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Opinion Piece

What on Earth is going on with Australia’s climate politics?

Originally published in SBS, 26 June, 2014

Al Gore described it as “an extraordinary moment in which Australia, the US and the rest of the world is finally beginning to confront the climate crisis in a meaningful way.”

In what was one of the strangest moments in recent Australian political history, yesterday the former Vice President of the United States stood next to Palmer United Party leader, mining magnate and coal baron, Clive Palmer as he announced his party’s position on the Government’s carbon price repeal.

Extraordinary was definitely the word to describe it, but certainly not for the reason Gore, nor many other climate campaigners argued.

In yesterday’s announcement, Al Gore thanked Palmer for his ‘outstanding statement’. If voting ‘not to dismantle’ some of our key climate policies is now considered ‘outstanding’, then we really could be in trouble.

It’s worth acknowledging that yes, Palmer made some positive announcements in his press conference. The PUP leader announced he would block the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), the $10 billion loan facility created to assist clean energy technology projects. He also said his party would block any changes from the Government to the Renewable Energy Target (RET), which mandates that 20 per cent of Australia’s energy must come from renewable sources by 2020. Both of these policies have made an important contribution to putting Australia on the path to a low-carbon future. On top of this Palmer has vowed to oppose the abolition of the Climate Change Authority (CCA) and to block Tony Abbott’s Direct Action bills – a policy that is a complete dud for our climate.

But the good news unfortunately ends there.

While Palmer has pledged to support these important policies, at the same he has pledged to vote for the repeal of the carbon price – meaning its likely death in the coming weeks. This is where the story gets a little confusing and in many ways, all the more extraordinary. In his announcement, Palmer said that to replace the current carbon price, he would introduce legislation to implement an emissions trading scheme (ETS) in its place (it’s not quite certain whether the passage of this bill will be a requirement of Palmer’s support for the carbon price repeal).

Whilst this sounds promising, it unfortunately amounts to nothing. The legislation Palmer has vowed to introduce would specify that Australia’s ETS would have to be linked with Australia’s main trading partners – the United States, China, Japan and Korea. Until those countries join the European Union in implementing an ETS of their own, Australia’s ETS would have a price of zero dollars. Given this scenario is extremely unlikely any time in the future, this policy announcement is therefore one of smoke and mirrors. Palmer has announced his intention to take on climate change, when the reality is that what he introduces will never actually do anything to reduce pollution.

This is why it is so confusing that Gore stood next to Palmer during this announcement. This announcement is not a huge win. All Palmer has done is to commit not to destroy some of our key climate policies. On the other side of the ledger he has rekindled the discussion that kicks Australia’s climate responsibilities down the road. He has actively supported an international role, in which once again, Australia takes a step back, hoping wishfully that one day other countries will take action so we can do the same.

But Gore’s willingness to stand next to Palmer potentially highlights the somewhat depressing nature of institutional climate politics in Australia. Even in the face of growing evidence that we need to tackle our carbon emissions faster than ever before, somehow ‘not dismantling’ all of our current policies is now considered a major victory. Palmer has managed to pull off a magician’s trick – effectively doing nothing – whilst at the same time getting support from one of the world’s best known climate politicians in doing so.

This highlights the dearth of any real leadership on climate change from our politicians. The majority of our federal politicians are once again refusing to take the lead we desperately need on the issue, leaving it up to us as a community to take the sort of action we need to reduce our pollution.

In yesterday’s announcement, Al Gore thanked Palmer for his ‘outstanding statement’. If voting ‘not to dismantle’ some of our key climate policies is now considered ‘outstanding’, then we really could be in trouble.

Whilst Palmer’s announcement was in some ways extraordinary, it was definitely not outstanding, and he does not deserve much congratulations for it.


About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.


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