#Keating and #climate – the longer Cabinet papers story

The 1992/3 Cabinet Papers have been released.  The Conversation let me (I badgered them) do the article on what we learn from them about the environmental policy battles.  It’s posted here, and I think they did their usual excellent job editing me.  Here is the full (much too long for their format) version, in case anyone is a geek like me…

Australian footdragging on climate has a long history

The Cabinet is having a fractious debate about climate change, emissions reductions targets and international obligations. The Treasurer and resources minister don’t trust the Environment Minister. They fear that Australia might over-commit at the next international shindig, and so damage some juicy export earnings. And look, the Americans might go soft on the whole global warming thing and let the Aussies off the hook.  Best, surely, to play dead and see what happens?

The Environment Minister is having none of it, saying  “Don’t you trust me, Griffo?”

“Cut the theatre, out”, he replied.

It is May 25, 1992, and the Keating government is wrestling with the upcoming Rio Earth Summit.  We know about this exchange not because of cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia.  It turns out the cabinet notebooks, with all the the juicy stuff with who said what – remain sealed for a further 30 years, a decision agreed in .. July 1992. The information instead comes from Neal Blewett’s Cabinet Diary, published in 1999.

And that is indicative of this trove of papers –  there’s not much new or startling for anyone who was reading between the lines of the proper newspapers at the time, or who has read Clive Hamilton’s 2001 Running from the Storm, Dave Cox’s bleak 1997 book chapter “The road from Rio: multilateral cooperation gives way to national interest” or Joan Staples on the Keating and Howard Governments attitude to green issues and greenies.The ground has been covered in any number of academic articles as well (see here,here, here and here, to link but few.

Keating had inherited a mess, with the economy in the gutter thanks to the ‘recession we had to have.’  Liberal leader John Hewson was buoyant – the “Fightback!” policy (silent on environmental matters) – was getting a positive press.  Keating had yet to frame Hewson as the feral abacus, and  Cakegate not yet a twinkle in Mike Willesee’s eye.  Keating was hardly in a mood to go to the Rio Earth Summit in June, and he didn’t.

Domestic (lack of) bliss

Domestically, the Hawke government had thrown the environment movement, which helped it win the 1990 election by a narrow margin – a bone in the shape of the “Ecologically Sustainable Development” policy process.  Working groups made up of corporate representatives, environmentalists and bureaucrats had beavered away and produced hundreds of recommendations.

The radical ones (gasp – a price on carbon!) were weeded out between the draft reports (June ‘91) and final ones (December). These final recommendations then disappeared into a bureaucratic maw for six months. As John Coulter had warned at the time “There is a bureaucratic hostility to ESD which will only be blunted by direct community pressure, which requires a permanent ESD process to be set up” (Iffland, 1991).

The mid-1992 meeting at which they were supposed to be agreed was so disastrous that the environmentalists walked out and even the corporates felt aggrieved.

A 1999 history of the Australian Environment Movement observes that

“By this stage, conservation groups were so outraged at the gutting of the working groups’ recommendations that they boycotted the process. Even non-conservation groups were angered by the public servants’ actions. These bureaucrats were so attacked by industry, farmers, engineers and unions at a two-day conference in late 1992 that the second day was called off.

Several of the conservation representatives on the working groups later related that they often found industry representatives, despite their vested interests, easier to work with than the bureaucrats.”

Well, we now have two interim reports to fill out that picture, telling us exactly what we knew then.

The first interim report, in March  said that  ‘departments have not been able to identify a worthwhile package’. Cabinet waved the process  on, but only on the basis that ‘no regrets actions’ were all that was on the table, that is ones which ‘involve little or no additional cost, cause minimal disruption to industry or the community, and which also offer benefits other than greenhouse related’.

By May, Federal ministers were similarly informed that the states and territories were ‘not strongly committed’ to either ESD or greenhouse reduction strategies, and resented the pace with which the Commonwealth sought to settle policy positions that would have ‘substantial financial and economic implications’.

So, the State-Federal tango, was not going to be solved by the recently instituted COAG.  We will know in another 30 years if Graham Richardson, by now Social Security Minister, dredged up his threat of a referendum to wrest  environmental policy from the states.  I think it’s unlikely he did that- the moment had passed.

The policy process rumbled on after the walkout, and the final National Greenhouse Response Strategy contained only – surprise! – toothless voluntary measures, which proved ineffective in keeping emissions down to 1990 levels.

The November 1992 minutes mildly note that

“Most major interest groups have voiced concerns about their lack of involvement in the drafting of the NGRS document. Officials made provision for community input through the public comment process and a public consultative forum held in August. [The one the environmentalists walked out of] Reaction from conservation groups is likely to be negative, given the limited changes made to many of the responses in the revised strategy. They are likely to want to see more concerted efforts in areas such as fuel efficiency and renewable energy sources.” 


With equal prescience,  the document warns that coal producers and resource intensive industries (eg aluminium) may express concern about their prospects in the medium to long term.”

“Expressed concern” is certainly one way of putting it.  Creating a greenhouse mafia to control the policy process is another…

International threats

On the international question, the key point to understand is that the US had successfully resisted a push from the developing world and the European Union for specific emissions reduction targets and time tables – for developed countries only – to be included in the text of the UNFCCC treaty. Bush Senior simply threatened to not attend the Rio Earth Summit. The Europeans blinked, and the rest is history.

In a document discussing funding for environment and development negotiations the point is made – not for the first or last time that

“Australia is the only developed megadiverse country; it is a major user and exporter of greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels and energy intensive products; it could be significantly affected by global environmental change”

In May 1992 Cabinet endorsed the principle of support for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,

There are three  ironies. First that it was a major concern that the media statement to accompany the Environment Minister’s signing should be amended to include  the fact that

“The Convention does not bind any signatory to meet any greenhouse gas target by a specified date.”

Secondly the minutes note that “A decision by Australia not to sign the Convention would be criticised by domestic environment interests and could also attract international criticism, particularly in the Pacific region.”  This was not something that, in later years, would keep John Howard awake at night.

Thirdly, its emphasis on assisting developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region to develop capacities for adaptation looks odd given there had been zero mention of greenhouse gas in the March 1992 discussion document of bilateral aid to Cambodia  (the country is suffering markedly now)

International Wiggle Room

Keating’s willingness to let Ros Kelly go and sign will  have been related to the following

“The Convention contains several safeguards which protect Australia’s interests. In the specific commitments section, allowance is made for “the differences in Parties’ starting points and approaches, economic structures and resource bases, and the need to maintain strong and sustainable economic growth, available technologies and other individual circumstances”. Additionally, Parties are obliged to take into consideration the situation of Parties with economiesthat are highly dependent on the production, processing, export and use of fossil fuels. These two provisions will give relevant countries, including Australia, flexibility in fulfilling their obligations under the Convention.”

And they probably thought they had more time than they actually did.  The May 1992 note argues

“It is likely to take some years to obtain the necessary ratifications to bring it into force.” When in actual fact it only took two…

The target of not having a binding target was safe – in December, just before ratifying the Bush-whacked UNFCCC treaty, Cabinet agreed (again) that there would be no commitment to firm, binding targets in advance of other developed nations. Ministers agreed in December 1992 that ‘our capacity to continue to protect Australia’s economic and trade interests’ remained the priority, particularly in arguing against ‘response actions’ that would fall ‘disproportionately’ on Australian economic growth.  They worried that “Industry groups will be concerned about possible negative impacts on Australia’s economy and trade competitiveness” and that “environment groups are concerned that current commitments under the Convention do not go far enough in curbing climate change.”

No. Change. There. Then.

What happened next

It was in these years 1992- 1994 that two groups with curious acronyms hit their stride – ABARE, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics – an ‘independent’ (and oil and coal company funded) department of the Australian government produced report after report which Australian diplomats used to try to secure Australia exemptions from emissions reductions and the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, a devastatingly successful, low profile outfit of industry lobbyists and head-hunted senior bureaucrats who helped shape and minimise Australia’s climate policy for well over a decade.

This theme would be aggressively picked up by the Keating government. In 1994 both the Foreign Minister (Gareth Evans) and the Treasurer (Ralph Willis) would argue that Australia might withdraw from the UNFCCC.

No secrets

At least with regard to climate policy, there are no real secrets worthy of the name. We have known that the Australian state quickly retreated from its already-hedged promise to take action, and they told us all along that this was because we had a lot of coal.  While Australia’s international credibility has flatlined (with a brief bump from 2007 to 2009), two other things have soared over the last 25 years- Australia’s coal exports, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.  Both look set to continue their upward trend.

Reading the documents it is striking how concerned the Cabinet is to minimise its financial commitments (unsurprising, perhaps, given the overall state of the economy at the time),and just how unimportant the issue was to them – a distant abstraction that most of them seem not to lose any sleep over. How times have changed.



UPDATE – researching something else, I came across this from Joan Staples’ PhD –

Economou (1996, pp. 17-18) may have described Keating as a ‘leading voice amongst the economic ‘hard-heads’ within cabinet’ against environmental action, but Labor advisors Balderstone (2008) and Emerson (2008) repeatedly claimed to me that Keating ‘was green’ and that his position as treasurer made it impossible for him to show his true colours. Judy Lambert also recalled that he supported Environment Minister Ros Kelly in the setting of very high standards for the approval of the Wesley Vale pulp mill that assisted in its demise4 (Lambert 2008). Despite the public antagonism between Hawke and Keating, Hawke (2008) told me that in relation to environment issues, Keating ‘was never a real problem’. Richardson (2008) also described Keating as ‘being pretty good’ in Cabinet environment debates during Richardson’s term as minister, with the exception of debates on Kakadu Stage III and climate change.

One thought on “#Keating and #climate – the longer Cabinet papers story

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  1. Not at all inconsistent to consider Keating a greenie – but he certainly wouldn’t want to be seen with any of them in public. Keating was keeping things sweet in the run up to ascending to the Lodge – he was – would suggest he was – in favour of anything at all, especially if it didn’t involve outlays and the Budget.

    None of these fellas write their own lines Marc. Keating is playing several roles simultanously – positioning himself for future leadership, protecting his own bailiwick of the Budget, playing to the tribal crudest elements of NSW Labor , kicking the Left, kicking the Greens, and above all exuding confidence, no matter what…. their words are the last way of knowing what they think or personally believe. PJK more than most.

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