Category Archives: history of climate change

Open letter to Jay Weatherill on #fuckwitgate

Dear Jay,

we are both busy (you with trying to implement climate and energy policy while the Federal Government supplies only ridicule and chaos, me with finishing a thesis) so I will keep this as brief as I can.

When I read what was reported in today’s Australian (1)  ‘Jay says nay on right-wing remark‘  I was both confused and exasperated.  I do not understand why you would wait a week before claiming “I think I might have been misheard. I think I said…” 

I note there are lots of qualifiers there (and no outright denial) and it’s followed by a claim about background noise.  On that, I would point out that you don’t flag any problem with my hearing everything else you said – all those quotes which reflect (well) on your actions since the September 2016 blackout..

I wonder if you worry, that this Clayton’s denial – the denial you have when you’re not having a denial –  just feeds into the public narrative that politicians will try to wriggle out of things they said and that they later wish they hadn’t?

Clearly my prediction that this was going to be a ‘one-day wonder’  was misplaced. Oh well.  I have no interest in continuing this non-controversy, because in the absence of a sound recording, everyone can just say ‘no evidence’ and it goes all Rashomon.  The following  questions seem obvious though-

  • Why did you not claim that you had been ‘misheard’ at the time?  Why is that, as Giles Parkinson pointed out in the Australian article today,  neither you nor your office sought a retraction, correction or apology?
  • Why did you call the remarks ‘lighthearted’ if they were simply indeed ‘rightwing  sceptic’?  That’s not particularly light-hearted, simply banal.  By referring to your comments as light-hearted the day after, surely you were tacitly admitting what you had said?
  • Why did the  entire room burst into laughter and applause if all you did was describe Kenny as a right-wing sceptic?
  • Why did you offer a mock apology ‘oh sorry’ at that time?
  • Why did none of the other 100 people present at the book launch – fans of you and Mark Butler- come forward to challenge my account?  (Of course, some may now do so, now that you have signalled that this is something you want to bury)
  • Why did you call the event – and continue to call it – a private function? It was a book launch, or heaven’s sake!  If you can’t get that right, why should anyone believe what you “think” you said?

Am I surprised by your behaviour? A little. But I  am more disappointed – I thought you had more guts.  But perhaps you have to save those guts for challenging the Federal government’s egregious inaction on climate and energy, and water. If that’s the case, well, then, so be it, and good luck.
Marc Hudson


(1) Of course, the Australian has a very long (27 year) history of reporting climate stories badly. Examples available on request. On the book launch beat up they managed not to credit their source and then mis-identify the location of the book launch (it was at the Publishers Hotel, not the University of Adelaide.  Then, on Friday of last week its stablemate the Advertiser managed to get the day of the launch wrong.  So maybe you were ‘misquoted’ (oh the irony) or were speaking with your tongue in your cheek?


AMEEF – burnishing the mining industry

AMEEF was established in October 1991, as the Ecologically Sustainable Development Process was peaking.  One of the first things they did was a listing of all articles environmental, with a lovely cover.

1991 ameef

Ten years later, it was still going (but would be shut down a bit later).  I stumbled across its magazine, Groundwork, recently.  Not much of interest, but they did get a new logo. And they were run by someone who had done green stuff for the Business Council of Australia back in the early 1990s.  A small world, of course, this green capitalism gig…

2001 ameef logo

and who was stumping up?  The usual suspects…

2001 ameef supporters

Climate change? Eh? 1998 Labor Essays…

So, by 1995/6 the whole idea that you might be able to ‘green’ the Australian Labor Party had kinda fallen apart.  The 1993 election had ignored the issues (with Keating particularly aggressive, blah blah true believers blah blah), and despite Environment Minister John Faulkner’s best efforts, the proposed carbon tax/levy in 1994/95 died an ignominious death (there’s a quote from Cheryl Kernot’s memoir coming up, btw).  And how best to demonstrate this, beyond mere assertion?  Well, this book –

1998 labor essays


has 17 chapters.  Not a one of them on environment, or climate change.  And here are the relevant pages of the index. Nowt on carbon dioxide, climate change, greenhouse effect or global warming.  Two tiny mentions of ‘environment‘.

1998 labor essays index 1

1998 labor essays index2

Turnbull, #climate and the National Press Club #auspol

On February 1st Malcolm Turnbull will make a major speech on the Coalition’s climate and energy policy at the National Press Club.In his last public utterance on the topic, at the Sydney fish market in December last year, he spilt coffee , perhaps trying to douse the flames caused by Josh Frydenberg’s declaration that carbon pricing would be considered in this year’s policy review. Turnbull ruled that out, so who knows what he  will say on Wednesday. One well-informed and immensely experienced observer reports that

“Turnbull will announce new vehicle emissions standards and a new energy efficiency scheme. He and his office are looking at “technological solutions” – bright new ideas in solar thermal, or battery or carbon storage technology that might fill the policy void. But all those technologies need government policies to provide investors with incentives and certainty, and without actually confronting the climate doubters no one can imagine what that policy might be.”

(Another similarly-credentialled observer says he is the weakest Prime Minister since Billy McMahon )Who knows, perhaps Turnbull will dust off the ‘Greenhouse Challenge‘ voluntary programme for industry that Prime Minister Paul Keating started and  John Howard extended. We will know soon enough.

Meanwhile, the National Press Club has a long and interesting (if you’re a pathetic geek like me) history with climate change, and it tells us something about Australian journalistic responses to climate change.

Clubbing together
The Press Club began life as a press luncheon club, the result of some journalists having an (uncharacteristic for the profession) drinks in a Canberra watering hole. It seeks “to provide a genuine national forum for discussion of the issues of the day by the personalities who help shape them.” (A cynic might say that it is a way for journalists to have stories handed to them literally on a plate, with some nice plonk alongside.) The first speaker, on 17 May 1963, was Chief Justice and External Affairs Minister Sir Garfield Barwick.  Soon after Barwick helped establish the Australian Conservation Foundation.  The Press Club initially only held a few events a year, but it has grown steadily and there are now about 70 a year. Early environmental speakers included conservationist Harry Butler (October 3 1979) and in mid 1984 the German Greens Petra Kelly  who you can hear here 

The Club, naturally, reflects the concerns of the day, and politicians of the day fly kites and announce policies.  The climate issue seems to have reached the Club in October 1988,when the Liberal Senator Chris Puplick, the Opposition’s Environment spokesperson  launched the Opposition’s environmental policy and spoke on past Coalition.  It seems bizarre now, but Puplick then  went on to develop a policy on climate change that was more ambitious than Labor’s and took it to the 1990 Federal election.

Puplick and his Labor opponent Graham Richardson debated at the Press Club on March 7, 1990, just before the Federal election, and it was from  the club that Bob Hawke made his final (and successful) appeal to green-minded voters, calling on  disaffected voters not to vote green but, if they did so, to direct their second preferences to Labour. He warned. “When you wake up on 25 March there won’t be a Democrat government or a green independent government.”

In June 1989,  the inaugural Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory,  Rosemary Follett,  had appeared at the club and said that she was

“particularly concerned with environmental issues of national and international significance. The people of the ACT can be assured that the government intends to act locally in addressing issues such as the Greenhouse Effect and Protection of the Ozone Layer.”

Richardson had appeared shortly afterwards,after two cancellations for lack of journalist interest.. He talked tough (it’s how the man rolls) on the Federal government perhaps using its constitutional powers to override state decisions on environmental matters. He also confirmed a report by Michelle Grattan about a Cabinet meeting at which Treasurer Paul Keating had vetoed his proposal for a 20 per cent reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2005 (the so-called ‘Toronto Target’ ). He told the assembled hacks

“… When I put this target to our Cabinet, I came under close questioning by the economic ministers. I couldn’t sustain my argument with sufficient science.

“I haven’t yet learnt how to lose gracefully so I was angry. I delved into the department’s records so that I could write to my Cabinet colleagues and demand a reconsideration. The cupboard, however was bare, and the letter was never written.”

[Dunn, R. 1989. Cabinet reduces greenhouse target. Australian Financial Review, 26 July.]

Sir Ninian Stephen, by then Australia’s first Environment Ambassador, spoke wittily in late 1990 on the topic of  “the environment: a passing storm or an issue for all seasons” (you can listen here –  He argued that it didn’t matter what he said, only if he blundered in the Q and A.

The following year the Canadian entrepreneur behind the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Maurice Strong, spoke. In November 1992, after Rio, Jeremy Leggett, a former geologist who had become  Greenpeace International’s Atmosphere and Energy Campaign leader spoke (his book The Carbon War is a terrific read, btw).

Worth remembering
Amid all the advocates of action (Ian Lowe, Peter Garrett, David Suzuki, Bob Brown, Gro Harlam Brundtland, Nick Stern), perhaps the one we should most remember is President Kinza Cloduma of Nauru.  In late 1997, when the Australian government’s diplomatic push for special treatment at the impending Kyoto Protocol meeting had silenced the South Pacific Forum’s attempt at a strong pro-action statement, Cloduma told the journalists

“I am not impressed when Mr. Howard openly scorns the critical nature of the situation in order to bow to the will of the fossil fuel industry.”

There have been peaks and troughs of concern since then, with scientists speaking  in September 2000 “Greenhouse Science Forum: How Real is Climate Change? What does Science Tell Us?”,  Ian Lowe spoke in 2005 on “ Is Nuclear Power Part of Australia’s Global Warming Solution?” (his answer was ‘nope’).

In the white-heat of the 2008-9 carbon pricing battles, Ross Garnaut seems to have had a camp-bed at the NPC, so often was he using it to launch various drafts of his climate reviews.  The Greens’ Christine Milne argued on 17 June 2009 that “The Climate nightmare is upon us.”  Bob Brown and  Ziggy Switowski debated nuclear versus renewables in April of the following year [thanks to the reader who alerted me to this!]

Less emphatically,  Penny Wong, Kevin Rudd, Greg Combet and Julia Gillard all used the NPC to launch various climate policy papers. In mid 2011, Gillard, under ferocious attack over her carbon proposal launched “The Government’s plan for a clean energy future”. She  was asked by Mark Riley about journalist famously suggesting that journalists ‘don’t write crap – it can’t be that hard.’

Since then the club has seen – among others –

Two way traffic
It hasn’t been one-way traffic. An early example of a sceptical perspective came in mid 1992 when Prof Richard Lindzen, Professor of Meteorology at  Massachusetts Institute of Technology spoke. (He had been brought out by the CSIRO atmospheric science division, which was then headed by G.B Tucker. Tucker had been aware of the issue in the mid-70s, and written an early monograph – The CO2-climate connection : a global problem from an Australian perspective–  in 1981, but in retirement wrote pieces for the Institute for Public Affairs with titles like  ‘The Greenhouse Panic’. But I digress)

Three years later the Club heard from  Dr Patrick  Moore who was billed as a “ Canadian Environmentalist and one of the founders of Greenpeace”.The first term can be debated. The second cannot.

Climate change exploded as a public policy issue in Australia in late 2006.   It’s ironic to remember now, but when John Howard’s hand-picked emissions taskforce suggested that a low tax on carbon emissions — less than $5 per tonne –  might give Australia a start in preparing for an eventual global emissions trading system , the  Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Mitchell Hooke argued at the press club that while Australia should not embark on unilateral action, there was scope for “unilateral leadership”. He said

“I don’t want a blunt economic instrument of a carbon tax [but] I would see that kind of low order price as being part of a cap and trade framework.”

Hooke hardened his line, of course, as time went on.  At the peak of the 2011 carbon pricing battles, in June, the Australian Coal Association’s Ralph Hillman spoke on “The mining industry’s position on the carbon tax.”

The same month,  Lord Monckton  and the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss squared off in a debate. Two weeks later  former President Vaclav Klaus President of the Czech Republic  spoke on “Climate Change: A new ideology”

Bjorn Lomborg followed up his October 2003  visit with another ten years later in December 2013.  Now that he won’t be having his ‘consensus centre’ , the trend suggests it might be another 6 years before he appears again.

Journalism and climate change
The Press Club’s willingness to host those who deny basic scientific facts is indicative of a broader difficulty that journalism has had with this issue.  Academic studies of the journalism profession’s dilemma over climate change. One influential paper argues that “balance is bias”, given the overwhelming scientific argument (and dare we say ‘consensus’) on anthropogenic climate change. The authors argue that

“the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.”

John Oliver put it more visually with this stunt on ‘Last Week Tonight’

Australia’s experience has been extensively studied – see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. For starters.

All this is part of a battle for hearts and minds – what counts as ‘common sense’ and shapes or sustains the institutions  – “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior” – underpinning society.

Recently scientists have been admitting that studying climate change exacts an emotional toll. Journalists are following suit.

Malcolm Turnbull first addressed the club on March 18 1992, wearing his Australian Republican Movement hat.  He might need better head-wear this time round.  When Kevin Rudd launched the White Paper of his ill-fated and unloved Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme three protesters were dragged out The numbers of protesters there to greet him on February 1st will probably fall closer to that than the 1500 who turned up to say g’day to Pauline Hanson in 1997

But on the day, and indeed all through the year, Turnbull will – like other endangered Australian fauna – be feeling the heat.

#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.

Last week in #Australian #Climate Politics – a bluffer’s guide

What happened?
turnbullThis week the government executed a massive policy backflip and its backbenchers weakened a leader who they despise and will probably knife quite soon. The opposition rolled its eyes and sighed and secretly squealed with delight. There were assurances that Australia is on track to meet its international obligations on emissions reductions when in fact it is a gazillion miles away.  Meanwhile the media piled in and business stood there mouths agape like a goldfish whose bowl is ever more full of… dirty water.  Economists slammed inch-think reports on desks. The scientists and environmentalists bleated about ecological catastrophe, but everybody ignored them for the fun of the horse-race politics.

So, a normal week in Australian climate politics then?
An abnormally normal week perhaps, but yes, point taken.

Then why is everyone running around as if it’s the end of the world?
Because – as Lenore Taylor has been exhaustively reporting (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), the last environment minister, Greg Hunt, had spent ages trying to slip the framework – or the necessary ambiguity – for an “emissions intensity scheme”  into the government’s policy. Of course, it had to be done in a way that wouldn’t lead to a bloodbath.  Julie Bishop had pointed to possible carbon trading after 2020 when she was in Paris last year for some international meeting. It was a very very badly kept secret, but economists, business lobbyists and even some greenies hoped it might work.  

On Monday morning, at just after 8am in an ABC radio station,  it all went Very Horribly Wrong.

Yeah, I think I heard something about that. So the new environment minister – Josh Frydenberg’s few words- “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.”–   are as fatal as Gillard’s February 24 2011 ill-fated agreement that a fixed price for an emissions trading scheme could be considered a ‘tax’?
We will see.  Probably.  But before using poor Josh as a pinata, remember the wiggle room  to skirt around the issue was always going to shrink.  The can had been kicked down the road as far as it could. Someone was going to have to piss or get off the pot.  The boil was so big that it…

Yes, yes, thanks, we get it. But surely people like Julie Bishop and Greg Hunt manned… sorry, staffed the barricades, belted out ‘La Marseillaise‘ and stiffened their innovative leader’s spine when the spittle started flying?
Strangely, no.

How odd. So,moving on –  which pundits said what?
Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that ink was spilt in the Saturday papers, and electrons set to work. The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor reminded Malcolm of his fine words in 2009. The Fin’s Laura Tingle had already commented that the Turnbull government had achieved a ‘rare’ trifecta.

Oh, more Tingle gold, you know – or you should – “governments sometimes get policy right but the politics wrong; or the politics right but then stuff up on process. But the statements of Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg – and the even more strident statements of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday – have managed to stuff policy, process and politics all in one deft manoeuvre.”

Annabel Crabb had fun, sharpening her knives in that kitchen of hers, with a wry piece about political correctness and trigger warnings preventing proper debate of issues.  Jacqueline Maley knitted Pauline Hansen’s thousand-miles-from-bleaching-(and-reality)-snorkelling stunt to Canberra in a bravura sketch of a world “where policy-making is as fantastical as a go-nowhere boat trip over a bleached-out coral reef.”

Could we have some old white men now please? They seem under-represented in punditry these days.
Thought you’d never ask. Paul Kelly reckons that Turnbull has to prepare for renewed ‘carbon policy war’. He argues that industry dreams of Coalition and Labor coming together on climate change policy were just that — dreams” and that  “Turnbull has no wish to repeat the mistakes that cost him the leadership in 2009, hardly a miraculous conclusion. He has buried any ETS nostalgia and this can be assumed for the rest of his prime ministership”. However long that might be…  Chris Kenny was… Chris Kenny.  Something about Banquo, but he forgot to call Julia Gillard Lady Macbeth.  Richo reckons Malcolm deliberately used Josh as a human shield, a la Scott Morrison on the GST. Laurie Oakes reckons Josh Frydenberg is a marked man and how “game-playing takes precedence over good policy and process in Australian politics today.” 

Who knew?
Quite. Jack Waterford has a very interesting piece in the Canberra Times  on the using crises to push through policy changes.  He implies that Turnbull doesn’t have the skills – or perhaps the spine. Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have both editorialised on Malcolm Turnbull, calling him a climate policy girlie man.

Really, they said that?
Not in so many words –  I am channelling my inner Mathias Cormann.

So everything will calm down now, yes, and the grown-up government can continue?
Oh, absolutely.  The right won’t dismiss the Climate Review as ‘housekeeping’, or imply Alan Finkel is a raving incompetent pinko in league with Gillian Trigg.  The states will decide to wait for the Federal government before taking any further action on climate or energy policy. The Climate Review, which is taking place for almost a year will be led by a non-partisan figure – probably Dick Warburton or Maurice Newman – and the hearings and discussion papers will not be hijacked by leaking, stunts and smearing; it will be an ideal speech community to warm the cockles of Jurgen Habermas‘s heart. Internationally, Donald Trump will be a steady – if slightly small – hand on the tiller.

Oh, thank goodness for that, you had me worried for a minute.
I have a bridge in Sydney to sell you.  Cash only.


[If you so much as smiled, let alone laughed, please think about retweeting/emailing/facebook.  Cheers!!]

PS  Here’s a (much) longer article, with less snark

PPS And here is my piece on the Conversation about climate backflips over the last ten years

#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.–and-carbon-pricing–on-the-table-in-climate-review-20161204-gt3n7v.html

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.

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.

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)