Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells recently sat down with former Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull for his insights on bipartisanship. His career spans journalism, publishing, the law, business – and the trials and tribulations of the political fight for ‘our nation, our Australian project’ (A Bigger Picture, 2020).
Here in the second part of the interview, Turnbull shares his views and experiences regarding the politics of power, energy and climate change in Australia.
On cooperation in politics; climate change policy 2004-13
There’s a lot more cooperation in politics than people imagine. People generally see parliamentary politics through the prism of question time, which is theatre. But most legislation is passed without contest, most of it sails through – if you tally up all the bills. Of course, they’re the non-controversial ones. But the partisan contest is very real and what is disappointing is when people choose to weaponise policy issues for partisan purposes. An example is the way Abbott weaponised climate.
In a sense, the idea of ‘bipartisanship’ is a false premise. It assumes political parties are homogeneous. The most bitter partisanship in recent times has actually been within the Coalition, not between Labor and Liberal.
‘Your opponents are over there, and your enemies are sitting next to you’
That’s very true. Tony had adopted every possible position on climate change. Literally there wasn’t one position that he hadn’t adopted at one point or another. He accurately described himself as a weather vane.
For a time Tony Abbott was an ally, arguing in a front page story in The Australian on 24 July  that we should just get on with it and pass the Rudd CPRS, but this was just one of the positions he took before finally landing in opposition to putting a price on carbon at all. (Malcolm Turnbull, A Bigger Picture, pg. 163).
He came to the view that he could use opposition to carbon pricing and opposition to taking action on climate change as a political weapon, and he used it effectively in a very destructive way, which benefited him politically but, boy, the damage to the national interest was just horrific. When people are prepared to weaponise policy issues, it can become very, very dangerous.
Part of the problem we have is that the commentariat sees politics and commentates on politics like a football match. The skilful telling of lies, the clever manipulation of facts, being disingenuous, using particular policy issues to divide your opponents — these are all too often applauded.
Turnbull on the GFC and emissions trading
When the GFC came along, Rudd had an opportunity to bring ‘us’, and particularly me, into the tent. We offered to do that and I’ve got no doubt the policy outcomes would have been improved if that had been the case, but he chose to do everything he could that was in opposition to that. I think that was a mistake.
Newly minted as opposition leader , I saw scope for bipartisanship: surely we could assist the government in its response to the financial crisis…Rudd’s scornful rejection of our proposals suited the bulk of my colleagues: it invited partisanship. One of the tensions for an opposition leader, I was learning, is that the party room wants you to fight and slam the other side day in day out. Yet the public want to see constructive solutions and cooperation. That’s why ferocious denunciation of your opponent in the House will get the backbench cheering and banging their desks but cause people at home to switch to another channel. (Malcolm Turnbull, A Bigger Picture, pg. 147).
Even when I was trying to cooperate to get an emissions trading scheme passed — which had of course been our policy as well — Kevin did everything he could to exploit it in a bipartisan way and his critics within the Labor party were saying to him: ‘Just tell us Kevin, what exactly are you trying to achieve here? Do you want to get this bill passed or do you want to blow up Malcolm’s leadership?’
The truth is, it was the latter, and look I’m not suggesting that wasn’t a worthy objective for the Labor party. But you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball. And is the goal to get the right policy outcome, or are you just trying to do in your opponents? For most politicians, the latter is much more attractive.
How do we get our country to a better place on this?
Well, the reality is that climate has been such a winner for the coalition. When I say ‘its been a winner’, it’s a catastrophe. The right wing of the Liberal party have just enjoyed using this against the Labor party, and the small ‘l’ liberal voters in Liberal electorates have, for the most part, still voted Liberal. Now that’s starting to change with so many Independents popping up and I suspect there will be more in the future.
The truth is that most people in the Liberal party room actually don’t care about the environment. They don’t care about energy. They see it as a political objective. You get Matt Canavan saying we should be burning more coal in the Hunter Valley. I mean, this is barking mad.
The flakiness of some members of the government started to be an issue with business. On 22 June 2017, Matt Canavan, the Natural Resources minister, told Catherine Tanna, CEO of EnergyAustralia, that he wanted the government to build four high-efficiency, low emission (HELE) coal-fired power stations. A startled Cath Tanna later told me and Josh [Frydenberg] the meeting with Canavan was ‘terrifying’ and described the HELE proposition as ‘batshit crazy’. (Malcolm Turnbull, A Bigger Picture, pg. 608).
Now, you know, this guy was the minister for resources. This is the problem that you’re facing, the political right has turned energy into an issue of values or identity when it should just be engineering and economics and physics. Let’s get on and cut our emissions, happily we can do so now and pay less for electricity, which is fantastic. So let’s do it. But instead it is this obsession about fossil fuels — it is a political one. And of course, they’re supported in the right wing media.
When we had the big fires on the east coast in the 2019-20 summer, you had the Murdoch press saying it was all the work of arsonists and you just needed to have better forest management. ‘It’s those terrible arsonists, it’s got nothing to do with climate change.’ Donald Trump was in California a little while ago saying exactly the same thing. It is just barking mad.
It’s a horrible toxic alliance of right wing political populist politics, and their echo chambers and supporters in the media. And of course, the fossil fuel lobby. Which is the only rational part of that troika. I’m not saying they are right but you can understand a coal manger saying, ‘I want to sell more coal’. Well for better or worse I get that.
There’s a lot of blame to go around but if we had managed to pass the emissions trading scheme at the end of 2009, it would have become part of the fiscal furniture of Australia, like the GST. We would have saved ourselves a decade – well a decade-plus now, of climate wars and suboptimal energy policy. And it’s not just me saying that. Everybody in the energy sector says the same thing. Look at the national energy guarantee. It had strong support right across the board, but there was a group in my party and in the media that was determined to wreck it and use it as a means of blowing up the government and they succeeded, but not to the extent of putting their man in as prime minister.
Before President Biden was sworn in, we asked Malcolm Turnbull about the implications of a Biden victory for Australia.
With Biden as president of America, for a start the US government will be supporting action on climate change. So that’s a huge change. America will not pull out of the Paris agreement. A Biden victory would make an enormous difference in terms of the global action on climate and Australia would then be wrong-footed. It will be interesting to see what happens politically here if Biden wins there.
The crazy thing is, it’s not so long ago that we had a Liberal government that supported an emissions trading scheme. John Howard tries to crab-walk away from that; he said in effect ‘I didn’t really mean it. I only did it…’ There is the Nick Minchin view, that ‘Malcolm talked him into it’…but that gives me far too much credit!
I might add the view that Howard was just buckling to the political pressure at the time. But the truth is, if you accept the goal to cut emissions, a market-based mechanism is one that would normally appeal to the right. If you look at the energy policy, if you can call it that, of the Morrison government, it’s looking more and more heavy-handed and state interventionist.
Some concluding observations from us
Politics and public policy move in cycles and waves. On 24 January 2006, John Howard appointed Malcolm Turnbull as his parliamentary secretary with special responsibility for water policy. On 25 January 2007, Malcolm entered cabinet for the first time as Minister for Environment and Water Resources.
Malcolm was in the room when the winds of climate change politics blew Howard to endorsing emissions trading in 2007. Malcolm was in also in the middle over the subsequent years when the winds of ‘our greatest moral challenge’ continued to topple prime ministers and opposition leaders.
New South Wales Liberal Minister Matt Kean read the political waves when the horrific black summer bushfires hit in late 2019. He was quick to acknowledge the link to climate change. Scott Morrison got caught asleep on the beach in Hawaii. The world was distracted with fighting the pandemic in 2020, but the smart nations used the crisis to build back better and position themselves for a carbon constrained future.
Australia is lucky the states and territories have continued to do the heavy lifting on climate policy. By the end of 2020, there wasn’t daylight between the Liberal and Labor states on climate policy. The federal government continues to be held hostage to the same political faction that weaponised climate policy then toppled Malcolm and his National Energy Guarantee.
The election of President Biden is the biggest single change in global climate politics this century. In his first days, which included climate day at the White House, Biden re-joined Paris, set in motion a requirement for all federal vehicles to be electric, and suspended fossil fuel development on federal land. He tasked his climate change envoy, John Kerry, to rally every nation in the world to raise ambition on tackling climate change.
When John Kerry comes to Australia it will be bigger than Al Gore’s memorable Inconvenient Truth tour of 2006. Like Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison is a shrewd political weather vane and right now he is reading the winds of change. He has made incremental shifts towards setting a target of ‘preferably’ meeting net zero emissions by 2050. But the difference between the language, aspiration and actions to date by the Biden administration and Australia could not be starker. Labor, too, should take note.
Committing to net zero by 2050 might get Australia an invite to global climate change summits, but it won’t get us a seat at the grown-ups table. It is going to take a percentage reduction target for 2030 in at least the high 30s (for total greenhouse emissions) and that is going to require credible climate policy. In 2009, The World Today’s Sabra Lane read from Malcolm Turnbull’s blog: ‘Many Liberals are rightly dismayed that on this vital issue of climate change we are not simply without a policy, without any prospect of having a credible policy but we are without integrity.’
Malcolm Turnbull was right then. Let’s hope, however, that in 2021, integrity is the new black.
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