Scott Morrison is irresponsible to duck debate on climate bill

WHITEWASHING: The Morrison government continues to stifle real debate on addressing climate change. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
WHITEWASHING: The Morrison government continues to stifle real debate on addressing climate change. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The Morrison Government is employing both whitewashing - to intentionally hide its irresponsibility on climate - and greenwashing - to falsely create the impression that it has a climate transition strategy - with little substance just hubris and spin.

The government would have us believe we are leading the world in emissions reductions, based on the development and deployment of world-class technologies.

Nothing could be further from reality.

Global surveys clearly define us as a laggard.

We received the lowest ranking out of 57 countries surveyed in the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, and second-worst on climate action, out of 177 countries, in the 2020 UN Sustainable Development Report.

If the government was confident of its position, it would surely be willing to participate in a Parliamentary debate on the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge.

Especially given the need to consolidate the support and understanding of households and business as to the pathways forward, and their respective roles in the essential transition to a low-carbon Australia by mid-century.

Yet, this week, the government ducked that opportunity, by using its numbers on Parliament's Energy and Environment Committee to shut down debate on a climate Bill proposed by independent Zali Steggall.

Given that most sectors have embraced decarbonisation in the absence of a responsible government response, Steggall's Bill was designed to provide an essential framework.

It was drafted on the basis of international standards and experience, for these transitions to net-zero emissions by 2050, to be driven by an Independent Climate Change Commission, against economy-wide emissions budgets and national decarbonisation plans - including a National Risk Assessment - and transparent monitoring to report on progress and plans.

This Bill would have provided a unique opportunity to forge the essential bipartisan support that our politics has failed to deliver over the last several decades, as well as provide policy certainty, necessary for long-term planning and decision making in all sectors, for the efficient allocation of capital, and for balancing various stakeholder interests.

While the committee agreed - even including the two Coalition members - on some formalisation of a net-zero 2050 target, they all opposed the idea of an independent commission to advise the minister.

In rejecting the Bill, it was argued such a commission would be "unelected", yet Morrison has relied exclusively on the unelected Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation and a recovery commission in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, the commission would only duplicate the existing Climate Change Authority - but the minister has never really used it to model net-zero pathways.

It was also argued Australian voters should decide which climate change policies should be adopted - it's telling that they will now take that risk.

Too many weasel words to be taken as a genuine government, or Opposition, position, just as with Scott Morrison's posturing on how he is working to get the Coalition to commit to a net-zero 2050 target, that he is under global pressure to announce at the next COP26 meeting scheduled for Glasgow in November.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near developing a genuine bipartisan position-right now both the government and the Opposition have serious internal divisions on climate and essential transitions.

With the resurrection of Barnaby Joyce, Morrison will probably be forced to do a deal with the Nationals to get commitment to a net-zero target.

The nonsense being pushed by some Nats is that agriculture should be excluded, failing to recognise that it could genuinely be a world leader in the climate transitions, with the prospect of generating net negative emissions by 2050.

Moreover, an agreement on net-zero 2050 would only be a pyrrhic victory - to be credible and achievable the government also needs to commit to a 60 per cent-plus reduction in emissions by 2030, more than double its present Paris commitments.

Morrison would have us believe that he is a clever, marketing-driven politician. In using his numbers to kill of debate on Steggall's Bill, he is completely misreading the politics.

He would do well to recognise that Steggall defeated well-known climate denier Tony Abbott mostly on the climate issue.

He should also recognise that there were more than 6500 public submissions to that parliamentary committee, of which 99.9 per cent supported the Bill.

Climate will be a dominant issue at the next election - it's a focus of independent movements gathering momentum in many seats.

These independents could beat sitting MPs by cutting through this white and greenwashing, and even hold the balance of power.

A genuine, responsible government with nothing to hide would facilitate a Parliamentary debate, with a conscience vote, on Steggall's Bill as a matter of urgency.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

This story Scott Morrison is irresponsible to duck debate on climate bill | Hewson's View first appeared on The Canberra Times.