“People are really seeing the evidence of climate change and the advice is just becoming clearer and more urgent.”
After a punishing last two terms in government, Labor knows better than most that voter concern on climate change does not easily convert to a viable and enduring policy.
But Australian Industry Group principal national policy adviser Tennant Reed says the public broadly believes that “we have not done very well in Australia on climate policy over the past decade and we need to sort it out”.
“There is a strong perception in industry that this is a matter of public concern, particularly among young people,” says Mr Reed, whose organisation represents 60,000 businesses employing more than 1 million people.
“And there is an expectation that if governments are not seen to be addressing climate change they will pay an electoral price for that.”
A Sydney Morning Herald poll this week that showed climate change and environmental protection will be top of mind for most voters at next weekend’s NSW election. Tens of thousands of students skipped half a day of school on Friday to demand more action on climate change, and internal party polling by the Nationals has also shown that the issue is a priority for voters in their federal seats.
But that public sentiment sits in staggering contrast to Australia’s contribution to global climate efforts. The nation’s carbon emissions are rising year on year. The collapse in 2018 of the National Energy Guarantee was the latest in a string of epic fails by Parliament on reaching climate consensus. And the Coalition this week continued to rip itself apart over funding new coal plants from the taxpayers’ purse.
Despite its internal divisions the government this month bent in the prevailing wind, injecting $2 billion into the emissions reduction fund and committing to a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Snowy Hydro project. Even Tony Abbott has reluctantly arrived at the party, backflipping on his insistence that Australia abandon the Paris climate accord.
Environment Minister Melissa Price said the government “understand[s] Australians are concerned by climate change, and we’ve been taking action since we came to government”.
The Coalition would cut emissions by 26 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 in line with the Paris treaty– a goal Ms Price says is “responsible and achievable”.
Labor would go much further, setting targets of a 45 per cent emissions reduction and 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
Price said Labor was yet to release important details of its climate plans and repeated the government’s claim that the policies would “destroy whole sectors of the economy”. She cited modelling released last month that suggested Labor’s policies would increase wholesale electricity prices by almost 60 per cent.
“This is not a scare campaign – it’s independent modelling which lays bare the cost of a 45 per cent target,” she says.
Contradictory modelling cited by Labor has found its policies will push wholesale prices down.
Reed says modelling the economic impact of climate policies was notoriously difficult, and “we don’t think the evidence is terribly strong in any direction” on the effect of Labor’s policies. But the relative ease with which Australia met its Kyoto emissions targets were cause for hope, he says.
“We should be a little more optimistic about our capacity to make things work if we have a clear policy pathway that is … plausibly going to be sustained,” he says.
Labor remembers well the political punishment meted out to the Rudd-Gillard governments when the party walked away from an emissions trading scheme, then introduced a carbon price dubbed by Abbott as a “great big tax on everything”.
But Butler believes Australians are increasingly cognisant that when it comes to climate action “the world is going in one direction and we are going in the other”.
“[The government is trying] to pretend that everything is going fine and emissions are coming down and we are going to meet our Paris targets in a canter,” he says.
“But an array of voices in the community – scientists, business, regulatory agencies, bodies who measure performance in this area – they are all saying Australia is underperforming.”
A recent series of reports outlining the need for radical action, including sobering findings from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change late, has helped galvanise voter concern.
The Reserve Bank of Australia this week became the latest major financial regulator to highlight the potential economic harm if businesses do not immediately address the climate change risk.
Many businesses have already cottoned on. Among them are Australia’s largest coal miner Glencore, which last month announced it would cap coal production at 2019 levels due to climate change concerns.
In contrast to government predictions of a Labor-induced economic apocalypse, the Greens have decried Labor for running a “small target” strategy that fails to deal with the burning problem of coal, including its fence-sitting on the proposed Adani mine.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has expressed scepticism over the economic and environmental credentials of the Adani project but has stopped short of committing to halt it should Labor win power.
On Thursday he said fossil fuels would be part of the Australia’s future energy mix and export industry, but emphasised that the nation “can’t live in the past”.
Labor must walk a politically risky line between appealing to voters in marginal Queensland seats who want the Adani mine to proceed, and not alienating progressive voters in inner-city seats who want serious action on climate change.
Greens climate and energy spokesman Adam Bandt says Labor “is trying their hardest not to talk about” coal.
“But I think over the next couple of months it will become increasingly impossible to either continue to promote coal or to be silent about it,” he says.
Successive Newspolls suggest the Greens have not capitalised on voter concern on climate, showing their primary vote has not improved since their disappointing 10.2 per cent share in 2016. The party’s defeat in the Batman byelection did not augur well, and a public airing of divisions within the NSW Greens in recent months has not helped matters.
But Bandt does not believe the NSW issues will erode the federal Greens vote, and the Newspoll findings do not “gel” with his experience of talking to voters, who in particular recognised the need for a strong Greens presence in the Senate.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has been phoning and doorknocking voters in three marginal seats – Chisholm and Macnamara in Victoria, and Bonner in Queensland – to gauge the public mood on climate change.
The organisation’s chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy said people were more prepared than ever to “take action through their vote”.
“People are looking at the cost of climate change in human terms and not just dollar terms,” she says.
O’ Shanassy said of the policies announced so far, the Greens, predictably, had pledged the boldest climate action.
While Labor’s emissions targets and stance on coal were far from ideal, the party had “started to move into an area of having clearer climate policies” which may be thwarting a Greens resurgence, she says.
As Labor and the Greens tussle over the progressive vote, the Liberal Party is fending off challenges from pro-climate independents in a number of blue-ribbon electorates.
In the Melbourne seat of Kooyong, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is up against former Liberal Party stalwart and ex-Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief Oliver Yates.
Yates says the government is “too busy arguing internally to genuinely help people manage their own electricity needs”. Among his election pledges is a bid to encourage rooftop solar uptake through environmental upgrade agreements, whereby households can obtain a low-cost loan to install the infrastructure and pay it back via council rates.
Yates, a former Macquarie banker, says moderate Liberal voters are dismayed at the Coalition’s climate inaction after it was “body snatched by the far right”.
“The market that you are pitching to in an electorate like this is not rusted on Labor voters, you are actually filling the gap that the Liberal Party has left behind,” he says.
As the long days of summer recede and autumn takes hold, climate change advocates will be hoping that public pressure for change does not cool with the temperatures ahead of the May election.
Reed says despite not seeing eye-to-eye on everything, business, unions, environmentalists investors and the social welfare sector put aside their differences years ago to agree on the best way forward on climate change. Now politicians must do the same.
“We all agree on the need to address climate change, to do so in a trade-neutral way, and to bring everybody along in the process in terms of equity,” he says.
“There is a lot more consensus outside Parliament than in it.”
Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.