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Labor’s climate smokescreen

Mar 4, 2020 • 13m 31s

Labor has now got an emissions target, but no mechanism for getting there. The party’s current position is a far cry from the world-leading climate policies the party used to champion. Mike Seccombe on how Labor lost its nerve.

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Labor’s climate smokescreen

175 • Mar 4, 2020

Labor’s climate smokescreen

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

RUBY:

The Labor Party has unveiled its emissions target. And while it’s in line with global obligations the party hasn’t said how they’ll get there. Moreover Anthony Albanese’s promises on coal are contradictory to that goal. Today, Mike Seccombe on how Labor lost its nerve, and what that means for Australia’s future.

[Theme music ends]

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male newsreader:

The latest skirmish in the climate wars caused by the opposition leader’s declaration.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified female newsreader:

The federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese is expected to back a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

The Labor party will adopt the target of net zero emissions by 2050.Our amazing continent is particularly vulnerable. Action on climate change will mean more jobs, lower emissions and lower energy prices.

RUBY:

Mike, it’s been a while coming, but Labor has now announced its climate policy - can you tell me about how the party leadership got to this point?

MIKE:

Well, we know now that the decision to go to the net zero target was taken on January 29, which was a while back now. It was, it was taken at a full meeting of the shadow ministry, so that's, I don't know, 30 plus people, a large group of people, and yet not a word of it leaked. And nor, for that matter, did Albanese feel the need to go out and reveal that they'd taken this decision for all those weeks, which suggests to me a few things.

First of all, it suggests unity within the Labor ranks, because if anyone had been seriously pissed off about the decision that was taken, the public would have known about it. I mean, we see what happens every time the coalition tries to come up with a climate policy. We instantly know who's unhappy. So that's the first one.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

The second thing that this suggests to me is that Albanese had decided that the public mood was such, after the summer fires, that some kind of statement of basic principle had to be made even at the risk of attracting criticism over the lack of detail.

And the third thing that it suggests is a calculation on Labor's part that the government's credibility on climate issues is so shot in the wake of the bushfires and all the fights between the Nationals and the Liberals over targets and fossil fuel subsidies and all the rest of it, that Labor had not very much to fear from a fight.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

And we have a plan. See that’s the thing Mr Speaker, that’s what the leader of the opposition doesn’t understand.

MIKE:

And that pretty much played out on the floor of parliament last week. The government went after them and didn't really land any punches, in my view.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

See I’m happy to work with the NSW govt because they have a plan and we have a plan. And together we’re implementing that plan. And I’ll tell you what a big part of that plan is....

RUBY:

So Labor’s target, where does that place them globally and will they get there?

MIKE:

Well, first of all, they're not on their own, right. We've got 73 countries around the world, Australian state and territory, including the liberal ones, has adopted a net zero by 2050 target. A large and very rapidly growing number of business organisations and civil society groups have signed up for this net zero target. That's what's necessary, according to the international experts. So it's hardly a radical position they're taking. Really, it's just a commitment to the letter of what's in the Paris agreement.

The other thing that has to be noticed, of course, is that Labor doesn't yet have any specific policies around this target and how we would get there.

And yet Labor is intent on continuing to back coal mining for export through to 24 and potentially beyond, which, you know, makes it very hard for the world to achieve net zero.

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

I support all jobs.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male newsreader:

Including coal mining?

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

I support all jobs. That’s pretty clear.

MIKE:

And Labor's argument is that, well, coal exports are a matter for market forces.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male newsreader:

What about coal mining though? We contribute to global emissions far more through what we export when it comes to coal. Will we still be doing that in 2050 at all?

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:

Look, I suspect we will.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male newsreader:

We’ll still be exporting coal even though we’ve got a net zero...

MIKE:

If other countries adopt their targets, eventually there will be no one to buy our coal. But as a number of people have said, that's essentially the drug dealer argument, which is that if they don't get it from us, they'll get it from somewhere else.

So actually, it's substantially weaker as far as we can see at this stage than previous Labor climate policies, which have been pretty strong. And at one point, were world leading.

RUBY:

What do you mean by world leading?

MIKE:

Well, back under the prime ministership of Julia Gillard, they put a price on carbon.

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Julia Gillard:

The parliament the people elected in 2010 has found the path to the clean energy future which our country so badly needs.

We will require around 500 big polluters to pay a price for every tonne of carbon pollution they put into our atmosphere.

MIKE:

There was not only that price on carbon, there was also a fair bit of architecture around getting there, which the opposition then under Tony Abbott called the the carbon tax, which it wasn't technically, but they campaigned very strongly on the whole ,axe the tax issue’ prior to winning government.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male politician:

This is arrogant presumption by a prime minister who is on the wrong side of truth.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male politician:

We're not talking about changing it. We're talking about scrapping it. Can I make that crystal clear?

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male politician:

It is going to turn out to be the longest political suicide note in Australian history. (Jeers of agreement heard in the background)

[Music ends]

MIKE:

The interesting thing about the Gillard policy is that this price on carbon emissions that was implemented in July 2012 worked. Consumer prices didn't skyrocket. Regions and industries weren't wiped out, nor did the economy tank, as has various naysayers warned. And emissions came down by around 2 per cent. Even as the economy grew by about 5 per cent during the brief period that it was in force.

RUBY:

Hmmm, that was pretty short lived though.

MIKE:

Well, yeah. Yeah, it lasted almost exactly two years. So Abbott and co, with the support of various right wing media figures, you know, notably Alan Jones from 2GB just campaigned relentlessly against it.

Archival Tape -- Alan Jones:

There are people now saying your name is not Julia, but Ju-LIAR. Do you accept the fact that you've stolen an election with a false promise?

Archival Tape -- Julia Gillard:

Oh Alan, what a load of nonsense.

MIKE:

Of course, what happened then was that immediately the conservatives came in, wiped the policy and emissions started tracking upwards again.

[Music starts]

MIKE:

So we can see the effectiveness of the previous policy and the ineffectiveness of what replaced it.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, Labor was bruised by it’s election loss to Tony Abbott in 2013. How did that change their approach to climate policy?

MIKE:

Well, it scared them away from carbon pricing. We saw a really clear example of that in the comments made last week by Mark Butler, who was the Labor environment spokesman both before and after the 2013 election.

Archival Tape -- Mark Butler:

The environment doesn't care about the price being paid; the environment cares about the quantum of carbon pollution being spewed into the atmosphere.

MIKE:

And I've got to say, he's absolutely full bottle on all this climate stuff and has been very strong on it.

Archival Tape -- Mark Butler:

The essence of an emissions trading scheme from the environment's point of view is that there will be caps every year reducing on the carbon pollution that can be put into the atmosphere from Australia. What the price ends of being that business pays to participate in that process will ultimately be a matter for business.

MIKE:

Last week he fronted the media and he was reminded of his strong support of a carbon price back in 2013 and was challenged to explain his position now. And what he said was that, well, that was ten years ago. The world has moved on. I don't think a carbon price is as important anymore, even if the models still say so.

RUBY:

So what does that mean for Labor then?

MIKE:

Well, that's that's basically an acknowledgement that Labor's given up on a carbon price because they don't feel confident enough that they could win an election with one.

In the meantime, I might add, much of the rest of the world has gone off and had one. New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme. The European Union has an emissions trading scheme. California and a bunch of other states in the United States. A number of Canadian provinces. Quite a number of the Democratic candidates for president in the United States have promised one if they win power.

So in spite of what Mark Butler said, the world has not really moved on. As Richie Mersin, who's the climate program director for the Australia Institute and I might add, a former climate negotiator for Australia. As he puts it, the politics of this has soured the entire conversation, such that Labor no longer dares to advocate best policy practice because it's fearful of the scare campaign that would inevitably run against them by the coalition.

RUBY:

Since Labor's announcement, the coalition has criticised them for not having costed what it would take to get to net zero by 2050. Mike, what are the costs of action and also the costs of inaction on climate change?

MIKE:

Well, that's a good question. In truth, it is hard to be precise about the costs because I mean, this is a big thing. Achieving net zero would impact all areas of the economy. And furthermore, it's pretty close to impossible to foresee how technology might change over the next 30 years. So the costs of renewables, solar and wind have just plummeted in recent years. The price of batteries is coming down, so we can't be absolutely precise about the costs. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that the costs of inaction are likely to be many times the costs of action.

A recent study by the University of Melbourne cited it could be 2.7 trillion dollars in losses from now until 2050, predicated on, you know, if the global temperature increased 3.6 or 4 degrees. Which, of course, is where we could be headed unless the world's leaders, of which Australia used to be one and sadly, is no more, get their act together.

RUBY:

So, Mike, if Labor is going to keep copping all of these scare campaigns about the cost of their climate policies, regardless of how weak those policies are, why don't they embrace something more visionary like they did in 2012 with the carbon price?

MIKE:

Well, fear of the political consequences, I think. It seems to be the case that Albanese is just being strategic in this, given the outrageous scare campaigns that have been mounted against good policy in the past by the conservatives.

He's gone to the old small target strategy. Labor people tell me that there will be a comprehensive package of measures announced closer to the next election. Personally, I'm dubious about the wisdom of putting it off that long. I don't know that that necessarily draws the poison of a scare campaign. But anyway, that's their plan. And in the meantime, we just charge on heedless into the climate crisis.

[Music starts]

MIKE:

Of all the world's developed countries, Australia is the most vulnerable to climate change, and yet it's now one of the global laggards when it comes to doing anything about it. For the sake of our coal and gas industries, we're prepared to sacrifice the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, watch the Murray Darling dry up, see our forests burn, suffer the health consequences of heat waves and smoke inhalation and all the rest of it.

So it's a pretty dark picture, but there is something that gives me hope, which is that after this summer, it seems the great majority of Australians, 75 per cent, according to a fresh poll that came out last week, not only endorsing net zero target, but they want strong policies to achieve it. Around half of them now want to see no new coal mines started, for example. So, you know, maybe in the end the politicians will get serious. If not after concern about the environment, then at least out of self-interest.

RUBY:

Mike, great talking to you.

MIKE:

My pleasure.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today, National newswire service the Australian Associated Press has announced it’s shutting down. AAP provides a range of services including news copy, sub editing, and photography.

Its major shareholders Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia said the 85-year-old institution was unsustainable.

The decision will see nearly 200 journalists and photographers lose their jobs.

And the Reserve Bank has slashed interest rates to zero point five per cent, as it seeks to contain the economic fallout from coronavirus.

It comes as analysts warn the virus could cause a recession in Australia.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

The Labor Party has committed to zero emissions by 2050, but hasn’t said how it will get there. And, its coal commitments contradict that target. Mike Seccombe looks at how Labor lost its nerve on climate policy, and what that means for Australia’s climate future.

Guest: The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent, Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Political warfare over climate action in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh, and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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175: Labor’s climate smokescreen