In one of the surest signs yet that the Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition is making a departure from the climate denying, anti-renewable energy thinking that has guided the party’s policy-making from the top down, Maurice Newman will not be reappointed as chairman of the prime minister’s business advisory council.
Newman, a far-right conservative and outspoken denier of climate change, was appointed to the role by Tony Abbott in one of his first acts after becoming Prime Minister in 2013, and has been a key influence on Abbott’s policy direction since then.
His controversial views on climate change – essentially that it is not happening, and rather it’s global cooling we should be worried about – have been given a regular airing in a weekly column Newman writes for The Australian.
Newman was also behind the push to investigate whether the Bureau of Meteorology was exaggerating temperature data records as part of what he saw as a broader climate change conspiracy. A push that, according to recent evidence revealed by the ABC, was knocked on the head by environment minister Greg Hunt.
And so, Turnbull’s decision not to reappoint Newman now that his chairmanship has expired – one of the eight things we recently suggested the new PM could do to show support for renewable energy and climate change – is good news, not least for Hunt, who is now overseeing these departments in a so-called environment “mega-office”.
But while this might signal a move away from the rhetoric and the mood of the inner cabal that fashioned Abbott’s policy making, it means little for actual policy, despite reports that Hunt is eyeing more ambitious targets for cutting emissions and driving innovation to develop new energy technology.
The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday quoted Hunt as saying it was “highly likely” that the December Paris climate meeting would lead to further reviews of Australia’s targets, and then “the ability to progressively tighten targets and standards. The way we think of it is buying an option for the future.” That, though, is what the Paris process would demand of all countries.
And on Monday, The Australian reported that Hunt has created a “mega-office” of Climate Change and Renewables Innovation within the Environment Department, combining all climate and renewables programs.
According to that report, the new body includes the Clean Energy Regulator, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Climate Change Authority – the latter three being organisations the Abbott government, including Hunt, repeatedly vowed to scrap.
But others, not least of all the federal opposition, are highly sceptical of Hunt’s ability to effect any real change to the Coalition’s current climate policies – including its promise to axe ARENA and the CEFC, or cause their death by a thousand cuts.
In a media statement today, Labor’s climate spokesman Mark Butler asserted that the Coalition’s plan to abolish ARENA “remains exactly the same,” despite Hunt’s apparent newfound conviction.
Turnbull, says Butler, “has traded away his convictions to do a deal with the National Party and the hard right of the Liberals to secure his own dream job.”
Former Climate Change Authority boss, Bernie Fraser, effectively said the same last week, telling Fairfax Media Turnbull’s “courage has deserted him” on climate action, and predicting that the party’s hardliners would ensure the Coalition’s policies would fail to meet even modest emissions targets.
What all this means for Hunt and his great big new climate and renewables portfolio remains to be seen, but we’ll leave the last word on the matter to George Brandis, Australia’s federal attorney general, who has been very busy spreading the word that this is a Very Different Government.
Here’s what he told ABC TVs Insiders on Sunday:
BARRIE CASSIDY: If (Hunt) was though, for example, to tweak climate change policy, would the party tolerate that?
GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Barrie. The Prime Minister was actually asked about this in the House of Representatives on Tuesday and he made the point that what we need to be concerned about is outcomes, not methods. There are various ways to achieve outcomes, but the Direct Action policy developed by Greg Smith, who was …
BARRIE CASSIDY: Greg Hunt.
GEORGE BRANDIS: … as I point out to you, is the great – Greg Hunt, I should say – is the great climate change intellectual of this Parliament. He has developed an effective package which has Australia meeting and hitting its targets, in fact doing a little better than hitting its targets. So, that’s what works, that’s what work, Barrie.
Sophie is editor of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and deputy editor of its sister site, RenewEconomy.com.au. Sophie has been writing about clean energy for more than a decade.