YES! As we know we were ‘robbed’ …
-ROBBED OF CLIMATE POLICY FOR 10 YEARS
-THE LOSS OF AUSTRALIA’S GATEWAY … TO THE NORTH … OUR DARWIN PORT
IT appears that there are, however, a number of quiet assasins …
The day that plunged Australia’s climate policy into 10 years of inertia
24 NOVEMBER 2019
Ten years ago today, Andrew Robb arrived at Parliament House intent upon an act of treachery.
No-one was expecting him. Robb was formally on leave from the Parliament undergoing treatment for his severe depression.
But the plan the Liberal MP nursed to himself that morning would not only bring about the political demise of his leader, Malcolm Turnbull, but blow apart Australia’s two great parties irrevocably just as they teetered toward consensus on climate change, the most divisive issue of the Australian political century.
They have never again been so close.
A decade later, according to the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey, climate change is a matter of urgent community concern.
*Eighty-four per cent of respondents said that climate change was real and that action was warranted. When offered a range of 19 issues and asked which were of gravest personal concern, climate change ranked at number one.
*As bushfires ravage the landscape and drought once again strangles vast tracts of the continent, the inability of the Australian Parliament to reach agreement on how to answer the threat of climate change — or even discuss it rationally — may well be one of the drivers of another shrieking headline from the Australia Talks research: 84 per cent of respondents also feel that Australian politicians are out of touch with the views of the people they represent. *
This is the story — told on its 10th birthday — of a political event that changed the course of a nation’s history.
How bipartisan policy fell apart
Robb was on sick leave from his job as shadow minister for climate, managing the notoriously difficult transition from one anti-depressant medication to another.
In his absence, acting shadow minister for climate Ian Macfarlane had successfully negotiated, with the authority of Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, a deal with the Rudd government to land the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, or CPRS.
The concept of an emissions trading scheme was — nominally at least — bipartisan policy at the time.
John Howard campaigned promising an ETS in 2007, and so did Kevin Rudd. The Greens were ferociously in favour.
But the detail of Rudd’s plan created difficulties. The Greens wouldn’t have a bar of what the Rudd government bowled up.
Even 10 years later, Rudd can still remember the tick-tock of the CPRS in pellucid detail.
I reach him by telephone in a nameless Chinese airport. He is about to be served something billed as a Japanese burger, he reports.
“They wanted 40 per cent, which would have put us far and away above any other country in the developed world,” Rudd says of the Greens.
“There was no scientific justification for a 40 per cent cut. They just knew it was 15-20 per cent higher than anyone else was prepared to offer. They designed it in a manner to cause the negotiations to fail. The negotiations with them were a bullshit exercise.
“And so we had to go to Plan B which was to negotiate with the Liberals.”
Turnbull was of the view that a market mechanism was inevitable. He had Howard’s advocacy of an emissions trading scheme as authority within the party.
And so it came to pass that on Monday, November 23, a deal was concluded between the government and the opposition that Turnbull resolved to put to his shadow cabinet and party room the following day.
Enter the quiet assassin
Robb obtained a confidential copy on the Monday afternoon. He says it horrified him.
“It was a total sell-out, but it was so cleverly crafted that it would look, to the less informed, like we’d won the lottery in the negotiations,” Robb would later write in his memoir, Black Dog Daze.
*He sat up until late that night in his Canberra flat, studying the detail of the deal, rereading Turnbull’s public speeches, and composing an ambush.*
*As Robb arrived at Parliament House on November 24, shadow cabinet was already meeting to approve the CPRS agreement. Shadow ministers *Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz and Tony Abbott were staunch opponents, but were in the minority. All that remained was for the party room to rubber-stamp the deal.
“Malcolm really played it pretty cleverly,” says Robb now. “He got them all in a position where they didn’t have enough information to contradict it so it was all going to go through in a morning. It was all set up, because he’d been negotiating with Labor for months.”
*Robb knew that he could not possibly telegraph to Turnbull that he was an opponent.
“I think his biggest regret, and subsequent verbal attacks, were because I didn’t tell him,” Robb says.
“I didn’t want to do it like that. But you fight fire with fire.”
What happened was this. Robb seated himself in a row near the front of the room, expressed his interest in speaking and waited for the call. Hours passed, as speakers selected by Turnbull spoke in support of the deal, interspersed with opponents who — unfamiliar with the detail — simply restated their generic reservations about outpacing comparable nations in addressing climate change. Robb couldn’t catch Turnbull’s eye.
He became anxious that Turnbull and his lieutenants — manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne and shadow cabinet secretary Michael Ronaldson — had twigged to his scepticism.
An extraordinary tactic
*And so it was that Andrew Robb made one of the most extraordinary and — by most conventional measures — indefensible tactical decisions in the history of political chicanery.
Parliament House is no stranger to mental illness. Historically, its sufferers have covered their tracks, loath to be seen as vulnerable.
*But this must be the only recorded occasion on which mental illness has been used as a tactic.
Robb ripped himself a scrap of paper and scrawled a note to Turnbull.
“The side effects of the medication I am on now make me very tired. I’d be really grateful if you could get me to my feet soon,” he wrote.
Turnbull called Robb to speak soon after. He rose, and denounced the proposed scheme in forensic detail, his words carrying significant weight as the erstwhile bearer of the relevant portfolio.
The deal never recovered. The meeting went on for six more hours. Turnbull — a streetfighter when cornered — added the numbers of shadow Cabinet votes to the “yes” votes in the party room and declared that he had a majority.
The party room wasn’t buying it. Turnbull was cooked.
One week and one day later — December 1, 2009 — a ballot was held for the leadership of the Liberal Party.
Tony Abbott — who nominated against both Turnbull and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey — won by a single vote.
The Abbott opposition was born, with its strident campaign against Labor’s “great big new tax on everything”.
The next day, the emissions trading scheme legislation went to a vote in the Parliament and was defeated soundly.
*Both the Coalition and the Greens voted against.
The Rudd government relinquished its attempts to put a price on carbon. Rudd himself was overthrown mid-2010. Julia Gillard staked her political life on installing a carbon price, but lost it at the 2013 election in the face of Abbott’s muscular anti-carbon-tax campaign.
Abbott installed his “Direct Action” model which survives to this day, despite Turnbull’s subsequent prime ministership, during which he tried and failed to introduce the National Energy Guarantee, a legislative device aimed at establishing reliable supply and reduced emissions from the energy sector.
‘There were divided views’
Julie Bishop, who was deputy leader to Turnbull at the time of the 2009 meeting, says the turn history took that day “was about more than just climate change”.
“It came down to a judgment about the political fortunes of the Liberal party,” she says.
In the previous months, with Turnbull’s knowledge, Bishop had canvassed the views of a great many Liberal MPs about which way the party should jump. It was a party room depleted by the 2007 defeat, intimidated by Rudd’s vaulting popularity, and damaged by the consequences of the Howard government’s overreach on Work Choices, its controversial industrial relations reforms.
What she discovered was a new wave of defiance gathering among the party’s ranks.
“A minority believed that humanity hasn’t had the claimed effect on the climate,” she says.
“There were divided views. But the majority simply wanted to draw a line in the sand on the issue and they wanted to fight Rudd.”
‘You can still see the scars’
For Kane Thornton, chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, the past 10 years are a tale of intense frustration.
“What happened back then has just so fundamentally shaped the direction and the context for climate and energy policy ever since,” he says.
“Even now, in discussion and debate you can still see those scars. Every political leader — across both major parties — has been very substantially impacted by this issue. Going right back to John Howard in 2007.
“What that means is that what is otherwise a very sensible and accepted approach — putting a price on carbon — is now so difficult that governments either aren’t prepared to go there or it’s done in such a way that there’s such a narrow field of politically palatable options that it’s almost pointless.”
Rudd despairs of the contemporary impasse on climate policy.
“Where has the complacent country got to, where in the case of the major geostrategic risks washing over our shores — the climate change debate and the China debate — we seem to have reduced these issues to a juvenile slanging match rather than a mature debate?”
Visiting Sydney this week, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, British-born Michael Liebreich, was brutal in his assessment of Australia’s contemporary energy situation.
Dear Australians. I woke up this morning choking on the smell of bushfire smoke in my hotel room. This is your Opera House. UK got off coal in 7 years; Norway is preparing for life after oil. What is your plan? Where is your leadership? Where are your leaders? This is shameful!
“It’s unbelievable how you can have a country with such cheap solar power, such cheap wind power, frankly such cheap natural gas and yet you still have expensive power and an unreliable grid,” he told ABC’s AM.
- “I mean, how do you do that? It’s a government failure.” *
*Turnbull, in an interview published yesterday by The Guardian, said the climate debate in Parliament was hostage to “insurgents” inside the Coalition.*
“There are plenty of odd beliefs out there and conspiracy theories but what I have always struggled to understand is why climate denialism still has the currency that it has, particularly given the evidence of the impact of climate change is now so apparent, and it is particularly apparent to people living in regional and rural Australia,” he said.
“Precisely what has been forecast is happening.”
Rudd believes that the CPRS — if legislated — would have stuck.
“Had the Greens and the others acted responsibly, we’d be 10 years into an adjustable carbon price which would have brought about the transition away from coal,” he says.
Turnbull, too, has assured associates that if legislated, the CPRS would have become “part of the fiscal furniture, like the GST”.
The Greens, incidentally, are so accustomed to being accused of blowing Australia’s chances at an emissions trading scheme that they’ve taken out space on their website to address the charge.
The response reads:
“Here’s the short answer: we voted against the CPRS because it was bad policy that would have locked in failure to take action on climate change.
“According to Treasury modelling, under the CPRS there would have been no reduction in emissions for 25 years. The CPRS was incredibly generous to polluters, allowed unlimited access to dodgy international permits and would have resulted in a carbon price of around $1 over the past decade.
“It simply would not it have led to any change in behaviour by big polluters, while any attempt to strengthen the scheme would have resulted in billion dollar compensation payouts to big polluters.“
How did the UK do it?
In the UK, notwithstanding the compelling train wreck of Brexit, Westminster has somehow found time this year for bipartisan agreement to the target of a zero-emissions economy by 2050.
So why, in Australia, is climate still such a lancingly divisive issue?
“I think there’s got to be something about how the issue was first dealt with,” Kane Thornton says. “There was a tipping point where in this country this issue became highly contentious.”
It was Margaret Thatcher who first brought the greenhouse effect to the broad attention of the British voting public; this was in the 1980s, when her temporary “green phase” coincided neatly with her forced closure of British coal pits amid an industrial war on militant miners’ unions.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who governed in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, pushed an ambitious climate agenda in his party and suffered minimal internal damage compared to the Turnbull experience.
“I do reflect on where we would be right now if John Howard won the 2007 election with an ETS and a commitment to a higher but still modest [Renewable Energy Target],” Thornton says.
“My guess is we’d be in a very different position right now.”
According to Julie Bishop, the strength of feeling on the issue within the modern Coalition is both economic and political in origin.
“Australia’s economy has been built on the back of abundant supplies of low cost coal,” she says.
“We’ve had the competitive advantage of being a coal-based economy.
“For some people, it’s about that. That we’re turning our backs on our own competitive advantage.
“For others, it’s seen as symbolic of the divide between the economic wets and dries.”
The one sliver of common ground
One shred of bipartisanship has survived the 10-year political impasse — the Renewable Energy Target (RET), introduced by John Howard in 2001 and expanded by the Rudd government with support from the Turnbull opposition to a mandatory 20 per cent of generation by 2020.
Back then, the RET was intended to work with the ETS; an industry policy for the emerging renewables sector, while the price on carbon set a longer-term investment signal.
But for 10 years now, the RET has batted on unaided, surviving a fairly serious attempt on its life by the Abbott government in 2015. The target for high energy users was met in September this year.
“The regrettable truth is that right now, the only policy mechanism that is effectively working on Australian carbon emissions reduction is the policy brought into effect by my government 10 years ago, and that’s the mandatory Renewable Energy Target,” Rudd says.
“It’s the only instrument doing the heavy lifting.”
Kane Thornton says the RET has provided a measure of certainty.
*On this continent, renewables are growing at the fastest rate in the world, on a per capita basis — 10 times faster than the global average. Australia has seen $25 billion of investment in big wind and solar farms in the past two years.
*”That’s been driven fundamentally by the economics — that the cost of renewables just keeps coming down — it beats coal, gas and nuclear,” Thornton says.
“Despite the policy wars, despite the brawling between the Commonwealth and the states, the fundamental economics have just kept trucking on.
“Will anyone seize the opportunity to be a leader during this crisis?
If our political conversation really is at a point when the culture war can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble, writes Laura Tingle.
Households, too, have made a startling investment in renewables.
“Look at rooftop solar, which is up there as a world leader in terms of the numbers of households and small businesses that have taken it up,” Thornton says.
“There are now over 2 million homes where the owners have said, ‘well, energy prices keep going up and it seems really messy. I want to take some kind of control. I want to push on despite the chaotic politics around energy’.”
*The RET has delivered support for the growth of renewables. And the conventional resources sector is in a state of transition: BHP is reported to be moving ahead with plans to exit thermal coal, while coal giant Glencore has announced plans to limit production and Rio Tinto has removed its exposure to thermal coal entirely.
A sliding-doors moment
Andrew Robb conquered the black dog and subsequently served as trade minister in the Abbott government. When the prime ministership fell to Turnbull in September 2015, he was retained for several months as a cabinet minister by the man whose downfall he had hastened back in 2009.
Robb says while he is not proud of the method he employed, he has never entertained second thoughts about what he did that day.
“I’ve got absolutely no regrets because we’ve still got a lot of industries that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he says.
“We’ve got cleaner coal, cleaner everything. If you’re going to wind down coal, we should be the last place to go, not the first. But there we were, opening the door to Africa and lots of places with no restrictions.”
Robb admits that his was an extraordinary intervention in a sliding-doors juncture of Australian political history.
“I’ve seen so often in my career where something monumental gets down to one vote. Then when the vote’s taken, it sticks, and the world adjusts. It was the beginning of Tony — who won by one vote. Democracy’s an amazing thing, really. And it does show you that if you’ve got half of the votes or just over half or just under, that can reflect community attitudes too,” he says.
“This is not a fault of democracy, it’s a fact.”
He mentions that when he was a much younger man, he was “a great student” of the Club of Rome, an association of scientists, bureaucrats, politicians and public thinkers who in 1972 published the book Limits To Growth, warning that the world’s resources could not withstand the depredations of ceaseless economic growth indefinitely.
Limits To Growth is still the highest-selling environmental book in the history of the world, having sold 30 million copies in more than 30 languages.
But Robb’s early fascination with the work gave way to distrust of its conclusions and primitive computer modelling; he says its warnings of resource exhaustion and economic collapse towards the end of the 20th century were overstated.
“The thing they didn’t talk about was technology. That you could find gas 300 kilometres offshore, for example, and find a way to bring it onshore. Because of this, the Club of Rome — which was quite a reputable group of people — looked more and more ridiculous as the years rolled on.”
The Club of Rome has its critics and its defenders; Limits To Growth was commonly derided by the 1990s as a misguided Doomsday scenario, but has enjoyed something of a renaissance lately.
*The CSIRO published a paper in 2008 finding that the book’s 30-year modelling of consequences from a “business as usual” approach to economic growth was essentially sound.*
But what’s not deniable is that this work influenced one young man who grew up to be one member of a parliamentary party with a singular role to play in one vote on a policy that would either change or not change the course of a country.
Democracy, he says, is an amazing thing.
Or an infuriating thing. Or mysterious. Or random.
Australians ranked climate change as the number one problem for them personally in the Australia Talks National Survey. For the next week across the ABC we’ll be discussing Australians’ views on climate change as part of the Australia Talks project. To see how your views compare, use our interactive tool — available in English, simplified Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese.
Then, join Annabel Crabb as she takes you through some of the most surprising and exciting insights with Waleed Aly on the Australia Talks TV special on iView.