Former Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s use of US-inspired strategies to bring down Malcolm Turnbull as party leader in 2009 was a key moment in Australia’s history of climate inaction, according to Marian Wilkinson.
Speaking to Crikey editor-in-chief Peter Fray and The Mandarin’s Chris Woods on Tuesday, Wilkinson, author of The Carbon Club: the truth behind Australia’s two decades of climate inaction, discussed the many influences on Australia’s stance on climate change.
The webinar happened to coincide with the release of energy minister Angus Taylor’s first Low Emissions Technology Statement on the government’s Technology Investment Roadmap, outlining $18 billion of investments over the next decade to help Australia transition to a low emissions future.
Wilkinson noted that the idea of embarking on a “transition” to lower emissions has been thrown around a lot, but is “crucial” to Australia. A transition would mean ensuring that workers in fossil fuel industries as well as industries dependent on fossil fuel energy are supported in the move to new industries.
However, Australia plans to use gas as a transitional fuel, which Wilkinson said would face two issues.
The first is that gas can only be transitional for this decade, unless there is successful carbon capture and storage for its emissions. The second is that many other poorer countries also want to develop their gas industries.
“Can Australia say, as a rich first world country, ‘No, we know there’s a limited amount of emissions that can come from gas in the next 10 years, [but] actually we’re gonna have them so you guys can butt out, and Australia should be given a free run on this’. That is our problem, and I don’t think that’s going to happen no matter how much Angus Taylor and Scott Morrison talk about a gas-led recovery,” she said.
The influence of the US
The Carbon Club explores two decades of climate inaction in Australia, spurred by influential climate-science sceptics, Australian and US politicians, and business leaders.
Wilkinson noted that one of the “absolute definitive moments” covered in her book occurred in September 2009. At the time, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had proposed the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. While then Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull supported the policy, he needed to get it through his party room.
So, Turnbull went to London to get ideas on how exactly to do that from David Cameron, “the up and coming conservative leader who managed to combine conservatism with climate policy”, Wilkinson said.
At the same time, then Liberal senator Cory Bernardi went to Washington, where he met “key players in the climate sceptic movement”, who were “designing the strategies to defeat legislation in the US Congress”. This included Republican politicians James Inhofe and Jim Sensenbrenner, as well as “a number of climate activists who were helping to drive the civil action campaign, more or less the Tea Party campaign”, Wilkinson said.
“Cory Bernardi got imbued with all this, came back to Australia, and ultimately … that played out in a very spectacular way, right into the policy that not only brought down Malcolm Turnbull, but essentially blew up Kevin Rudd’s climate policy. And for me, that is an amazing example of how it all worked.”
Bernardi’s grassroots campaign within the Liberal party had blindsided Turnbull, as he “had no idea of the depth of the operation against him”, Wilkinson said.
She recounted how she had spoken to a former young liberal activist who had gone to Washington and became familiar with the “right wing republican grassroots strategies that were running at the time”. He ended up helping Bernardi with his strategy, and also later went on to help run the strategy against Julia Gillard’s climate policy.
Choosing to contest the economics
John Howard’s international advisor, Michael Thawley, told Wilkinson about their approach to discussions in Kyoto in December 1997, where the United Nations Framework on Climate Change was to be adopted. She noted that this was at a time when even the US government was on board for such a policy.
“There was a feeling that Australia should not contest the science, even though, as I later found out, there were senior people around Howard — and I now think probably Howard himself — who were sceptical about the science,” Wilkinson said.
“But one thing that Thawley and the other senior advisors said to Howard and his ministers was don’t contest the science, we’ll contest the economics, Australia is unique. And this is where this argument came, which we’ve always really relied on in the climate talks,” she said.
“We’re unique as a developed country. We’ve got this big fossil fuel industry, we’ve got a big agricultural industry. You Europeans have got other advantages over us because you developed earlier. So, Australia should be allowed this unique position where we can essentially go slower than other OECD countries.”
However, an American sceptic explained to Wilkinson that, early on, they realised they had to contest the science. Otherwise, the public may think their position was based on “utterly selfish reasons”.
“And he said if that happened, the moral imperative went to the people who wanted rapid action on climate change. And that’s why the sceptics, and some of the companies that backed them, always argued. You had to argue and fight the science, as well as argue the economic case.”
Optimism for the future
One of the most depressing things that came out of Wilkinson’s research was realising how “toxic” the politics of climate change are in Australia.
“If climate policy is ever going to develop in Australia again, that has to be changed and I’m not quite sure how it will change,” she said.
She noted that just last week, Scott Morrison made his national energy address at Tomago, “exactly where he’d been in 2019 berating [Bill] Shorten for his climate policy”.
“You had an Australian prime minister in 2020, getting up, giving a major energy statement, [but] never uttering the words ‘climate change’,” she said.
“But everything about the optics of where that speech was, was about wedging his opponents. And I thought that was a sad indictment on where we are today in our politics but utterly reflective of the Carbon Club.”
However, Wilkinson argued that despite all of the negatives, the Carbon Club hasn’t won.
“Three prime ministers have had their careers broken, in large part over this issue, along with a stream of public servants, businessmen and leading scientists. It is a powerful story, but at the end of the day, what is incredible is the advances made in Australia, Australian renewable energy, and the transition to clean energy, despite all that,” she said.
“I think there’s now something like 2.2 million Australians who have rooftop solar installations. There are people like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Twiggy Forrest, for God’s sake, getting together to invest in a major solar thermal plant in Northern Australia that wants to export solar energy. That to me, is amazing.
“And if you think about how much drive there is for Australians to still look at a transition to and participate in a transition to a clean energy economy, I think that gives me a lot of optimism about the country.”