Forget about legislating emission cuts

If proof of the incapacity of the Coalition to deal with climate change was ever needed, it was provided absolutely in the shambles of toppling Malcolm Turnbull from the prime ministership. For the conservative wing of the Liberal Party this was a glorious victory. For investors seeking a predictable policy framework and for the majority of Australians who expect their parliament to guide Australia to a low-carbon future it is a bitter disappointment. 

As prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull was able to persuade a large majority of the Coalition party room that the National Energy Guarantee was an acceptable energy policy capable of lowering electricity prices, improving reliability and reducing emissions. But he couldn’t persuade a destructive minority – the “terrorists” as he called them. 

Nor could Turnbull obtain party-room approval to legislate or regulate a reduction in emissions of 26 per cent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. With renewables and low-emissions gas capacity already installed or coming on stream, emissions from the energy sector will be down 24 per cent by 2020. The prime minister of Australia was asking the Coalition party room to endorse a 2-percentage point reduction in emissions over a full decade – but that was too radical for his conservative colleagues.

It was the second time Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership trying to persuade his colleagues to accept the science on climate change and act upon it. The first, as opposition leader in 2009, was when he wanted to support Labor’s emissions trading scheme – the same mechanism that Prime Minister Howard announced as Coalition policy ahead of the 2007 election.

On the occasion of his second leadership defeat, Turnbull was trying to end the decade-long climate wars by compromising from his preferred emissions trading scheme, to contemplating an emissions intensity scheme for 48 hours until he his environment minister was shouted down by the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, to Professor Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target, also ditched, and finally the National Energy Guarantee. 

Labor has been blamed equally for the climate wars, yet it has compromised for the entire decade the Coalition has waged them, supporting each mechanism only for the Coalition to abandon its position and re-assemble its troops for the next battle. Insurgent leader Tony Abbott best summarised the position of the Liberal conservatives when he tweeted: “To have a chance of winning the next election, the Coalition must create a policy contest on energy, not a consensus.” That is, whatever position Labor moves to in pursuit of bipartisanship, the Coalition must adopt the opposite position. This is weathervane, opportunistic politics at its most destructive.

It’s easy to blame an embittered Abbott for the destruction of Prime Minister Turnbull and of any prospect of bipartisanship on climate change, but he had 40 out of 85 parliamentary Liberal colleagues with him all the way. That’s a big insurgency. 

The Morrison government that has emerged out of the chaos has reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to the Paris agreement but has abandoned any policy for achieving it.

If Labor wins the coming election, the leader of the Liberal opposition will most likely be a conservative opposed to any energy-policy action on climate change. In the unlikely event of a member of the moderate wing of the Liberal Party being elected to the leadership, the conservatives will continue to terrorise the moderates on climate change, bringing down the moderate leader just as they have done twice before.

Labor could take a legislative response to climate change to the election and, if it won, claim a mandate from the Australian people to implement it. But we already know how that story ends. Labor took an emissions trading scheme to the 2007 election, won in a landslide, and yet the Abbott-led Liberal opposition claimed Labor had no such mandate and, with Green Party support, blocked it.

A Labor win in the election for the House of Representatives would not yield a Labor majority in the Senate. Nor would Labor and the Greens together likely command a majority in the Senate. But even if they did, history teaches us that the Greens have form in opposing Labor on climate change. Their position is for a 90 per cent reduction in emissions from the energy sector by 2030 – necessitating the forced closure almost all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations in the coming decade. Labor would not agree to the Greens’ demands, its target being half that, at a 45 per cent reduction. 

If, by some miracle, Labor were able to legislate an emissions-reduction target and mechanism, the Liberal opposition, determined to create a policy contest on energy at the subsequent election, would pledge to scrap it, just as it did in 2010 and 2013.

The energy policy predictability that business craves is now more elusive than ever. The only remaining possibility is a non-legislative solution implemented by a Labor government.