; a very good point. I have added a few more ‘2006’ references to some of the months, and hopefully that will help other readers!

    All best wishes


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