What Does the Election Mean for Climate Policy? 2

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
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Climate Change
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Well, that was some election. But what does it mean for Australia’s climate change policy?

Well, that was some election.

The opinion polls had the election result on knife-edge all the way through that long election campaign, but no one really believed it.

We now have a knife-edge government, with the smallest of majorities. It is important to reflect on some of the lessons of the election campaign and ponder what it might mean for action on climate change and renewable energy.

As I wrote before the election, there was a profound disappointment with Malcolm Turnbull, who had placed himself in a climate change straight jacket.

He went from being a powerful advocate for action on climate change in 2009 to chaining himself to the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan as a precondition for his return to the Prime Ministership.

Before he became Prime Minister, Turnbull promoted disruption and declared “volatility in change our friend” but this has not been a disruptive government. There was continuity and not change.

In the lead up to the federal election and throughout the campaign, focus groups highlighted profound disappointment with Turnbull. Voters wanted a different approach to the Abbott Government and were sorely disappointed. This was reflected in the election result.

The Sky News Exit Poll published immediately after voting closed showed health and education were the two major issues on peoples’ minds and the big swing against the Government showed voters did not trust them on these two critical issues – a reflection, most likely, of voters’ continued hostile reaction to the 2014 federal budget and the broken promise that were would be no cuts to health and education.

Turnbull found himself in another straight jacket, failing to distance himself enough from his predecessor’s 2014 federal budget.

It is fair to say lack of trust in politics had a distinct bipartisan feel to it, with an unprecedented 23 per centvoting for parties other than the Liberals, National and Labor Parties.

So what does that mean for policy and politics from here?

Most importantly, it means Australians want their politicians to be genuine – to believe in something – but they also want to be listened to and they want their concerns heard.

It beggars belief, for example, that one can go from saying a certain policy is “bullsh*t” to openly embracing the same policy, as Turnbull has done with the Direct Action climate change strategy.

It beggars belief that the Government can be so out of step with Australians’ support for renewable energy and climate change action.

If he survives as Prime Minister, Turnbull needs to throw off his straight jacket and follow his own path on climate policy and other policy areas.

If he does so, he will have the Australian public behind him as opinion poll after opinion poll has demonstrated.

During the federal election alone, a number of polls showed strong levels of support for action on climate change.

A Climate Institute poll in early June found concern about climate change and its impacts are rising and are high across all political parties. A whopping 72 per cent of voters expressed concern about climate change, with 62 per cent of Coalition voters expressing concern. Meanwhile, 76 per cent of undecided voters expressed concern about climate change, including 30 per cent who were very concerned about it.

The federal election has actually delivered opportunities for Turnbull to revise his approach to climate change and renewables.

Regardless of whether the Liberal National Coalition govern with even with the smallest of majorities, there is a clear pathway to reform of climate change policies.

There will likely be five independent and minor party members of the House of Representatives, with the potential to have significant impact on policy development: Adam Bandt (Greens) Bob Katter, Cathy McGowan, Andrew Wilkie, Rebekah Sharkie (Nick Xenophon Team).

Four of the five crossbenchers (Bandt, McGowan, Sharkie and Wilkie) are on the record as advocates for action on climate change:

  • The Greens support a net zero greenhouse gas target within a generation and 90 per cent renewables by 2030
  • McGowan supports a “market mechanism as the most efficient and effective way to price carbon and reduce emissions…coupled with continued research into energy efficient technologies, renewable energy sources and carbon sequestration.”
  • Wilkie supports a price on carbon and 100 per cent renewables by 2030. He has stated “dealing with climate change should be a first priority for the Federal Government.”
  • The Nick Xenophon Team supports an emissions trading scheme and 50 per cent renewables by 2030.

The final crossbencher, Bob Katter, has previously called for carbon and pollutant reduction to be achieved through renewable energy, although he does not support an emissions trading scheme. He has been a strong advocate for a Copperstring Clean Energy Corridor from Mount Isa to Townsville.

It will not be the crossbenchers that will curtail action on climate change. Indeed, it is likely these five MPs may use the opportunity of a precarious Parliament to push for stronger climate change policies. This could take the form of an emissions trading scheme, a higher renewable energy target and greater support for renewables energy research and development.

The Senate is also unlikely to hamstring action on climate change. Whilst the final composition of the Senate is unclear at the time of writing, it would appear a majority of Senators would support strong climate policies, through a combination of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators.

Against these positive trends is a renewed push from conservative Coalition MPs and Senators and media commentators for the party to move back to the policies of the Abbott Government. This is based on a view that the federal election was a rejection of Turnbull’s centrist policies, but it flies in the face of the evidence that Australians want a more centrist, pragmatic government, disappointed that Turnbull had clung on to Abbott-era policies.

Malcolm Turnbull will again be tested on climate change. We will find out soon enough if he is prepared to shrug off his climate change straight jacket or if he is determined to wear the straight jacket to maintain his long desired position of Prime Minister.

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  1. Tom Birchell

    Anyone who thinks that Turnbull's centralist and generally sensible policies in any way cost the Coalition votes are deluding themselves. Abbott's whole approach was based on nothing but a way out of touch ideology. He had no idea about how business and the economy actually works nor any idea how the world actually works. Whenever something came up, rather than thinking things through sensibly and logically, he would simply say ' how does this fit in with my ideology' and then trot out an embarrassing sounding two-word sentence based on that.

    When it came to climate change, Abbott not only rejected sensible measures of climate change abatement but actually did everything he could to tear down the renewables industry. This is where he is really out of touch. Even amongst those Australians who don't see climate change as a problem, the majority still recognise that we actually want our growth industries to actually grow – not be torn down by the government. Of course, since he doesn't understand the basic idea job creating investment in growth industries is actually a good thing and actually exactly what we need, Abbott set out to destroy as many job creating clean energy projects that he could.

    Now, we may not have a prime minister who has the full licence to take full action on climate change, but at least we have one who conceptually understands that job creating investment in clean energy projects should be welcomed rather than hated.

  2. Howard Elston

    As soon as someone suggests tackling climate change, the far right of the LNP will yell "Carbon Tax" and the issue will be buried under a narrow economic argument. Meanwhile, we'll continue to bleach our reefs, kill our mangroves, burn brown coal to make cheap electricity, … In a parallel universe, Malcolm Turnbull throws caution to the wind and puts forward policies based on his beliefs. In this universe, can't see that happening.