The combination of the environment and energy portfolios is a sign the federal government is finally taking climate change seriously. Or it’s an unmitigated disaster.
In his ministerial reshuffle announced on Monday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promoted up-and-coming Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg to the two-headed portfolio. Turnbull said Frydenberg’s beat includes energy security, domestic energy markets, renewable energy targets, clean energy development and financing and emission reductions.
Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy told Crikey they urged the government to combine the portfolios — similar to what’s in place in Victoria, and in Labor’s shadow cabinet federally.
“In this day and age, climate change driven by coal pollution is one of the biggest environmental problem, if not the biggest environmental problem the world faces. We’ve just seen the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and other terrible things, so the answer to that is clean energy,” she said.
O’Shanassy says the portfolio split “entrenches a trade-off approach”; combining the two forces the minister to factor in the impact of energy decisions on the environment.
“We know that in the 21st century you can’t have coal and healthy reefs. So it means the one person has to look at greenhouse emissions coming from the way we produce our energy and look at the impact those greenhouse emissions have on the places we love, and that Australians want protected,” she said.
During previous roundtable talks with the resources sector, academics and environment groups led by former environment minister Greg Hunt, the common thread was that energy could not be decoupled from action on climate change.
O’Shanassy believes Frydenberg will have a stronger voice in cabinet; Hunt had made the environment “an absolute weak part of the government’s portfolio”.
Frydenberg’s previous comments don’t all sit well with environmental groups: that the controversial Carmichael coal mine is good for Australia and advocating strongly for nuclear energy. But O’Shanassy hopes for a fresh start. She wants no return to the proposed ban on “green lawfare” and no ban on the charitable status for environment groups.
“Hopefully this signals they’re going to change their policy,” she said. “It’s harder to change their policy with the same minister … Really it’s going to be very important in [Frydenberg’s] first 100 days to see that direction.”
Climate Institute CEO John Connor said in a statement the combination of the portfolios is a chance for leadership on climate and energy policy. But the mining sector has also welcomed the changes: Queensland Resources Council CEO Michael Roche was pleased with the appointment of Matt Canavan — who has expressed uncertainty around the impact of climate change — as Resources Minister.
The ministerial switch also merges two government departments that have historically operated very differently. Peter O’Brien, a former environment and resources agency leader in Canberra, told Crikey the devil is in the detail.
“Bringing related responsibilities together makes very good sense as principle, and then the practice of integrating those, and making them coherent and aligned, is a challenge for the bureaucracy,” he explained.
“Putting them together is a cultural shift for the policymakers of both departments [that will] require strong leadership and policy direction, and considerable emphasis on communication from the leadership. The problem of silos is perennial for the public sector, and so whenever you slice and dice, you need to drive cultural change,” he said.
Grattan Institute energy program director Tony Wood backed the move in principle. He told Crikey sister publication The Mandarin: “The need to get energy and climate policies that actually work together is critically important and justifies the change.”
A spokesperson for Frydenberg’s office declined to comment. But it’s expected Frydenberg will outline a vision for the portfolio in the coming weeks.