Australia should be embarrassed.
Not only has the Obama Administration in the US outlined plans to cut power emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, but China – the world’s biggest emitter – has indicated it will place a cap on its emissions as soon as 2016, an extraordinary development in the world of climate policy.
Australia should be embarrassed, but it need not be.
So, here’s the irony. Nine months after the election of the Tony Abbott government, on a platform of tearing down anything vaguely environmental, climate, or clean energy, Australia finds itself with a pretty good collection of climate and renewable energy policies.
They are still in place. Abbott, and the Australian public, can thank the country’s Senate for that. Despite the threats, bombast and the three-word rhetoric, nothing much has changed. Tim Flannery and the Climate Commission have gone, though reincarnated by private monies and public donations, but everything else is at it was, pre the poll date.
The carbon price is still there, the renewable energy target can still deliver more than a 20 per cent share of wind, solar, hydro and biomass, and push more coal- and gas-fired generation out of the market.
Even the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, with a $10 billion budget that will hasten new technologies and deliver abatement and profits to the government, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, with money to spend on new technologies such as this groundbreaking solar thermal plant, and the first large scale solar and storage plant for a major mining operation, are still in operation.
So, too, is the Climate Change Authority. And by a strange quirk of fate, the country’s official emissions reduction target has jumped to 18.9 per cent, the result of some forward thinking policy wonks who decided to lock in Australia’s prior climate commitments in the case of a political stalemate.
Around 19 per cent is exactly what the CCA, and many others, say is Australia’s fair share, given the developments overseas.
So, really, there is no need for Abbott to feel embarrassed at all as he travels the world this week, and later this year, when he attends the UN leaders summit in New York in September and then hosts the G20 conference in Brisbane.
He even has popular support for the current policies – more so than for the government itself. A Lowy Institute poll found 45 per cent believe global warming is a serious and pressing issue, and two-thirds approve of Australia taking a leadership issue on climate change. Just 28 per cent think Australia should wait for others to move (well, that’s already happened) and just 7 per cent think Australia should do what Abbott’s policy advisors recommend: nothing.
So what sort of fool would want to tear these policies down? Pretty much the sort whose ideology and vested interests makes him blind to the fact that business as usual is neither credible, nor possible.
But even these blinkers are not complete. The far, lunar, Right, whose influence over this government and public agenda has been exposed for all by the Federal budget, betrayed their own fears of what a tenuous hold they have on policy over the medium term when (unofficial) chief spokesman Andrew Bolt decided to launch an extraordinary attack on Malcolm Turnbull.
The far, lunar, Right, has hijacked the liberal Party for its own means and it understands its opportunity to strike is short, before everyone wakes up to what’s going on.
That’s already happened to moderate Liberals, who are in government in name only. The party platform is as unrecognisable to them as if it were Labor’s.
Turnbull is very much Malcolm in the middle. His description of Bolt’s attack as “demented” and “unhinged” could apply to much of the Abbott policy agenda, particularly in relation to climate and clean energy.
Now Turnbull, as Bolt notes, is in no position or mood to launch anything like a leadership challenge. The polls will tell that story.
In the meantime, as efforts by the centrists to pull the party back to the middle and something resembling its traditional values, continue, other options arise.
As one Liberal Party observer noted this week: “Clearly, there are enough sitting Liberal members that reject the Americanisation of Australia’s social values.
“There are enough who understand science and research and the importance of science and research to Australia’s well being. There are enough who are sick of the Liberal brand being trashed by climate deniers within the party.”
A voting block of around 16 would do the trick – that’s less than the number of Coalition MPs under threat in marginal seats. What could possibly be the downside?