Partners in Crime


It’s one thing for Peter Garrett to inject some power and passion into political debate over climate change; it’s another when the critique comes from a former Liberal Party insider. Former Liberal Party speechwriter Dr Guy Pearse is one such insider. His book High & Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future exposes the extraordinary influence of minority special interest groups on the current Government’s policies relating to the Kyoto Protocol and greenhouse gas emissions.

John Howard and his ministerial minstrels have been upping the ante on the influence of the trade union movement on Kevin Rudd’s workplace relations policies, yet it seems Howard’s beloved ‘Judeo-Christian’ values only extend as far as identifying the speck in his opponent’s eye.

There are logs in the eyes of the Howard Government and not just from razing some of Australia’s pristine forests. Pearse’s book proves that Howard is prepared to sacrifice the future of our nation, if not our planet, for short term political gain.

Using his insider knowledge together with over a decade’s research, Pearse exposes Howard’s partners in crime. These include some of Australia’s biggest polluters in the mining and other industries, lobbyists, allegedly conservative think tanks (how can you call yourself conservative when you don’t wish to conserve the environment for future generations?) and a number of American-owned newspapers.

Pearse’s book continues the revelations he made on ABC TV’s Four Corners program in February last year. I caught up with Pearse soon after the book’s release to talk about the politics of climate change.

The effects of climate change are all around us: chronic and near irreversible water shortages; rising temperatures and sea levels; and a greater frequency of extreme weather events. Despite indisputable scientific evidence of the human causes of climate change, the Prime Minister has largely chosen to ignore the issue.

To understand how serious Howard’s neglect in acting on climate change is, Pearse gave me one comparison. ‘When you consider the desalination plant announced the other day is worth around $2 billion, that’s more than John Howard’s entire climate change budget for over 20 years.’

And why has Howard ignored the science for so long? Pearse’s experience working in this field, both for the Howard Government itself and as a lobbyist for industry, qualifies him to make some very educated guesses.

[When I worked within the Environment Minister’s office] I was attending regular meetings and listening to what his advisers, especially climate change advisers, were saying. I was very much part of the process, mostly in the communication side rather than the policy development side. But you can’t go to executive meetings of departments in the way I did, and meet regularly the Secretary of the Department and the other senior officials, without getting an understanding of how the system comes together.

My exposure wasn’t purely through [my]role as a ministerial speech writer. After that I became a lobbyist for BHP Billiton, for the sugar industry, for the forestry industry, and then [spent]10 years researching the politics of all this at the ANU and getting very good access to a lot of the biggest players in this debate from all sides. So I came at this from so many angles that it’s a bit inaccurate to portray me as simply a Howard Government insider. I’m probably more a Liberal Party insider.

Pearse provides a compelling analysis of how the Prime Minister and his ministers have been held captive by some of Australia’s biggest polluters. Although Howard claims not to allow ‘special interest groups’ to influence his policy agenda, those industries with most to lose from controlled greenhouse gas emissions have dominated debate within the Party.

In fact, they have been more than just dominating debate. Pearse shows how major industry lobbyists were actually able to write ministerial briefings and cabinet submissions on climate change. This is the sort of access lobbyists for other ‘special interests’ can only dream of.

One Howard Government minister recently [told]me that within the Party it’s not seen as a problem if an Industry Minister is seen to be captured by industry; but the last thing you want is your Environment Minister captured by the greenies. So they’re acknowledging that there’s this double standard.

And who are these special interest polluters? They include some of Australia’s major companies in the forestry, mining and energy sectors. Pearse himself has worked as a lobbyist for some of these companies.

Although these industries have Howard’s ear, in reality their contribution to the economy isn’t all that great.

If you look at the biggest polluters pushing Howard’s policy, they only make up a tiny proportion of the economy. Really it’s just the mining, metals and energy sector. Howard considers them the backbone of the economy, yet in reality they are just $1 in $10 and one job in 20 in the Australian economy. He’s been looking to serve their interests.

Interestingly, Howard’s half-hearted acceptance of climate change hasn’t pleased key constituencies of his Coalition partners. Rising sea temperatures and dwindling stocks of commercial fish (not to mention other species below them in the food chain) won’t be a cause of celebration for National Party voters in the fishing and related industries.

‘The Nats are hearing it clear from their own constituency that this is real and we’ve got to do something about it,’ says Pearse.

It’s less clear whether some of them support reducing emissions, but they certainly want money thrown at adaptations. Just this year, John Howard has increased the adaptation budget from $14 million to $180 million.

This may sound like a huge jump, but compare it to the $2 billion for Sydney’s desalination plant. It is also one eleventh of what we have spent protecting our oil supplies by going to war in Iraq.

Even traditional Coalition voters are pushing for real action on climate change. The issue has become so hot that Pearse believes it could lead to a serious split within the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party.

I don’t think Liberal voters are any different. The issue has skyrocketed onto the agenda for them in the last year. It’s been an unthinkable change for some people inside the Government. If you look at the opinion polls, they show 60 to 80 per cent of Coalition voters don’t think we’re doing enough on climate change

The danger is that within the Liberal Party’s major constituency, particularly the elderly, but people from all walks of life, are worried about what sort of planet we are going to be leaving to our kids. Quite a few Liberal Party members have approached me and say they share these concerns but they can’t seem to get these concerns actioned further up the political chain. There’s a risk here for the Party that if it considers this not to be a high enough priority issue for the swinging voters, and if we ignore it, we could end up bleeding traditional Liberal voters from hitherto safe Liberal seats.

To be continued …

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.