Turnbull's Test: There Can Be No Grand Economic Vision Without Climate Action


The atmospherics of our Federal government have been stormy over recent months, and never more so than yesterday, when Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, leaving a brief window in the afternoon during which it appeared possible Australia would soon have a credible climate policy.

The penetration of climate change into the leadership spills of the last half decade has been immense, and with his track record of support for climate action Turnbull is unlikely to believe Australia’s current targets of a 26 per cent cut to carbon pollution by 2030 are good enough.

But in the political machinations of his ascendency — as, I think we can pretty confidently predict will continue to be the case — the richest man in parliament rolled over.

On claiming victory, he fronted the cameras with the returned Deputy Prime Minister, Julie Bishop, who indicated the government will take its existing target and policy suite to crucial UN climate talks in Paris this December as planned under Abbott.

Turnbull told reporters: “Let me make this clear. The policy on climate change that Greg Hunt and Julie [Bishop]… prepared is one that I supported as a minister in the Abbott government and it’s one that I support today.

“Again… policies are reviewed and adapted all the time. But the climate policy is one that I think has been very well designed. That was a very good piece of work.”

If anyone was in any doubt, Bishop jumped in to underscore the point: “Can I just say, we’ve already announced our climate targets for Paris in December and I expect those targets to continue.”

Earlier, Turnbull had spoken of the need to embrace the great new economic future with optimism.

“We need to have in this country and we will have now, an economic vision, a leadership that explains the great economic opportunities and challenges we face,” he said.

The new government will be one that, “describes the way in which we can handle those challenges, seize those opportunities, and does so in a manner that the Australian people understand so that we are seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture”.

In what you might consider a pretty neat summary of the leadership needed to tackle climate change, Turnbull insisted that “we have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it”.

He promised more consultative government, but the question is who will he consult with?

Will he consult with the Climate Change Authority, which has recommended roughly a doubling of the nation’s climate targets, and act out of respect for its independent assessment of the pace of change Australia must muster to play a fair and responsible effort to curb global warming?

Or will he listen to the climate obstructionist National Party, which has made thinly veiled (and almost certainly empty) threats around a split of the Coalition agreement if Turnbull doesn’t come to the party and, presumably, meet some of their policy demands.

Will Turnbull listen to the cabal of mostly Western Australian MPs that recently had a near success in forcing the Liberal party to refer the ‘science supporting anthropogenic climate change’ to a parliamentary committee, as though more evidence were needed?

Or will he, as large sections of the community undoubtedly want him to, give gumption to his pitch for politics of hope? Articulating his grand vision, Turnbull said that “there has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”.

“We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it.”

The member for Wentworth has already been knocked off once for upsetting the party with his support for pricing carbon, in December 2009. Abbott undermined Turnbull’s then opposition on climate change — sabotaging negotiations underway with the Rudd government for market mechanisms to curb emissions — and Gillard later replaced Rudd, promising no carbon tax.

Such is Tony Abbott’s antipathy to climate action that he left Turnbull’s cabinet over the Emissions Trading Scheme, and his proudest achievement in government is the destruction of the policy suite designed to create price signals to encourage clean energy in the much-vaunted market.

The gaffe that seems to have sealed the Abbott government’s fate, Peter Dutton’s joking dismissal in conversation with the now deposed PM about the rising tides destroying countries and culture in the Pacific, was also linked to the Liberal parties regressive stance on climate change.

The Abbott government’s attacks on renewable energy have been widely seen as irrational, absurd, and anti-jobs. Polls show high support for renewable energy, low support for the coal companies’ place suckling at the tit of government and the public purse, and climate action is at last paying out political dividends as leaders like Barack Obama brand peers who don’t take climate change seriously as “unfit to lead”.

If Turnbull wants to make his mark — if he wants to prosecute the argument that “we have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change, is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it” — there is no more urgent place to start than our unconscionably-high emissions.

There is no issue more urgent, or vexed, than disentangling economic growth from carbon pollution. There is no issue that goes more to the capacity of our leaders to act in the public interest, collaboratively, for all of our futures, and in a bi-partisan way.

As Turnbull himself has said, “When people try and suggest to you that climate change is not a moral issue, they are wrong. It is an intensely moral issue.”

Former Liberal leader turned vocal advocate for renewable energy, John Hewson, offered some shrewd observations on QandA last night:

“It’s not just a question of changing the jockeys. It’s the horse that’s crook. We haven’t had good government. We haven’t had decisive leadership. You can say ‘oh we haven’t sold the economic message’ — What’s the economic message?

“I mean, you look at the economic transition from a resources boom to what? Where are the jobs going to come from? And when you look around… they’re cutting areas where we’re strong; to education, to higher education, in research and technology, trying to wipe out the renewables sector, one of the true growth sectors of our economy.

“… There hasn’t been an orchestrated policy strategy to deliver on that sort of challenge.”

Turnbull will likely be simply a better marketer for the bad product voters rejected at the government’s 2014 budget, but he has shown some gumption and spoken freely on ‘progressive issues’ like gay marriage and climate change in the past.

In the only nation to repeal a price on carbon, by now a well known sitcom on the stage of global negotiations, changing the conversation to one of hope and optimism and making a persuasive case for serious climate action could be inverted to pay political dividends.

"Ultimately, the Prime Minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs," Turnbull said yesterday. That is what must now be demanded, relentlessly, of Malcolm Turnbull.

It must include more ambitious action commensurate with Turnbull's now well articulated views on the climate crisis.

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.