Question time went off with a bang on Tuesday afternoon, right after the swearing in of Malcolm Turnbull as Australia’s new Prime Minister, with Greens and Labor Party Senators quick to hone in on some key points of ideological difference between the old and the new PM. Chief among these, of course, is climate change.
It’s a thorny topic for Turnbull, who is firmly on the record as being deeply committed to the fight against global warming, but whose support for the Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme once cost his leadership ambitions dearly.
Labor Senator Tim Watts summed up the predicament quite well on Tuesday: “The new Prime Minister came into this building and said that he stands for freedom but not for the pursuit of an Australian republic. He says that he stands for the individual, but not if you are a gay Australian wanting to get married. He says that he stands for the market, but not if you are responding to climate change.
“The public face of the Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull Liberal Party may have changed, but the reality is that the extreme and out-of-touch party behind it remains,” Watts said.
Turnbull, himself, in his first Question Time as prime minister, did little to shake this impression.
When asked by Melbourne Greens Senator Adam Bandt whether he was “beholden” to the Coalition hardliners to “stick with pollution targets that fudge the science – or would he “explain and persuade” that climate change requires much deeper pollution cuts than the Abbott government had proposed? Turnbull fired straight back with the Abbott party line.
“The cuts proposed by the government which are being taken by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for the Environment to the Paris Conference of the Parties are very substantial ones, and they are in line with cuts proposed by comparable economies,” Turnbull told Parliament on Tuesday.
And he went on: “The cuts we are proposing are absolutely comparable and appropriate, in line with other comparable economies. They are very substantial cuts. The means that we are using, which the Minister for the Environment has diligently and carefully put in place to achieve them, are doing their work.”
Opposition climate spokesman, Mark Butler, then followed up by serving up Turnbull’s own comments past, including: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.” (ABC, 2009); and his description of Direct Action as “an exercise in fiscal recklessness.”
Turnbull’s response was this: “You cannot take people’s remarks about different proposals years ago.”
He then went on to pour even more praise on environment minister Greg Hunt and his magnum opus, the highly criticised Emissions Reduction Fund, and to defend his party’s low-ball emissions target as “reasonable.”
“Honourable members can scoff,” said Turnbull. “The fact is that we have a set of very different measures today. The Emissions Reduction Fund is a set of very specific measures which deal with reducing carbon emissions, and they are doing so at a low cost. We are not talking about a theoretical measure …
“We are talking about a very specific policy that was carefully put together by the Minister for the Environment, that was carefully considered by the government, and it is working. What honourable members hate most is that it is actually working.
“The honourable members would like to say that the environment minister’s policy may work in practice but it fails in theory. The reality is if it works in practice it works. If it cuts emissions it does the job …What sticks in their craw—what they cannot bear—is that the Minister for the Environment is reducing emissions at a remarkably low cost.
“That is a great credit to him and a great credit to the government, but it offends the opposition’s prejudices. It offends their preconceived notions. It offends their ridiculous ideology about climate change where every measure is turned into an article of principle. It does not matter how you cut emissions as long as they are cut.
“Our goal is reasonable, it is responsible and it is comparable to that of other countries that are similarly situated.”
Of course, Turnbull’s precarious position – quite obviously taken to soothe the party’s ultra-conservative soul – has been pounced on by the Opposition, and branded as a “sell out.”
Speaking on Radio National’s Breakfast program on Wednesday morning, Butler said Turnbull needed to “reacquaint himself” with the facts about his party’s central climate policy – the main one being that it won’t work.
“The problem with the Direct Action plan is the problem that Malcolm Turnbull highlighted five or six years ago, it just won’t work,” Butler said.
“Emissions in 2020 will not be 5 per cent below 2000 levels. The government’s own projections confirm that. Projections released in the last couple of weeks by RepuTex… show that emissions in 2020 will be significantly higher than they were in 2000, and significantly higher than they are today.
“Emissions will be 20 per cent higher, we’re told, over the next 15 years, because of the design of the safeguards mechanism. This is not a policy that will work, every expert has said so.”
The counter argument here is, as ABC’s Fran Kelly points out, that Turnbull could get away with tweaking elements of the Direct Action policy to make it, effectively, a carbon baseline and credits scheme – closer to an ETS.
But Butler says that can’t happen – not with the current Direct Action.
“Malcolm Turnbull has said he is not making a change to the current policy. Now the current policy will not achieve any meaningful reductions in carbon pollution,” he told Kelly.
“This is a really critical point. …Lots of Australians had the hope that Malcolm Turnbull returning to the Liberal Party leadership would see the party brought back to the sensible centre on climate change policy. And yesterday, he broke their hearts by saying that he would not change Tony Abbott’s approach to climate change.
“And we know, over five years of bitter experience, that Tony Abbott’s approach to climate change was one of division, and one of trying to appear to be doing something, when in actual fact you are doing nothing to achieve meaningful reductions in Australia’s very high level of carbon pollution.”
Whether Turnbull will eventually, as Brandt put it, be able to “explain and persuade” the Coalition’s right-wing rump to strengthen its climate policy remains to be seen. But for now, the fact that, as his comments suggest, he is happy to send Bishop and Hunt to Paris with a target and policy framework that has already been widely ridiculed internationally, speaks volumes.