‘What climate policy?’: former top mandarins voice anger over Australia’s failure to tackle climate change

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday May 19, 2020

AAP Image/Steven Saphore

Former top bureaucrats have spoken out about what they believe to be a failure by Australian politicians and their respective governments to implement and maintain adequate policies to address the growing climate crisis.

Speaking to Four Corners, ex-Treasury head Ken Henry said Australia’s history of climate policy has left him feeling “gutted”.

“I feel angry. I know that’s not a good thing, and I probably should get therapy. But I’ve asked myself this question many, many times. Why do I still feel angry about it? And the reason I feel angry about it is that I feel angry about what Australia has lost,” he said.

He noted his advice to the John Howard government regarding climate change was always that “the best policy approach would be an Emissions Trading Scheme of some form”, which Howard agreed to in 2006.

The Emissions Trading Scheme — supported by former prime ministers Howard, Kevin Rudd, and Macolm Turnbull — failed, as did Julia Gillard’s attempt to introduce a new carbon pricing mechanism. Both of the plans were quashed by Tony Abbott, first in 2009 when he replaced Turnbull as opposition leader, and again when he defeated Gillard in the 2013 election.

The Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was also brought down after it was voted against by the Greens. More than a decade later, the move has continued to anger former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, Martin Parkinson.

“For a party that is validly committed to acting on climate change, to actually tear down what was put in front of them, I think is unconscionable,” he said.

“I think they wanted to grandstand. I mean, they’re the counterpart of the deniers. They are not prepared to compromise in any way. They’ve got this purist view of the world and they are totally and utterly naive about what’s required to get us from where we are today to what is needed.”

Parkinson, who also led the short lived Department of Climate Change, said Australia’s climate policy — or lack thereof — was “a mess”.

“It’s incoherent and has been for a decade,” he said.

Former chief scientist Professor Penny Sackett described the state of Australian politics in regards to climate policy as “depressing”.

“It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” she said.

“To almost be able to visualise this and to see this happening and year after year after year go by without any strong action and no apparent commitment and determination on the part of governments — and I say plural because we’ve had several since then — it’s beyond disheartening.”

The current energy minister, Angus Taylor, said the best way to bring down global emissions was with “technologies that work, that are at parity with their higher-emitting alternatives”.

Former chief scientist Ian Chubb said that while technology was “indeed part of the solution”, Australia also needed a significant target and a clear direction.

“There’s no point in pretending we’re doing something when we aren’t, or pretending we’re doing enough, when we aren’t,” he said.

He argued the government should commit to zero net emissions by 2050.

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia has set a target of making a 26-28% reduction in its emissions — compared with 2005 levels — by 2030.

In 2019 the United Nations found that “there has been no improvement in Australia’s climate policy since 2017 and emission levels for 2030 are projected to be well above the target”.

The Morrison government’s main climate policy is the Emissions Reduction Fund. This week the government announced it would introduce new measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including an incentive scheme for industrial polluters, and a plan that offers businesses funding for projects that capture emissions.

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