The book Power Failure about Australia’s intransigence on climate change was a personal mission for journalist Philip Chubb. Chubb lived with his family at Cottles Bridge near Melbourne and watched year after year as the summers got hotter. On Saturday, 7 February 2009 he stood in record-breaking heat with fire plan in hand hoping the blaze would not come over the hill and kill his family. They were lucky but Chubb’s closest friends died as they hid under the kitchen table, and it seemed obvious to him changes in the climate had fuelled the intensity of the fire.
But the reaction to Black Saturday showed there was still divisions and fears, played up by the likes of News Corp columnist Miranda Devine who said it wasn’t climate change but habitat protection promoted by environmentalists that caused the fires. Devine said “Greenies” should be “hanging from lamp-posts” for their ideology which prevented “landowners from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.” Devine could have been dismissed as a lunatic outlier, but she carried a big megaphone which her employers News Corp were more than willing to lend to anyone who muddied the waters when it came to climate change science.
The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had recognised climate change as a national emergency when he won what some regarded as the world’s first climate change election in 2007. Many surveys showed seven out of ten people saying climate change would impact their vote. Rudd spoke of great moral challenges and pledged to reorganise the national economy around new energy industries. He introduced an emission trading scheme and appointed Ross Garnaut to examine the economic impacts and recommend a framework. It seemed as though intelligent and non-partisan debate about climate change had become the norm.
It wasn’t an easy problem to solve. The Australian Public Service Commission defined climate change in economic terms as a “wicked problem” – a pressing and complex issue involving many causes and much disagreement about possible solutions. Australia’s reliance on fossil fuel worsened the problem with four out of five power stations running on coal, making the nation the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter. Private companies making money from fossil fuel industries also had a vested interest in climate policy failure over 25 years.
In 1990 the Bob Hawke government developed Australia’s first climate change policy aiming to stabilise emissions but not at the expense of the economy. Then in 1996 John Howard rolled back even these modest goals refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and overriding advice to bring in emissions trading in 2003. Howard’s position was finally repudiated by the electorate in 20007. Post Black Saturday Rudd had the opportunity to go on the front foot. Chubb’s book forensically examines how that unravelled over the four years that followed leaving Australia further adrift than ever on effective climate action.
Many of the problems were of Rudd’s own making and his character flaws are discussed in detail in Wayne Swan’s autobiography. Rudd’s authoritarian leadership style led to deep dysfunction in many areas of government including climate change. Policy making was the preserve of the troika of Rudd, Swan and Penny Wong but with Swan absorbed in the financial crisis, Rudd and Wong were the only ones who fully understood Labor’s climate change policy. There was little or no inter-departmental or stakeholder consultation and most cabinet ministers were well out of the loop as power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Rudd and Wong also kept the voters out of the loop as the policy took shape. The early enthusiasm for change dissipated in an information vacuum, crucially robbing Labor of using the threat of an early election to resolve a political impasse. As the passion for action dulled in the absence of an information campaign, the Opposition hammered away to create doubt and weaken resolve while affected companies warned of loss of jobs and an investment freeze. The year dragged on in arguments over compensation to polluters, eventually agreed at an astonishing $7.3 billion, that the companies still weren’t happy with.
As 2009 advanced, Rudd had a pressing need to use his phenomenal personal popularity to lock in public support for climate action, but he said nothing on the issue. Nor was he open about the impact of carbon pricing on the cost of living. Because the community had stopped hearing about the issue, they started questioning its importance and whether it was worth paying for. Rudd had squandered consensus. Between 2008 and 2010 Newspoll showed an 11% drop in belief in climate change and by 2011 the proportion of Australians opposing action with significant costs had doubled. The breaking of the drought in 2009 also contributed to change in public perception with many equating climate change with a lack of rain.
Having abandoned the public, Rudd put his trust in the parliamentary opposition and global action at the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He would lose both battles. Rudd’s parliamentary failure was entirely his own fault. He wanted to pass his legislation in the Senate with the help of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. But he also played wedge politics against Turnbull and Liberal moderates which eventually saw Opposition climate sceptics grab power in the party room. By then Rudd had alienated the Greens so there was no plan B.
The clumsily-named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme first hit the Senate in mid-2009 when Turnbull was still in charge. Turnbull held the line the legislation was hasty and pushed for delay. The Opposition voted against it but Turnbull was worried about fighting a climate change election so he promised to negotiate later in the year. By then Barnaby Joyce was openly calling the CPRS a ‘great big new tax on everything’ and said the Sunday roast would cost up to $150.
This simple scare campaign was inaccurate but devastating as the government had never conceded there would be any cost of living increases. Turnbull’s party room was openly grumbling about giving the government any support on climate change. Among them was Tony Abbott who told a September 2009 meeting in Beaufort, Victoria that climate change was “absolute crap”. The speech went down well with his older rural audience. Abbott would later say this was not his “considered opinion” but also admitted this meeting convinced him to act against the policy.
In November Penny Wong and Ian Macfarlane finally began negotiations on the CPRS. The resulting deal was good for the big polluters. The LNG industry got a top-up allocation of permits, the coal industry’s handout was doubled, there were more handouts to electricity generators, steelmakers and other manufacturers and the global recession buffer was extended to 2020. Turnbull was delighted with the result, but his party room was not. There was a spill on December 1 and Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott by one vote. Abbott immediately reneged on the deal and the climate consensus was finished.
Initially Rudd’s office was delighted by the result thinking Abbott would shoot himself in the foot. But he pushed hard on the simple message of the ‘great big new tax’ saying emissions could be reduced by other less costly means. Meanwhile Rudd’s hope of getting the Greens onside were destroyed by what was given away in the Wong-Macfarlane compromise. The CPRS was defeated a second time in the Senate in December 2009 despite two Liberal senators crossing the floor.
Rudd went off to Copenhagen undaunted, convinced by his ability to knock together world heads. The conference was chaotic to the point of anarchy with many different alliances and divisions at work. Rudd told delegates a grand bargain was within their grasp but no one was listening, and the conference ended without agreement. An emotionally drained Rudd blamed “Chinese fuckers” for trying to “ratfuck us” but it would be Rudd himself that would end up “ratfucked” in 2010.
Abbott began his onslaught buoyed by the failure of the summit and the release of hacked emails of climate scientists that sceptics gleefully suggested the environmental threat was exaggerated. Unable to openly embrace the sceptics, Abbott developed “direct action” to reduce emissions. Rudd became paralysed by doubt at the prospect of calling a double dissolution election based on the Senate’s refusal to pass the CPRS. He gave the impression to his supporters he would call the election in January so many staffers cancelled holidays to work out a campaign. Rudd’s supporters later claimed Julia Gillard talked him out of that election though Gillard said it was Rudd’s idea.
By Australia Day Rudd had abandoned the election idea and was instead promoting his health reforms. In early 2010 UK climate sceptic Chris Monkton toured Australia, garnering public legitimacy through blanket media coverage. Abbott met Monckton and later parroted some of his views. Rudd was nowhere to be seen. Instead he looked at an abatement plan that was suspiciously similar to Abbott’s direct action and just as useless in meeting serious targets. But this “Abbott lite” plan did give him an excuse to indefinitely delay the CPRS. The decision was leaked to the media in April and Rudd publicly admitted it was pushed back to 2013 unless there was “credible action” in China, India and the US.
The impact was disastrous and immediate. The Coalition had their first lead in the polls in four years and Rudd’s personal approval rating dropped 15 points. The disaffection quickly spread to the party room tired of a command and control leadership style that had little substance. By 24 June, he had vacated the leadership without a fight. Julia Gillard took the reins without explaining to the public the darkness at the heart of government leaving Rudd to successfully play a martyr role for the next three years.
Gillard’s immediate poll numbers were encouraging but it was a short honeymoon. On climate change Gillard pushed to restore consensus with a citizens’ assembly. The idea was ridiculed as “a giant focus group” and an excuse for inaction. Climate change did not feature much in the 2010 election. Abbott reiterated his doubt of climate science while Gillard publicly ruled out a carbon tax. The campaign was a disaster for Labor as Rudd camp leaks constantly undermined any momentum. The election produced a hung parliament and a tug of war for the balance of power.
Labor signed a formal alliance with the Greens which was widely derided though Gillard felt it would provide momentum for negotiations with the other independents and have constitutional weight with the governor-general. The decision spawned outright war in the Murdoch media stable against the government, a war which would not cease until the next election. Andrew Wilkie signed up with Labor leaving the decision of government with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Despite being former Nationals the pair cared deeply about climate change and consulted with Garnaut and Nicholas Stern to work out their position. They agreed to go with Gillard demanding a re-examination of the carbon price, an updated Garnaut Review and a productivity commission study of international action on emissions reduction schemes.
Gillard appointed a Multi-Party Climate Change Commission (MPCCC) but the Opposition did not sign on. The MPCCC made good progress and within six month came up with the framework for the Clean Energy Future package. But a leak in February 2011 would change everything. The Australian revealed Gillard would introduce a carbon tax in 2012 and an ETS in 2015. Gillard and Bob Brown formally announced a fixed carbon price would begin on 1 July 2012. Gillard told parliament Australia had to put a price on carbon early to manage inevitable change. Abbott called the carbon price a tax and said he would campaign constantly against it. Later that night Gillard went on ABC’s 7.30 where she could have described the new fixed price as a charge on the country’s biggest polluters. Instead she admitted she was happy to call her “market-based mechanism to price carbon” a tax. The damage was done, Gillard had lost the next election there and then.
Immediately the Opposition went on the attack calling Gillard a liar and the reputational damage was irreparable. Gillard was stuck in a losing battle of semantics reflected in abysmal polls that lasted the full term of her government. The Opposition colluded in a very public campaign of intimidation that bordered on violence. It legitimised scepticism in a scare campaign with five parts: unimaginable price rises, huge power bill rises, the destruction of coal, steel, cement, aluminium and motor industries, thousands of job losses, and the death of regional towns.
The media went along for the ride constantly calling out the negative impacts of the carbon price. When Cate Blanchett advertised support of carbon pricing, she was lampooned in the press for a week as a “pampered star” and “Carbon Cate”. Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the government said nothing. Gillard was making the same mistake as Rudd: ignoring the voters while the details were being thrashed out. Gillard’s silence was deliberate, she didn’t want to antagonise support in the MPCCC but the effect was the same: public disdain. Her approval rating plunged to 17%, equal with the worst rating of Paul Keating.
The government was in dire straits but took heart in the electorate’s suspicions over Tony Abbott. What they could not deal with was the return of Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s backers asserted Labor could still win the next election with him at the helm. Despite the mayhem, the Government introduced the Clean Energy Fund in June 2011 and Gillard successfully marshalled it through parliament. The carbon tax would be introduced a year later at the European price of $23 a tonne giving the electorate 12 months of “lived experience” of carbon pricing before the election. Labor also gave $10b over five years to a new Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a green investment bank idea borrowed from the UK.
Finally the government gave thought to the communication strategy. Its research said to avoid explaining climate change or justifying carbon pricing. Instead they were going to immunise the public by paying them off. But when it came to the “lived experience” people could not easily determine if the effects were good or bad. Abbott’s claims that the world would fall in were entirely wrong but dissatisfaction remained at rising costs, with massive electricity price spikes due to rising network charges. And Gillard’s hope for “clear air” to explain the package ran into a renewed Rudd leadership challenge.
The leaks and briefings escalated in 2013 and by June the destabilisation had made Gillard’s leadership untenable. But the collateral damage was intense and Rudd and Labor were swept from office in September 2013. The summer of 2012-2013 was the hottest on record but that was of no interest to the new government. The opportunistic new Prime Minister Abbott moved quickly to axe the Climate Commission, abolish the Climate Change ministry and appoint a climate sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target. The victory of the sceptics, however temporary, has left the “wicked problem” of climate change as far from a solution as ever. Hopes for a consensus remain poor as long as the Abbott clique remains in power. As Chubb writes, Australia could long rue its power failures between 2008 and 2013.