The upcoming federal ballot has been dubbed the ‘Climate Election’, so it’s time to put Australia’s long list of recent prime ministers — and the nation’s political parties (including some Independent candidates) — under the climate change magnifying glass to explore what’s really possible to achieve for climate policy at the poll.
Australian PMs and climate policy
Australia has a dismal record on climate action going back to the 1990s and the insertion of the ‘Australia Clause‘ in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
With the election of Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007 there was some hope for ramping-up of action. Australia signed on to the Kyoto Protocol in Bali during 1997, but carbon pricing legislation (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) failed to be passed and there was the debacle of COP15 (Copenhagen) at the international level.
Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister by Labor’s Julia Gillard in 2010.
For a couple of years under the Gillard minority Labor Government we had a carbon price legislated and implemented, which appeared to reduce Australia’s total emissions; but this was subsequently abolished in 2014 by conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott; who was himself deposed by conservative moderate Malcolm Turnbull in 2015.
The Paris Agreement and Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol were signed by Australia under Turnbull in time for COP22 in 2016.
The conservatives in the Liberal Party succeeded in deposing Turnbull in a caucus vote in August 2018, electing Scott Morrison as prime minister, famous for bringing a lump of coal into parliament in February 2017 to taunt the Labor opposition on climate policy.
Australian climate impacts are mounting:
- The demise of the Great Barrier Reef with back-to-back bleaching episodes.
- Record extreme heat over summer affecting most of Australia.
- Devastating bushfires in rainforest in north Queensland and in temperate forests in Tasmania.
- Death of over 20,000 Spectacled Flying-foxes in one extreme heatwave event in late November 2018, an estimated third of the species decimated.
- Torrential rainfall events setting new records causing major flooding.
- Ongoing extreme drought affecting many farmers and agricultural communities.
- Ecosystem collapse evident in northern coastal mangroves, Tasmanian kelp forests, Murray-Darling river system.
‘Climate Election’ and Adani
Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin is a high-profile issue that has been building with the Stop Adani Campaign. The Adani mine is seen as a first project for opening up the Galilee Basin for several other coal projects in the wings.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special report on Global Warming of 1.5C, published in October, 2018 warned in paragraph C2.2 of the Summary for Policymakers that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius would require a steep reduction in the use of coal.
In one of the last acts of the Morrison Government the Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price has approved the Groundwater Management Plan for the Adani mine to proceed. There are still nine Queensland state environmental approvals that are needed.
The federal Labor opposition has not given a firm commitment to stop the mine proceeding, but has said it would assess the economic and environmental imperatives for the mine. Climate activists continue to keep up the pressure on all mainstream party candidates over this mine.
The NSW state election in March 2019 saw the Liberal Party attempt to be a little more direct in addressing climate change than its federal counterpart. Many believed the Labor vote in NSW was still very flaky, with persistence in voter scepticism about corrupt practices by some state MPs when Labor was last in government at state level.
The federal election is likely to be played out in Queensland and Victoria.
In North Queensland the Adani mine may be a vote winner for the Coalition parties, but in South-East Queensland and Brisbane it may work against them. The Liberal Party Brisbane electorates of Bonner (3.4 per cent margin) , Brisbane (6pc margin) , Dickson (1.7pc margin) and Forde (0.6pc margin), Petrie (1.6pc margin) are all ones to watch. Labor could lose Longman (0.8pc margin) and Herbert centred on Townsville (0.02pc margin).
Victoria strongly supported the Labor Andrews Government in the November 2018 state election, and climate action is a powerful theme across the Victorian electorate. The Liberal electorate of Corangamite, held by Sarah Henderson MP, is now notionally a Labor electorate due to a recent redistribution. The electorate of Chisholm is on a 2.9pc margin with sitting MP Julia Banks now an Independent standing for Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders. Previously safe Liberal electorates such as Speaker Tony Smith’s seat of Casey (4.5pc margin), Health Minister Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders (7.0pc margin), Michael Sukkar’s electorate of Deakin (6.4pc margin), retiring MP Kellie O’Dwyer’s electorate of Higgins (7.4pc vs Greens), Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s electorate of Kooyong and Jason Wood’s electorate of La Trobe (3.2pc margin), are being targeted by Labor, Greens or Independents.
Political Parties and climate policies
Here is some background to the main political parties and their climate policies:
The Liberal Party
The main conservative, pro-business party presently in minority Government in coalition with the National Party.
- Set Australia’s current Paris Target of 26-28pc by 2030 on 2005 levels.
- Has no commitment to Renewables Energy Target beyond 2020.
- Controversially advocates use of Kyoto carryover credits to meet Paris target – this would effectively reduce Australia emissions reduction to 12pcby 2030).
- Signed Australia to Paris Agreement and Kyoto Protocol (Doha Amendment) at COP22.
- Contains a strong pro-coal and anti-renewables lobby.
The National Party
A rural and regional conservative party in a long-term coalition with the Liberal Party. It has a very brief and limited climate policy. While historically it represented farmers and rural interests, in recent decades it has strongly advocated for mining and coal interests.
The Labor Party
The main opposition party, currently ahead in the polls, has pledged:
- To raise Australia’s current Paris Target from 26-28pc by 2030 on 2005 levels to 45pc by 2030 on 2005 (without use of Kyoto carryover credits),
- 50pc renewables by 2030.
- Kickstarting Australia’s hydrogen economy with a $1 billion National Hydrogen Plan.
The Labor Climate Action Plan would put Australia on the path of deep decarbonisation aim of net zero emissions by 2050, but really it is the very minimum for a deep decarbonisation pathway.
The Australian Greens
Receiving about 10-13pc of the national vote, this party has 8 senators and 1 lower house MP. The party would like to see:
- Australia’s 2030 Paris target lifted to 63-82pc to track to a 2040 net zero emissions target.
- Complete phaseout of thermal coal by 2030, including thermal coal export. (Note: metallurgical coal makes up about 60pc by value of Australia’s coal exports).
- The establishment of a $1.7 billion Clean Energy Export Development Fund to develop renewable ‘export fuels’: solar and wind energy via HVDC marine cable to Asia, and hydrogen for export.
The Greens’ Renew Australia 2030 Policy.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party
A small right-wing party with anti-immigration, pro-mining and populist policies with support base in rural and regional areas, particularly in the State of Queensland. Currently has senate representation at the federal level.
There are a number of House of Representatives electoral contests with strong climate Independents standing who may be elected. Follow veteran journalist Margo Kingston in her #KingstonReports column.
These contests include the electorate of Warringah (#WarringahVotes) in Sydney, held by former conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He is being challenged by Zali Steggall OAM, an Australian lawyer and former Olympic athlete. It could be a very close race according to The Guardian, in a seat considered to be blue-ribbon conservative. Steggall is running on a strong climate action platform.
Further south in the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne in the electorate of Kooyong, represented by the Liberal Party’s Josh Frydenberg, current treasurer and a former climate and energy minister. He is being challenged by Independent Oliver Yates, a former member of the Liberal Party and formerly CEO of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The Greens have selected high profile barrister Julian Burnside as their candidate, with his strong platform defending human rights, refugee rights and for climate action.
A GetUp! commissioned poll for Kooyong found that 64pc of respondents say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate with a plan to tackle climate change by replacing coal with clean energy, according to a Guardian report. More at #KooyongVotes column.
These are just two of a number of contests challenging present conservative MPs.
Implications for international negotiations
If a majority Labor government is formed, or even a minority Labor government with support of the Greens and Independents, Australia is likely to see a change to Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) with an increase in the 2030 target and and ramping up of national ambition. This stands to boost Australia’s negotiating stance by the time of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference (COP24) in December, to be held in Santiago, Chile.
Australia, as a developed nation and a member of the G20, has long been towards the back with climate targets and ambition and the Labor party policy ambition will really only put Australia back on par with the (still insufficient) actions and plans of other industrialised countries. See Australia’s current climate policy and action assessment by Climate Tracker.
If Australia’s government changes on May 18, a change by Australia to it’s international commitments and negotiating stance is to be strongly welcomed, but it is still nowhere near enough.
This article was based on an email to the Climate Action Network global email list by John Englart, Convenor of Climate Action Moreland, giving background information to climate activists around the world on Australia’s federal election. An early version was published on John Englart’s Linkedin account as: Australia’s #climateelection in 2019 for #ausvotes explained for an international audience.