Political Insights Series | Heat is rising on climate politics

Steve Lewis, Senior Adviser with Newgate Australia, shares some insights on climate change policy challenges in the Australian political landscape.

When Anthony Albanese addresses the National Press Club on Friday, there’ll be no mistaking his target: Prime Minister Scott Morrison. As the nation struggles with the latest outbreak of COVID-19, the Opposition leader will use this national broadcast to launch a full-tilt assault on the PM. It won’t be for the faint of heart.

Senior ALP strategists believe their best chance of ousting the Morrison Government is to attack – without mercy – the PM’s handling of the vaccine rollout. Given Australia lags well behind almost every other developed economy when it comes to inoculating the population, they have a strong case.

Make no mistake: the starter’s gun has been well and truly fired on the unofficial election campaign. Mr Albanese’s press club appearance counts as a dry run and even though the PM is unlikely to call an election this year, the major parties have already begun assembling their election campaign teams.

As much as the ALP want to make the election a referendum about COVID-19 and the vaccine roll-out, the reality is that a range of policy issues will determine the outcome.

And none is more critical – or more fraught – than energy and climate change policy. Both the Coalition and Labor are struggling to find consensus on an issue that’s vexed federal parliament for more than a decade.

While business groups and major investor lobbies are already looking to a carbon-free future, the political parties are mired in internal debates that pits regional MPs against those from the cities.

Barnaby Joyce’s return as Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals’ leader will further inflame the issue, have no doubt about that. Listen to what Mr Joyce told Sky News on Tuesday night: “We absolutely need high-efficiency, low-emission coal-fired power stations. No one likes big holes in the ground … but the point is, you like your health system, you like your education system. This money has to come from somewhere. From the red rocks – iron ore. From the black rocks – coal.”

This would be music to the ears of the Minerals Council and mining executives who, privately, were barracking the return of Mr Joyce to the nation’s second highest office. His key backers – such as Matt Canavan and George Christensen, both from Queensland – also heavily favour the continued use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, to drive Australia’s energy generation.

This will place added pressure on the PM who is trying to navigate a path towards net-zero so that Australia doesn’t become an international pariah. That task just got a whole lot harder. As the Australian Financial Review reported, Mr Joyce’s return ends any prospect of a Coalition commitment to net zero emissions for 2050. It also will put the Coalition at odds with the business community that seems to be well ahead of the Government when it comes to taking climate change seriously.

Take for example Mr Christensen’s parliamentary inquiry into the prudential regulation of Australia’s export industries. The Queensland MP has attacked bank and insurance CEOs for being too “woke” and beholden to the views of people in the “inner cities” who rail against coal mining. His inquiry has heard from mining CEOs who want the banks to be subject to a “Regional Australia Impact Test” amid concerns that finance – and insurance – for the resources sector is simply drying up.

Under Mr Joyce’s leadership, the Nationals are expected to push for some type of regulatory requirement to be placed on the banks to ensure they keep lending to mining companies. But how would this work? And doesn’t it fly in the face of the Coalition’s free market ethos? This is the dilemma facing the Morrison Government as it tries to steer a middle path on climate change policy, amid fears Australia will be increasingly isolated on the world stage.

While the Joyce-led Nationals have revived their push for coal-fired power generation, leading investor groups are urging Australian regulators and largest corporates to embrace mandatory climate-related risk disclosure. The Investor Group of Climate Change wants the ASX to go so far as to enforce mandatory climate reporting for all listed companies – a move that could place greater scrutiny on company directors to disclose climate risk associated with investment plans.

They are pushing for the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to be mandatory. A report released on Tuesday – titled Confusion to Clarity: Plan for Mandatory TCFD in Australia – finds that although the number of ASX200 companies that have adopted the TCFD framework has increased from 11 in 2017 to 60 in 2019, only 37 per cent of the top 200 companies have set emissions targets.

Global investors, these groups argue, are willing to back clean energy solutions and the push to net-zero but are clearly worried too many corporates remain lukewarm in their commitment to provide full disclosure.

Clearly the world is heading towards cleaner energy solutions but in Australia the debate is sharpest around the transition away from fossil fuels to green alternatives. The coming election campaign will place both sides of politics under pressure to declare their hands.

And as federal Labor found out – to its great cost – in 2019, what plays well in inner-city Melbourne or Sydney is poison to voters in central Queensland and the coal-rich electorates around the Hunter Valley in NSW.

Mr Albanese knows that he, like the Prime Minister, has to craft a position on climate change and energy policy that alienates as few voters as possible. It’s a delicate political equation that might just determine the outcome of the federal poll, whenever it’s held.

Just don’t expect to hear too much from the Labor leader when he fronts the Press Club later this week.