Ten years ago today Four Corners broadcast a programme on “the greenhouse mafia”. In hindsight it can be seen as the starting gun for a two year sprint that led to “the first climate change election” It’s worth knowing the history and actions of one of the groups revealed by that documentary.
The first time most Australians will have heard of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network was during a Four Corners documentary in February 2006. That documentary, available here.
It drew in part on the PhD of Guy Pearse. Pearse, then a Liberal Party member and lobbyist, had investigated the stark absence of the tourism, agriculture and industry sectors (among others) from the debates over climate change that took place under the Prime Ministership of John Howard.
Formation of the AIGN
The mining industry and its ideological supporters had spent the19 70s and 1980s winning battle after battle around deregulation of the economy (this is well covered in a number of books, including Mark Davis’ Land of Plenty). The upsurge of concern in the late 1980s over environmental issues and the resurgence of Aboriginal land rights presented a threat to those then-recent victories. In the space of three years three alarming developments took place – the Hawke government’s “Environmentally Sustainable Development” process, its banning of uranium mining at Coronation Hill, and then the High Court judgement on native title (Mabo). Industry was rattled, and one response was the creation of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network.
Something clearly had to be done, and the AIGN was part of the well-funded response.
The AIGN, a small and publicity-shy group of extremely well-connected ex-Federal bureaucrats, was established with the help of the Business Council of Australia and Australian Mining Industry Council (which re-branded in 1995 after going a bit too far on resistance to land-rights legislation).
According to Pearse (2005: 275)
“the AIGN really became a formalisation of the arrangements that the BCA handled in terms of coordinating greenhouse. And they actually set it up independently [and] the executive director of the AIGN… sat in an office … in the Minerals Council.”
The key to its success was an extremely intimate knowledge of both the policies around climate and energy and also the policy-making process. They knew it so well because until they’d joined the AIGN, they’d mostly been in the positions of the bureaucrats they were now lobbying.
The first serious test of the AIGN’s strength was the defeat of the attempt to introduce a Carbon Tax in 1994-5. This tax proposal was put forward by the late Philip Toyne in response to the fact that even then Australia was missing its ‘return emissions to 1990 levels by 2000’ target. It was swatted aside and a purely voluntary emissions reduction scheme – the “Greenhouse Challenge” – was put forward in its place, with AIGN helping to write the rules.
The next major battle for the AIGN was in helping Australia get the best possible deal at the international negotiations that culminated in the Kyoto Protocol. They certainly weren’t alone in this, and Australia won not just a 108% “reduction” target, but also a clause that gave it credit for reducing its land-clearing from a very high rate to a slightly lower one.
Enforcing (the appearance of) business unity
A key feature of the Howard regime’s climate stance was claiming that business was united in opposition to either domestic emissions trading or ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. There were struggles within the AIGN over this, especially with the Australian Gas Association, which left the group and tried to promote gas as a low-carbon electricity alternative.
More intriguingly was a successful At one point an influential ex-Clinton Administration official, Eileen Claussen, visited Australia in the hope of establishing pro-climate action business grouping.
The AIGN sprang into (subtle) action. Again from Pearse’s PhD-
“and they brought her out to Australia at the Australian Greenhouse Office’s expense and did all this lobbying around Australia trying to set up a version of the Pew Centre here in Australia… BP sponsored it and all that sort of shit. And Dick Wells was basically chairing the AIGN at the stage and he said ‘hey, what is this about? We are not being invited to any of these forums. You are paying for it out of Commonwealth funds. I mean what is the story? Don’t we have this open process?’ In the end, business people who AIGN knew very well and AIGN briefed on these things went along to these meetings anyway and told them that they saw no benefit in it so it fell over.” (Pearse, 2005:353)
Years later WWF and the insurance group IAG launched the “Australian Climate Group”, and in 2006 the Australian Conservation Foundation helped midwife a group that made “the Business Case for Early (sic) Action on Climate Change.”
By 2006, because of the millennium drought, international developments like the establishment of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and Al Gore’s film, climate change moved back onto the agenda. No longer able to defer action the Howard government agreed to investigate emissions trading. The AIGN was well-placed – its then chair, John Eyles, served on the emissions trading taskforce that Howard created.
The (blink and you’d miss it) apogee of its public profile came in early 2011, when, in the midst of the battles against Julia Gillard’s “great big tax on everything” emissions trading scheme, the AIGN co-hosted a business briefing in Canberra with the Business Council of Australia
Since then it has settled back into a comfortable rhythm of regular briefings and meetings for its corporate members, and regular policy interventions to battle support for renewables.
Why haven’t we heard more about these guys?
With the honourable exceptions of Guy Pearse and Clive Hamilton there has been little extended investigation of the AIGN (a masters thesis was written almost 20 years ago about the carbon tax campaign). There are various reasons for this;
It’s partly because they are not in the business of advertising themselves or drawing attention to themselves. Uninterested in fighting culture wars, and perhaps also wary of the need to maintain its credibility, the AIGN pointedly refused to get involved in the Lavoisier Group.
With characteristic understatement it writes
“rarely issues press releases on matters being debated, it does issue statements to coincide with the release of consultant reports that it has commissioned and which are released to the public.” (from its 2013-14 Annual Report, page 9)
So, without much in public domain, and with interviews either costly or impossible to do, academics will pick on more visible targets. Behind this may lurk the fear of being labelled “conspiracy theorist”, which is one of the main ways academics swear at each other.
The AIGN is not a conspiracy. They didn’t shoot JFK, or kidnap Harold Holt. But they certainly succeeded in their objective of slowing the pace of climate action and defending the (short-term) interests of fossil fuel producers. If in 1992 you had told its funders that almost 25 years later Australia would be without a carbon tax or any other measures that seriously impinge on emissions, they’d have surely broken into prolonged war-whooping and fist-pumping. Well…