One Finite Planet

One Finite Planet

Australia: Climate Policy Fail? Or Democracy Fail?

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Of all the developed countries, Australia has the poorest standing on climate.

Bas Eickhout: Dutch Parliament Delegation leader (via CNN) .

The ‘Standing’: Government Reputation of Climate Denial.

Whether Climate Denial is Good or bad, The Australian Government has earned their reputation.

Stockpiles of coal at the Newcastle Coal Terminal in the Australian state of New South Wales. (note 1)

James bond has a reputation as a womaniser. Some find that reputation appealing, others don’t, but the reputation is real and James Bond really is seen as womaniser, both by those who find that something to be admired in the fictional character, or those who think it sets a bad example. Good or bad, he is a womaniser.

The same applies with the Australia Government and resistance to measures on climate change. This is not a debate about whether the Australian Government should not more, or do less, but about the policies of Australia in comparison with other countries. It is not a question of the merits of the policies.

Australia, with higher greenhouse gasses per person than all but the gulf states, is gaining a reputation as a ‘climate denial’ state. This is a look at the reputation, what is behind it, and the impact on global initiatives.

London (CNN): If Australia’s allies were worried that the country might cause them problems at upcoming climate talks in Glasgow, the events of the past week should leave little doubt in their minds. It will. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday all but confirmed a report that his country had pressured the UK into dropping key climate commitments from their bilateral trade agreement, showing no sign of regret or embarrassment at being caught out. And on Monday last week, when a senior UN official warned Australia’s climate inaction would eventually “wreak havoc” on its economy, Australia’s resources minister, Keith Pitt, dismissed the UN as a “foreign body” that should mind its own business. He even bragged about Australia’s plans to keep mining coal “well beyond 2030,” while much of the developed world is already well on its way to phasing out the fossil fuel.

Australia is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world with its obstinate approach to the climate crisis. Leaders like US climate envoy John Kerry and COP26 President Alok Sharma have been focused recently on the climate challenge of China — but it’s Australia that’s emerging as the real pariah of the COP26 talks.

CNN: Australia is shaping up to be the villain of COP26 climate talks

Even David Attenborough singled out Australia for the government position on climate change.

Not only are current Australian emissions per capita high and commitments to reduce emissions low, the Australian Government has a track record of trying to game the system to appear to meet emissions reduction targets, rather than actually reduce emissions, such as being the only country in the world to try and use “carryover credits” to meet emissions targets.

States and Business vs National Policy.

While the national government does not follow the science, all states and most business do.

It’s not just Australia’s trading partners leaving our Federal Government’s position isolated. It’s also our own state and territory governments.

Every single state and territory in Australia has declared they will aim to reach net zero emissions by 2050. So Australia does actually plan on doing that — the only thing we’re lacking is federal coordination for how it will happen.

Among those states, the Liberal-National NSW government this month announced some of the strongest policies to reach that target. It plans to build a massive 12 gigawatts of renewable energy in the next decade, supported by two gigawatts of storage.

Also this month, the Liberal Tasmanian government passed a 200 per cent renewables target through the lower house.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government is also being left behind by Australian investors and big business. Most of Australia’s five biggest super funds have committed to reducing the emissions of their investments to net zero by 2050.

ABC: The Australian Government is surrounded by leaders taking climate action, Nov 2020.

The Politics: Coal Delivers Power.

“This is coal”: Scott Morrison’s ‘Coalaphobia’ speech.

The current leader of government in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, once famously brought coal into parliament, for a speech declaring coal as central to sustainability, and competitiveness of the Australian economy, year prior to becoming party leader.

Australia has had a history of deposing leaders who support action on climate change, as noted here by the New York Times in 2018, but even five years earlier in 2013, the Guardian reported how ‘Climate change and carbon pricing have toppled political leaders and divided Australia”.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd, declaring “Climate Change Is The Great Moral Challenge Of Our Generation“, was swept to power, but he was removed from leading the country by his own party before even facing another election. There were other factors, but the pattern of supporting measures to combat climate change being a “poison chalice” and by 2013 Australia returned to previous tactics of working to undermine and “game” international climate agreements.

Public Sentiment Doesn’t Match Government Policy.

There is a segment of the electorate who believe the claim that action on climate change is a recipe for economic disaster and massive unemployment. But on balance, the stance of the government does not match overall public opinion.

On the same day CCN in the US featured the story on how Australia was the “villain” of upcoming climate talks, also linked to an article focused on how the US is perceived as performing on climate change, that referenced data from a Pew Research study on how concerned about climate change people are in different nations.

As it would be expected that attitudes of government reflect the attitudes of those that elect them, it would seem logical that the Australian people are not particularly concerned about climate change.

Reality is that Australians are far more concerned about climate change than the Swedish, more concerned than people in the USA, and have an almost identical level to those in New Zealand, despite a huge difference in government position between the two countries.

This is clearly a case of where the position of government, and the beliefs of the population are not in alignment.

It’s not for business to determine Australia’s policy direction on major issues, but the people actually voted in by the electorate to address them — people who have to answer to voters on how they do so.

Where Canavan’s response falls down, of course, is that our democracy noticeably hasn’t resolved the dispute over an appropriate climate policy. It has spectacularly failed, due to people like Canavan, who refuse to accept science and aggressively push the interests of the fossil fuel industries that make such a big contribution to his party’s coffers. That’s why the Morrison government has no climate or energy policy, lies about meeting our Paris Agreement targets, and hides data showing rising emissions — making it even worse than the Abbott government on climate action.


We have independent institutions elsewhere. We accept that politicians shouldn’t try to influence the media — not merely is the ABC supposed to be independent, but the media regulator ACMA is also independent of government. The corporate regulator is supposed to be independent, as is the prudential regulator. The Australian Electoral Commission is independent; so is the Future Fund. The ATO. The list goes on.

All independent because everyone accepts that politicians simply cannot be left to make decisions in these crucial areas — our democratic system isn’t strong enough for that.

Why not climate action? A decade after Labor and the Coalition went to the 2007 election promising a carbon pricing scheme, it is clear that our democracy can’t address the issue. We didn’t need a decade of monetary policy paralysis to convince us to make the RBA independent. We didn’t need continual interference in the operations of the Future Fund to show the need to keep politicians out of it. Our democracy has failed — time for an independent climate action body

The electorate have previously even voted for politicians promising action on climate change, only for the elected leader to then be removed from office by their political party sometime after the election, due the leader favouring action on climate.

Behind the Politics: The Voters Have Limited Influence.

There are at least 3 factors influencing policy in Australia:

  1. The electorate, as without votes, a party does not win government.
  2. Political donors, as well funds campaigns win elections.
  3. The media, as campaign advertising contributions and support can be as helpful as donations, and attract less scrutiny.

Political advertising has a very significant effect on voter choices. More money won’t ensure you win, but not enough money will generally ensure you can’t win.

Money is indispensable in American electoral campaigns. Without it, candidates cannot amplify their message to reach voters and it’s harder to motivate people to take interest and vote.

University Of Florida

The fossil fuel industry directly donated more than $85.7 million to Australian political parties in the 2018-19 financial year, highlighting the need for serious reform of the political donations system, the Australian Conservation Foundation said today
……Between the parties, $8,106,924 of receipts have undisclosed sources; however, when state branches of the parties are taken into account, the sources of more than $102 million of donations remain undisclosed. “This political donations data reveals the influence of the fossil fuel industry in Australia’s political system,” said ACF’s Economy and Democracy Program Manager Matt Rose.

“This data explains why even in the face of a rolling national emergency driven by climate change and community demands for change, the Government continues to defend and promote the industries that are the root cause of the problem. “Serious donations reform is needed now to make sure our political system works for the benefit of all Australians, not just those with the biggest wallets.”

Donations data reveals scale of coal and gas industry efforts to influence Australian politics

The headline figure from the quote above includes donations to a minor party, that then used the money in advertising campaigns to influence the election outcome without itself winning seats in parliament. An interesting way to try and influence public opinion. But even without the distraction of that mining industry PR campaign, the fact remains that the fossil fuel industry is a major donor to both major political parties in Australia.

Note that the fossil fuel industry enjoys subsidies in most countries, which amount to over $10 billion annually in Australia. The equation for politicians becomes one of providing generous subsidies using taxpayer funds results in a return through donations to party funds. The more cynical might suggest the donations are good investment for the fossil fuel industry.

This results in a potential conflict, where parties must choose between two options:

  1. Pursue a more fossil fuel friendly position than voters would like, and have more political funding.
  2. Promote a position preferred by voters, but have a far lower advertising budget to sell your position.

Which would you choose? There is a level of political funding that would fund marketing to more than compensate for a loss of appeal to voters from a fossil fuel favouring platform, and the mismatch between the opinions of voters compared to other nations, and the position of the government compared to other nations that suggests. Note that political donations to parties are not the only source of influence, with political donations also provide to key individual members of the government, and even unusual measures in use to obfuscate the sources of donations as large as 1 million dollars to individuals in government.

To be clear, there is no evidence or suggestion Christian Porter has shifted a policy position or granted any favours in return for his financial windfall. But it’s difficult to properly scrutinise the potential for a conflict of interest because the minister says he doesn’t know who’s stumped up the cash. One thing we do know — Porter’s legal bills are considerably higher than Dastyari’s. They’re reported to be in the range of $600,000 to $1 million.

Blind trust donation raises many questions for Christian Porter — and Scott Morrison

However, campaign donations may be only part of the picture. Australia does not have a diverse ownership of print and television media, with significant influence and control exercised by Rupert Murdoch, who is well known to be pro fossil fuels, and even if there are suggestions that the stance in the Australian media may ease their climate denial, in recent elections, any policy to address climate change was guaranteed to result in a barrage of negative press.

A Democracy Fail For Australia, or a Problem with Global Reach?

So it is clear that Australia is not getting the government policy that would result from the electorate alone, but perhaps the implications or a government with other powerful influences even impacts the global scenario?

Firstly, the reason Australia can attract such support for policies against climate action, is that the actions of Australia can influence global markets for fossil fuels.

Note that not only did Australia manage to get the UK to drop key climate deals, but with Australia playing a key role in an alliance with the US and UK control the influence of China, Australia has ability to exert influence well beyond its borders, even without a memorable leader. Interestingly, the some in the Murdoch empire seemed to lobbying the Australian government to move to nuclear powered submarines back in June, when the whole thing was still secret. Still, at least Australia, UK and US, may not result in a great acronym in “AUKUS”, but better than if it was France, UK and US.

Updates applied


Notes & Counterpoint.

*1. Details of photo, used in CNN article which may not represent typical coal stockpiles, but on the other hand reflects possible impact of climate change: Stacker-reclaimers operate next to stockpiles of coal at the Newcastle Coal Terminal in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, on Thursday, March 25, 2021. The one-in-100 year flooding event in Australia in recent days forced coal producers from Glencore Plc to Yancoal Australia Ltd. to cut output, while Whitehaven Coal Ltd. said there is a backlog of ships at the key Port of Newcastle export terminal. Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

*2. Bas Eickhout is from the Greenleft, so more conservative observers may feel “oh he would say that”, but the point is that it is Australia that the Environmental lobbyists feels has the poorest record and is the “least green” on this issue, and Bas is well positioned for that opinion.

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