#Australian #climate politics – a crazy week explained

screamThe policy oscillations around a price on carbon in Australia are one of the few sources of reliable and seemingly endlessly renewable political energy.  This article tries to answer the following questions

  1. How did we get here (a quick run through Australian climate policy debacles – skip this if you are familiar with the sorry saga)
  2. What has happened in the last week (from Sunday 4th to Thursday 8th ).
  3. What is an “EIS” and who wants one (and why)
  4. What might happen next/what to watch for

It is obviously, necessarily, written at speed. If I have got facts wrong, misunderstood things, not considered the right things please tell me.  At the present this is light on the corporate desires (though these seem to be being ignored!).  I also want to write more on where the opponents of action (Bernardi, Kelly, Pyne etc) come from, and how they interact.


  1. How did it come to this? 


After an early period of naive enthusiasm (1988 to 1992) Australia settled down into a position (at the national level – the state level is of course lumpier and messier) of resistance to any strong action on climate change that went beyond window dressing.  There was a very successful campaign by business to frame climate change as something that would be very expensive to do anything about, and an issue on which Australia deserved special treatment internationally. That changed in 2006-7, very quickly, thanks to both international factors (ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the growth of emissions trading, Al Gore’s film, the UK Stern Review into the economics of climate change) and domestic issues (the Millennium drought, social movement activism, the Labor Party using the issue to paint Howard as old and out of touch). 


The key event came in late 2006. Under enormous pressure, Howard did a U-turn and appointed a committee that produced a report.  Howard said that if re-elected the Liberals would start a programme that would begin in 2012.  But Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, and took office in November 2007. He  announced ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and said Australia would have an emissions trading scheme (ETS)  starting in 2010. The process for making that scheme, which he called the ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme’, became horrendously bogged down, and was hated on all sides.

There was a battle inside the Liberal National Opposition over whether to support the CPRS.  Many MPS thought it was electoral suicide not to do so (Rudd was popular, the public remained concerned about climate change).

There were signs of problems ahead though.  As Hartcher (2010) notes  – “Barnaby Joyce led a populist grassroots revolt [against a price on carbon]. Under his influence, the National Party became an opinion leader for the first time in decades.”

Everything changed in late 2009.  There were two main factors.  One, the Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was determined to cut a deal with the Rudd government, to avoid Rudd being able to use it as an election issue.  Turnbull negotiated extra concessions, but the National Party was vehemently opposed, and so were enough of his Liberal colleagues  (Turnbull had rubbed many up the wrong way, and had lost credibility over ‘Utegate’ (google it!).  The ABC’s Four Corners programme in November 2009 revealed the doubt National MPs and some Liberals felt.   On 1 December the Liberals replaced  Turnbull with Tony Abbott. (Abbott had previously supported an emissions trading scheme) and withdrew support for the CPRS, which then was voted down for the second time.

The second factor was the failure of the big international conference at which the World was supposed to make a deal, in Copenhagen, collapsed.

The public mood shifted, with Rudd’s image damaged, and that image in tatters after it was revealed in late April that Labor would not try to reintroduce the CPRS for three years.  Meanwhile, individuals and groups disputing the reality of climate change became more and more vocal.

Abbott released an alternative to emissions trading called ‘Direct Action’ in early 2010 (which the deposed Malcolm Turnbull described as ‘bullshit’).    He also promised to repeal whatever emissions trading scheme that was introduced by Labor.

Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard in June 2010.  Gillard tried to ‘park’ the issue of climate change, with a proposal for a ‘Citizen’s Assembly’  to investigate the issue (this was laughed out of existence) and a promise that there would be no carbon tax in a government she led.  The Federal Election in August 2010 resulted in a hung parliament.   Gillard was able to get the support of a Green and three Independent MPs. The price of this was … a price on carbon.  A Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change was formed, and produced a proposal for an ETS and also other institutions that would support both renewable energy and ‘clean energy’ more generally.

The political battles over this were, to put it mildly, ferocious, with industry groups which had supported the CPRS deciding to oppose Gillard’s scheme.  Abbott continued the ‘great big tax on everything/toxic tax based on a lie’ rhetoric throughout 2011 and 2012.  The ETS came in on 1 July 2012, and the sky did not fall. Emissions began to fall.

The Abbott government, formed after the defeat of Labor (led again by Kevin Rudd, briefly), began the process of repealing the Gillard legislation.   The ETS was repealed in 2014, and replaced by the ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’, the core of the Direct Action scheme.  Renewable energy, support for which began under the Howard government, was attacked (the Abbott record on climate and environment is outside the scope of this article, but see here).

However, international action was picking up steam again.  In advance of the 2015 international climate meeting in Paris, Australia proposed to a new emissions reduction target – 26 to 28% by 2030.  To reach that, the Direct Action scheme would need a review (to put it mildly – many critics say it could not possibly achieve the targets).

In September 2015 Malcolm Turnbull challenged for the leadership of the Liberal Party (and therefore the Prime Ministership). It is widely reported that to win he had to agree not to change existing policy on either same sex marriage or climate change.  In July 2016 the Coalition Government won the Federal Election by the narrowest of margins, with barely a whisper spoken of climate change.

In August the Climate Change Authority – which had been set up as part of Gillard’s 2011 package, and which Abbott had tried but failed to abolish, put out a report which, as Slezak (2016) puts it

“advised the Australian government to institute two emissions trading schemes and strengthen regulations in order to meet Australia’s 2030 emission reduction targets and to allow it to lift those targets in line with international climate change obligations.

The move is expected to put pressure on the new environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, to strengthen Australia’s climate policies but it has received a mixed response.”

The problem for the Federal government is this.  The 26-28% target is going to be hard to reach (aside from whether it is adequate or not – in my opinion and that of people far smarter and better informed than me it is not). Help would be needed, aside from the Direct Action schemes ‘Emissions Reduction Fund’, from the renewable energy sector (i.e. if we burn less coal and gas to get electricity, by having more energy efficiency, solar panels and wind farms, then our emissions will go down).  But there is no renewable energy target at the Federal level beyond 2020, and the states (especially South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory are impatiently getting on with their own schemes.  Turnbull and Frydenberg’s attempt to link renewables to a blackout in  South Australia in late September irritated environmentalists, and spooked business, which – as is happening more and more frequently – made a plaintive plea for policy certainty (Murphy, 2016, 5th October)

Meanwhile, in April Labor announced its plan for

“two emissions trading schemes – one for big industrial polluters and an electricity industry model similar to one once backed by Malcolm Turnbull – in a climate policy that trumps the Coalition’s ambition but minimises the hit on household power bills and leaves important detail to be determined post-election”  (Taylor, 2016, 26 April)

The Nationals recently lost a by-election (in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly) an electorate called Orange with a 35% swing against them.  That’s not a typo. Thirty-five percent.  A very astute friend of mine reckons that the Nationals

“after losing the Orange by election with a 35 per cent swing, have just told Turnbull all deals are off and that they will say/do whatever they want to fend off one nation…and to keep things looking cohesive Turnbull is playing along”

There were other orange-inspired events… For example,  the other problem is that the international mood music may be changing again.  The election of Donald Trump was hailed by opponents of climate action, and there was backbench grumbling that about Australia ratifying the Paris agreement after Trump’s election (footnote 1)

Two important things to remember in all this

2. So, where are we now?

There are some ‘rusted on’ opponents of climate change action, in the Liberal and National parties. Malcolm Turnbull’s personal authority is low (the Coalition scraped back in with a 1 seat majority remember, at the 2016 election.)  These opponents genuinely and absolutely believe that either climate change is not happening at all or if it is happening it is being exaggerated massively to support a ‘left-wing agenda’ (on a sliding scale from a slightly bigger regulatory role for bureaucrats all the way through to a One World State).

So, now we turn to the events of the last week.  It’s based mostly on articles that have appeared on the Guardian and the Canberra Times.  Other reliable news sources welcome.

Turnbull flew a kite on 1st December, saying that the 20017 Direct Action review “may result in some changes” to the federal renewable energy target. (Murphy, 2016 1 Dec).

Yes, but there was going to need to be some meat thrown to the opponents…. Parkinson, (2016, 5 Dec) suggests that to try to dance their way

“through internal politics, the demands of the fossil fuel lobby and comparisons with Labor’s own proposals, Turnbull and Frydenberg appear to have concluded that the best way to appease the far-right rump of the Coalition is to abandon direct support for renewables, help open up the Galilee Basin coal resource and push for more coal seam gas.”

Reports emerged on the weekend that the Coalition is considering offering a $1 billion concessional loan to help build a rail link between the Galilee Basin coal projects and the port at Abbot’s Point. The idea has appalled environment groups.

On Sunday 4th December  Murphy, (2016, 4 Dec) reported that

“The Turnbull government has left open the option of reinstating a form of carbon trading in the electricity sector, allowing its looming review of the Direct Action climate policy to consider policy mechanisms to reduce emissions on a “sector-by-sector basis”.

The government has also put the emissions reduction fund and its safeguard mechanism on the table for the review, which will be conducted internally within the federal Department of Environment and Energy, and report at the end of 2017.”

She warned

“But if the government attempts to use the review to create a more ambitious climate policy, or to reopen the carbon pricing debate, that will almost certainly trigger significant internal divisions within Coalition ranks, with conservatives and Nationals already engaged in preliminary positioning on the issue.”

Long-term viewers of climate change nodded sagely, charged their tablets and grabbed some popcorn. Some of us even bought stocks in popcorn producers.

On the morning of Monday 5th December  Frydenberg did indeed announce the terms and conditions of the Direct Action review saying an EIS would be looked at in the review to be led by his department, “We know there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme”.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherhill, who is advocating for a states-based emissions intensity scheme, was impressed

“It is something we have advocated for and it’s a sensible reform. Of course we want it to be implemented and soon. We’ve asked for the Finkel review to be brought forward and it’s pleasing that the review that was going to be in 2017 is ready to commence now…  [The EIS is]  an excellent policy because it gives you affordability, stability and cleanliness in relation to your electricity system”.

(Owen, 2016)

Here’s part of Frydenberg’s interview, at just after 8am, on the ABC.

JOSH FRYDENBERG: But, Kim, it’s important to understand, we reject an economy-wide approach.

So what this review has indicated is that we will look at a sector-by-sector approach.

Now, as you know, the electricity sector is the one that produces the most emissions; around a third of Australia’s emissions come from that sector.

We know that there’s been a large number of bodies that have recommended an emissions intensity scheme, which is effectively a baseline and credit scheme. We’ll look at that…

Remember that, okay?  And it is not a slip of the tongue.  Massola and Morton (2016, 6 Dec) point out that before the ABC interview (they don’t say when, but they mean days not hours) Frydenberg had been interviewed by Fairfax journalists.

“In the interview, Mr Frydenberg confirmed that a line in the terms of reference for the review that says it would look at “opportunities and challenges of reducing emissions on a sector-by-sector basis” was a reference to an emissions intensity-style scheme.”

Massola and Morton (2016, 5 Dec) observe that

“In a carefully-calibrated message designed to reassure those Coalition MPs concerned the Turnbull government could take on a green tinge, Mr Frydenberg said the review would balance a “trilemma” of concerns – “energy security, energy affordability and the transition to a lower emissions future”.

“We must never forget that there are thousands of Australian families who struggle to meet power bills, and many blue collar workers who feel their jobs in energy intensive industries are now under threat,” he said.

It didn’t work.  It probably didn’t help that the Green Army, a pet project of the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was (probably) axed (McIlroy, 2016), but regardless the fur began to fly.

Massola and Morton (2015, 6 Dec) hit the phones

“Fairfax Media spoke to 10 Coalition MPs on Monday about the prospect of an emissions intensity scheme for the electricity sector and all of them were scathing at the prospect of what is, in effect, a carbon price being re-introduced in Australia, regardless of the relative cost.”

The first quote they report comes from Cory Barnardi who  said transitioning to an emissions intensity scheme was

“one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. It is not in the Australian national interest for the government to chase policies that ingratiate it with the Greens…. To get back on the right economic track, we need the cheapest electricity in the world.”

Bernardi also later called it ‘economic suicide’ (see Lewis and Hudson, 2016)

Massola and Morton (2015, 6 Dec) also quoted

“NSW MP Craig Kelly said it was fair enough for Mr Frydenberg to leave “everything on the table” as the review was undertaken but then added: “I do not see how any form of carbon trading scheme would put us at a national competitive advantage”

Meanwhile, Michael Owen of the Australian also got this from Christopher Pyne (Owen, 2016)

Mr Pyne, the Minister for Defence Industry and a South Australian moderate, yesterday said the government would not support any form of carbon tax.

Asked whether a price on carbon in the energy sector might help improve the stability and ­affordability of power supplies, Mr Pyne said, “no”.

“The last carbon tax was a $15.4 billion hit on the Australian economy,” he said. “As soon as that was removed, of course, energy prices dropped quite dramatically. So we have absolutely no intention of returning to a carbon tax. We will meet and surpass our 2020 emissions targets with the policies we have in place. We have an ambitious target for 2030 of 26 to 28 per cent reductions … we are doing all the things that you would want to do to protect our ­environment.”

Massola and Morton also spoke to business lobbyists, at least the ones who weren’t concussed from banging their heads against their desks in frustration-

 Australian Energy Council chief Matthew Warren, representing the bulk of generators, said the most important thing for the industry was a policy that would withstand changes in government.

“We’d go for almost anything that has a substantial chance of succeeding and garners bipartisan support, because we can build on it,” he said.

Mr Warren said a decade of uncertainty on climate and energy policy had driven away investment, leaving a system “now materially degrading before our eyes”.

Warren’s point was echoed by the head of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Wilcox: “Bipartisanship on climate and energy is the only way forward. The alternative is costly failure,”

Incidentally  on Monday there was what has been called a  “crisis meeting”

between the nation’s top gas suppliers and federal industry minister – and former environment minister – Greg Hunt in ­Melbourne. Hunt, who has described state bans on exploration as “negligent”, told the meeting that “blanket” moratoriums on gas ­fracking meant the country would face supply constrictions when there “is no shortage of supply”. (Vorrath, 2016)

Lewis and Hudson (2016) also quote Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin as saying that “she had never seen such a reaction from backbenchers on an issue like she had yesterday.”

“My phone has not stopped all day. People are really angry that they sense the party will re-litigate those issues which they had considered closed and dealt with,”

Also quoted (sorry, have ‘lost’ the source)

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said last night said the position of the Coalition and National Party was that “we don’t support a carbon tax”.

“We’ve said that quite clearly. So, I don’t know, they can investigate possibilities,” he said on the ABC’s 7.30, referring to the climate review.

“We’re honouring our commitments. We’re going to meet our commitments to the Paris protocols. In fact, we’re going to outdo it.”

[Interjection by the historically-minded author – This is the Kyoto Conga-  all over again – where a weak target (in that case 108% plus a land-clearing get out clause) was negotiated, and then followed by all sorts of jiggery-pokery about ‘exceeding the target’.]

Tuesday 6th

As if the backbench rebellion wasn’t enough, on Tuesday morning it was revealed that the top energy network lobbying group, the ENA, had teamed up with scientists to advocated for… an emissions intensity scheme….

The Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap released on Tuesday builds on the Future Grid scenarios put together by CSIRO and the ENA and others in the past two years, which mostly highlighted the massive change in our electricity system, driven by the falling costs of renewable energy and storage and a major shift to distributed generation.

(Parkinson, 2016: 6 December)

Murphy (2016, 7 December) says Malcolm Turnbull tried to attempted to hose down a breakout within his party.  She quotes him as saying

“The review of the climate policy which will be undertaken next year has been part of the Coalition’s policy for many years, long before I was prime minister…  This is absolutely part of our policy. It’s part of the policy we took to the election in 2013 and 2016 and, indeed, we took to the election in 2010. This is business as usual.”

According to Murphy (2016, 6 December)

“Coalition sources have told Guardian Australia Frydenberg spoke to a number of opponents of carbon pricing over the course of Tuesday.”

There was a cabinet meeting in middle of day,and after that (we will have to wait 20 or so years for the minutes, but there will doubtless be one or two leaks before then…) Josh Frydenberg backflipped on 3AW  saying “It’s always been our policy to have a review… I didn’t mention an emissions intensity scheme – that’s not in any document the Coalition has put out.”

On Tuesday evening, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said

“I’m sure the last thing ministers want to do is to reopen questions that were settled for our side back in 2009. We’re against a carbon tax. We’re against an ETS. We’re against anything that’s a carbon tax or an ETS by stealth. We are the party of lower power prices and should let Labor be the party that artificially increases prices under Green pressure.”

While the anti-climate action sorts were celebrating a famous victory, Frydenberg’s erstwhile fans were fuming.  Katharine Murphy, Guardian reporter and erstwhile Frydenberg fan,  wrote

The retreat is, frankly, unseemly.

Actually, the retreat is more than unseemly, it’s pathetic – and the consequences of it stretch far beyond yet another apparent failure to do what needs to be done to ensure our economy makes an orderly transition to the carbon-constrained world that the Turnbull government willingly accepted when it signed Australia up to the Paris international climate agreement this time 12 months ago

Environmentalists were, understandably, underwhelmed.  John Connor of the Climate Institute made the point that

If a market mechanism is off the table, the remaining options are one or more of the following:

  • regulatory intervention to ensure steady replacement of aging power plants;
  • massively increased taxpayer expenditure to top up the near-empty Emissions Reduction Fund or other subsidies; or
  • policies set collectively by state governments.

Or we maintain the policy chaos of the last decade with bits and pieces of the above.

(Connor, 2016)

On the question of what took so long to backflip, Michelle Grattan is interesting, writing in the Conversation observes

The question remains why, given the Frydenberg statements were made early Monday, it took until late Tuesday, after cabinet, to have him kill the EIS option in his humiliating backdown. Perhaps it was thought, just for a while, that common sense could prevail.

Wednesday 8th December

So after the backflip by Frydenberg, with their tails up, the anti-action people wanted a definitive statement from the Prime Minister. Cory Bernadi, who had also called for Australia to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (Martin, 2016), was clear.

“It’s ultimately up to the Prime Minister,” Bernardi told 2GB radio. “He’s got to put a definitive statement out that says we are not going to have an emissions trading scheme.” Tick. (Vorrath, 2016)

Turnbull was not throwing himself on any grenades for Frydenberg. When asked why Frydenberg had flown the kite,

You’d have to ask Josh Frydenberg,” Turnbull said.

“We will not be imposing a carbon tax and we will not be imposing an emissions trading scheme, however it’s called, and an emissions intensity scheme is an emissions trading scheme.” (Di Stefano, 2016)

Turnbull did however ‘clarify’ matters, saying he

would not do anything that increased electricity costs for consumers, especially when households were struggling to pay their bills. (Hutchens, 2016)

Meanwhile, the banging heads-against-desks continued.  Collins and Slezak (2016) open their report with this

Business and environment groups have expressed dismay at the federal government for scrapping consideration of an emissions intensity trading scheme in the electricity sector as part of its 2017 review of climate change policies, just a day after floating the possibility.

On Wednesday a range of experts said the abrupt backflip by the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, on Tuesday night would create further regulatory uncertainty, which was a recipe for higher power prices down the track.

But despite chalking up an internal victory by seeing off a carbon price for the electricity sector, conservatives within the Turnbull government are doubling down on efforts to limit future ambition in climate change policy.

 Thursday 9th

As if things couldn’t get any worse for Turnbull and Frydenberg (who was in Antarctica by this stage), the Age reported that (Morton, 2016)

“The Turnbull government has been sitting on advice that an emissions intensity scheme – the carbon policy it put on the table only to rule out just 36 hours later – would save households and businesses up to $15 billion in electricity bills over a decade.

“While Malcolm Turnbull has rejected this sort of scheme by claiming it would push up prices, analysis in an Australian Electricity Market Commission report handed to the government months ago finds it would actually cost consumers far less than other approaches, including doing nothing.”

And the first Finkel Review report, to be discussed on Friday at the Council of Australian Governments meeting, has leaked.

Murphy (2016, 7 Dec) reports

“Finkel has also given implicit endorsement to an emissions intensity trading scheme for the electricity industry to help manage the transition to lower-emissions energy sources.

“While there is no concrete recommendation to that effect, the report, obtained by Guardian Australia, references the evidence from energy regulators that such a scheme would integrate best “with the electricity market’s pricing and risk management framework” and “had the lowest economic costs and the lowest impact on electricity prices”.

The Prime Minister’s response? To attack renewables again

Interviewed on Melbourne radio station 3AW on Thursday, Mr Turnbull contrasted Labor’s position with the Coalition’s determination to keep prices down. He stressed that the government would not impose a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.

“I just want to be very, very clear that energy prices are too high already. We will do everything that we can to put downward pressure on energy prices,” he said.

(Morton, 2016, 8 Dec)

Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler told a press conference that Mr Turnbull has turned energy policy into a shambles and thrown Mr Frydenberg under a a bus. (Morton 8 Dec) with Mark Butler labelling Turnbull as “pathetic and gutless”
[Interjection by the historically-minded author – This is a re-run of Rudd in 2009, personalising it on Turnbull, spitting him from the Nationals and the right of his own party]

Meanwhile, Climate Institute deputy chief executive Erwin Jackson said without a plan the government risked turning Australia into a third-world economy. (Morton 8 Dec)

The conspiracy theorists among us might wonder if Turnbull was using  Frydenberg to fly a policy kite?  Grattan says no.

Sources deny Frydenberg was despatched to float an EIS, and there’s no reason to disbelieve this. They maintain the usually-careful minister just went further than he should have when elaborating on the review’s terms of reference, which had been approved by cabinet. Certainly Frydenberg has accepted full responsibility.

And on Friday morning, doubtless the fur will fly at the COAG meeting.  I wonder how Alan Finkel will feel about having his legs chopped out from under him?  I wonder how the people who supported Turnbull will react?   Popcorn is called for.

3. Why an EIS?

The  most useful articles I’ve read on this comes from Lenore Taylor.  Here’s one from April 2016

And here’s from her August 30 report on the majority/minority report within the Climate Change Authority. Most of them went for an emissions intensity trading scheme, but two – Clive Hamilton and David Karoly – produced a minority report:

The CCA is also understood to recommend a strengthening of the current “safeguards mechanism” for other big polluters. The dissenters argue the authority is supposed to make recommendations based on what is scientifically necessary and leave it up to the politicians to make the political compromises – and that the recommended policy cannot meet the increasingly ambitious greenhouse gas reductions that Australia agreed to in Paris last year.

Here is Morton (2016) explaining it

An emissions intensity scheme sets a limit on how much a power station can freely emit for every unit of power generated. Cleaner generators that emitted less than the limit earn credits, and sell them to high-emitting generators above the baseline.

The limit would be gradually reduced. Proponents say it means coal would effectively subsidise cleaner power. They say the scheme would also encourage a greater range of types of cleaner power, which would increase competition and further reduce costs.

Why is it being talked about? Environmentalists and some business want something, anything, to get ‘progress’ and momentum going.  Some of its proponents, especially the ones who consider themselves ‘close’ to Turnbull are probably feeling a bit bruised.

And it doesn’t hurt that the EIS  will benefit gas over renewables.  As one of the very best of the Australian energy commentators, Giles Parkinson, puts it –

The fossil fuel industry will want to support a baseline and credit scheme, because its structure will favour gas over wind and solar – at least until the rapid price fall in those technologies force a redesign of the energy markets.

BHP Billiton issued a statement last week saying that the solution to clean energy had to be “more than renewables.” RenewEconomy sought clarification on what this meant; if BHP was favouring carbon capture and storage, or nuclear energy, as the Institute of Public Affairs suggested last week.

(Parkinson, 2016, 5 December)

4. What to look for

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, no?  Before looking to the soap opera of the Liberal Party, lets make a few statements.

  • The price of renewable technology will continue to drop, but its the rate of its uptake is up for grabs. If policy didn’t make a difference to this, we probably wouldn’t be fighting over it quite so much!
  • I think states continuing to push for renewables targets (esp SA, Vic, Queensland and the ACT), and perhaps an emissions intensity target. Then copping the blame when things go wrong (and they do).
  • Pressure around both energy prices/energy issues and climate will continue to intensify. Both prices and carbon dioxide levels will climb inexorably, with all that entails…
  • The trend towards major parties losing votes to the minors ones will continue

4a) Short term

Is Turnbull toast?  Is Frydenber g mortally wounded? “Probably” and “probably” is the best argument I can give, which is, I realise, crushingly banal.

Grattan writes

“There is a significant if fine line between pragmatism and buckling….  But to refuse even to consider an EIS for the electricity sector – which is a long way from a broad emissions trading scheme, or a carbon tax – is abject surrender, and a major failure of Turnbull’s nerve and leadership.”

It’s a quote I over-use already, but the cement is settling for Malcolm Turnbull #2.

Former US vice-president Walter Mondale once observed that political image is like mixing cement. When it’s wet you can move it around and shape it, he said. But at some point it hardens, and then there is almost nothing you can do.

Oakes, L. 2011. Like concrete, lie could sink Gillard. The Australian, 12 March.

Meanwhile, Di Stefano, 2016,  interviews some interesting people –

Eslake said one of the prime minister’s biggest problems has been the resurgent right within his party, clearly emboldened by Turnbull’s slumping popularity, and international political events like Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory.

“Malcolm Turnbull has very little authority within his own government, which was eroded by the election outcome,” he said.

“It’s been further eroded by the victory of Donald Trump, because now you see the media taking a lot of interest in what George Christensen or Cory Bernardi has to say about what the government should actually do. He seems to be in a weak position to lead his party for reform. Meaning he can’t lead the people to reform.”

I suspect Turnbull is toast, but the one thing that can save him is if the Right cannot coalesce around an acceptable (both to them and the public) candidate.  Presumably Tony Abbott fancies his chances?  But so might Matt Canavan, Scott Morrison etc.  The LNP has painted itself into a corner. This is ably summed up by (Waleed Aly, 8 December)

Because we’ve known for years now – at least seven of them – that the Coalition can never offer a policy like that. Not even if its leader wants to. Not even when this would unite environmentalist and business groups (as it presently does). And not even when the most obvious, low-cost policy is the one that most closely matches the Liberal Party’s ideological convictions: market-based responses. Indeed, the greatest hallmark of the Coalition’s baked-in streak of climate denialism is the extent to which it will contort itself not to have a credible policy.

Will there be withdrawal from the Paris Agreement?  I think the Australian government would wait to see what President Trump does  (just typing those words is scary).  But just talking about it

4b) Longer term

One of the joys of writing for the Conversation is the quality of the (moderated!) comments.  Here’s three from under my latest pieceabout what might be coming.

More concretely,

Prices will spiral up and supply disruption will increase … then the only other way for a Government to proceed is to go down the NBN path

Your not allowing for the other more likely path. That we end up with a Trump or worse.

As Marc has documented, we have had a chaotic and disastrous climate policy for a decade or more. It hasn’t lead to a more rational one, the opposite has happened, climate deniers in the government are stronger and more emboldened.

Bernardi and Bolt are not fools – they want to chaos to ensure – people concerned about climate have been reassuring the population that the energy transition can be relatively painless. It is their interest to make it the opposite.

And the second

“guess what comes next? i’ll try. the’ll blame the labor states for getting too far ahead of the curve in reckless pursuit of unsound feel good solutions driven by their desperate political needs because they’re so unpopular thus setting off price rises and blackouts due to energy insecurity. then in of a fit of spite they’ll abolish the position of chief scientist & bar all scientists on the gov’t payroll from talking to the press without clearing their statements first with pm&c like harper did in canadia. -a.v.”

and the third

Thanks Marc,

It is possible that this latest development may actually be a blessing in disguise.

By taking ‘market based mechanisms’ off the table the odd chaps in the LNP may actually be enhancing the cause of energy system transition.

This policy vacuum is going to hurt consumers. Prices will spiral up and supply disruption will increase as large coal thermal plant is retired and no one is prepared to invest in replacements or upgrades in such an uncertain environment.

As we see with Hazelwood shut down and the SA blackouts, regardless of the commercial structures or the purist view of energy policy being in the market realm when the power cost go up, when there is no supply, Governments get the blame.

If we cannot have a trading scheme, which is a second or third order effector anyway, then the only other way for a Government to proceed is to go down the NBN path…….. re-nationalise, design, stabilise, commence the re-build then down the track re-introdcue a private industry role where that makes sense.

This will be a more direct, faster, cheaper and more socially equitable approach than market based mechanisms .

4c) Academically

There has been enough happening over the last few days to keep students and academics busy for years, or until the apocalypse; whichever comes first (the former, I suspect). From a political theory point of view you could tackle this using various lenses.

Under advocacy coalitions you’d say the coalitions hopelessly conflicted, with no final policy-maker able to arbitrate, and a hurting stalemate persisting.  From a Punctuated Equilibrium point of view, the policy image is terminal, but new forces cannot make a new one.  From a ‘multiple streams’ approach, there are streams over-flowing, but nowhere for that flow to go….

There might also be some mileage in comparing the last ‘veto coalition’ – spectacularly successful between 1993 and 2006, and the current one.

The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network was discreet, and had the support of the Prime Minister. It steered clear of arguments about whether climate change was happening (it left that to the Lavoisier group etc) and kept the focus tightly on economic interests. It successful prevented/retarded other groups from forming. In essence, it was not gaudy.   It was/is a tight and effective policy group, immensely (overwhelmingly) powerful and effective for 13 years (1993-2006) and after that significantly so

The current oppositional policy network is conducting its business very very publicly.  There are questions about how united and powerful it might actually be, especially if the LNP government were to fall….

Final “thoughts”

It am supposed to be an aspiring academic, but I am also a citizen and a human being.  I think it is a clusterfuck of apocalyptic proportions, but that it doesn’t actually matter that much, since the (very very bleak) history of this species is now ‘baked in’.  So it goes.

Only an idiot makes predictions about Australian climate policy.  I am perfectly qualified, therefore.  I think that Labor will continue to present as small a target as possible for as long as possible.  “Never interrupt the enemy while he is making a mistake” as Napoleon once put it.

The Liberals and Nationals are now floating free from the sort of business influence that the cartoon models of politics (smoke filled room, men in top-hats pulling the puppets’ strings) and are a law unto themselves.  They can’t back down now, can’t U-turn.   It is going to be fascinating.


Aly, W. 2016. Malcolm Turnbull will never have a credible climate change policy. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December.

Collins, A. and Slezak, M. 2016. Emissions trading backflip a recipe for price rises, say business groups. The Guardian, 7 December.

Connor, J. 2016. Turnbull’s carbon capitulation is irresponsible and will continue chaos. Reneweconomy, 7 December.

Di Stefano, M. 2016. The Environment Minister Denies Saying Something He Literally Said 33 Hours Ago. Buzzfeed, 7 December.

Hutchens, G. 2016. Malcolm Turnbull rules out carbon tax or emissions trading. The Guardian, 7 December.

Lewis, R. and Hudson, P. 2016. Cory Bernardi slams Liberal’s carbon pricing on power companies idea. The Australian, 6 December.

Martin, S. 2016. Cory Bernardi calls on Australia to withdraw from Paris climate accord. The Australian, 7 December.

Massola, J. and Morton, A. 2016. Power prices, energy security, emissions cuts – and carbon pricing – on the table in climate review. The Canberra Times, 5 December.

Massola, J. and Morton, A. 2016. ‘One of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard’: Coalition conservatives furious over climate review. The Canberra Times, 6 December.

Massola, J. and Morton, A. 2016. Backbench forces Josh Frydenberg into humiliating climate policy backdown. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December.

McIlroy, T. 2016. ‘Dismayed’ Tony Abbott slams Turnbull government for axing Green Army. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December.

Morton, A. 2016. Government killed emissions scheme despite knowing it could shave $15 billion off electricity bills. The Age, 8 December.

Murphy, K. 2016. Energy ministers urged to map out strategic response to renewables. The Guardian, 5 October.

Murphy, K. 2016. Direct Action review could bring changes to renewable targets, says PM. The Guardian, 1 December.

Murphy, K. 2010. Direct Action review: Coalition leaves carbon trading option open. The Guardian, 4 December.

Murphy, K. 2010. Josh Frydenberg backtracks on emissions trading comments. The Guardian, 6 December.

Murphy, K. 2016. What an extraordinary, gutless capitulation by Josh Frydenberg. The Guardian, 6 December.

Murphy, K. 2016. Direct Action review a legacy of Abbott years, says Malcolm Turnbull. The Guardian, 7 December.

Murphy, K. 2016. Finkel review criticises climate policy chaos and points to need for emissions trading. The Guardian, 7 December.

Owen, M. 2016. Pyne cuts down Frydenberg over carbon price talk for energy sector. The Australian, 6 December.

Parkinson, G. 2016. Turnbull leads attack on wind as Coalition readies carbon price backflip. Reneweconomy, 5 December.

Turnbull leads attack on wind as Coalition readies carbon price backflip

Parkinson, G. 2016. CSIRO sees $100bn savings in zero carbon grid by 2050. Reneweconomy, 6 December.

Slezak, M. 2016. Australia needs two emissions trading schemes, Climate Change Authority says. The Guardian, 31 August.

Taylor, L. 2016. Labor proposes two emissions trading schemes. The Guardian, 26 April. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/apr/27/labor-proposes-two-emissions-trading-schemes-costing-555m

Taylor, L. 2016. Climate authority split is no surprise. The Guardian, 30 August.

Vorrath, S. 2016. Rinehart attacks as Turnbull capitulates on carbon price. Reneweconomy, 7 December.


[i] “the Liberal MP Craig Kelly, declaring on Facebook after Donald Trump won the presidential election in the United States the Paris agreement was now “cactus”. George Christensen, the outspoken Liberal National party backbencher from Queensland, later backed Kelly’s view.” (Murphy, 2016, 1 December)

5 thoughts on “#Australian #climate politics – a crazy week explained

Add yours

  1. It’s only an ETS Marc – not the end of the world. We’re just arranging the cushions in the hope of a soft landing or smooth transition. We are making it harder on ourselves that’s all. Insane self-interest will do that.

    In reality we’re flailing about like dinosaurs in a tar-pit…. pretending it’s water, that we can swim it, that we can wiggle ourselves free.

    And we are a serious lump of a critter too – I’ve got the largest coal port on earth just down the road from me. We love the stuff …. live on it. The whole country does. Around here they do anyway. Such as it is. We’re not going to give that up easily or even smoothly Marc. We’re gonna be running smuggling operations to break “Climate Sanctions” and railing against green tape. We are coal pushers – as Afghanistan is to the poppy Marc.

    It’s sad – pathetic actually – watching this childish tantrum but I don’t think it is – or ever was – at all realistic or rational to be expecting any serious efforts to be coming from Australia to address – even admit to – climate change. Indigestible politically and economically as they see it. We will, at best be dragged kicking and screaming Marc.

    And the more effective the emerging global regime is, the worse we will behave, the more we will try to wriggle our way around the decline of coal. I’d be far more concerned by our involvement in international forums and meetings than I am with the antics of wrigglers in the local tar-pit. That’s where the real mischief is happening.

    1. “And the more effective the emerging global regime is, the worse we will behave, the more we will try to wriggle our way around the decline of coal. I’d be far more concerned by our involvement in international forums and meetings than I am with the antics of wrigglers in the local tar-pit. That’s where the real mischief is happening.”

      I think Australia used up all its credit a long long time ago there. But will continue to ‘spoil’ as best it can, yes.


  2. Excellent summary Marc. I have a headache from hitting my head against a brick wall, but I must say I am ‘enjoying’ the spectacle from an academic point of view. I keep hoping that the Labor Party will be smart enough (?) to use this as a point of difference given that Turnbull has made himself look like such an inept politician, not to mention a hypocrite.

    I’m currently working on an idea for a paper about why in Australia and elsewhere, belief in climate science is repeatedly constructed discursively as a ‘faith’. Our friend Andrew Bolt, whose writings I’ve unfortunately had to track as part of my PhD, is particularly good on this and goes to town in the most interesting ways with religious metaphor to castigate the ‘warmists’. This is a purely academic exercise of course but it plays to the psychology of those in the Coalition in particular – Abbott, Bernardi, Abetz et al – who are the loudest deniers.

    1. We should talk!

      Hi Myra,
      thanks and I look forward to reading that – Wasn’t it interesting that John Howard entitled his Global Warming Policy talk in 2013 ‘One Religion is Enough’?!

      All best


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