In an ever-hotter world, where the world’s scientists have demonstrated the urgent need to curb carbon emissions yet again if we’re to prevent the colossal economic, natural and human costs associated with climate change, Australia’s political system has comprehensively failed.
We currently have no climate policy beyond the next 18 months, and the government actually boasts about that. Our latest energy minister — who has disappeared without trace since his first, embarrassing public outing — is a campaigner against renewable energy. Australia’s emissions are rising, and the government seeks to hide that by sneaking out the data when they hope no one is looking. Australian bureaucrats tried to sabotage the latest IPCC report by demanding the removal of references to the need to phase out coal. The Prime Minister routinely lies that Australia will easily meets its low-ambition Paris Agreement targets. Australia is the only country in the world to establish an effective, low-cost and highly efficient emissions abatement scheme and then dump it.
It’s important, of course, that we’ve had a succession of climate denialists in key positions of power — Tony Abbott as prime minister, Barnaby Joyce as deputy prime minister, the Nationals as Coalition partners. It’s important that climate policy has been a key tool used by enemies of Malcolm Turnbull within the Liberal Party against him. It’s also important that News Corp, currently the dominant media company in Australia, promotes climate denialism through all of its newspapers and pay TV outlets.
But as always, the focus on personalities and individuals can distract. The political system is also broken, and incapable of responding to the need to reduce emissions.
Consider the grip that fossil fuel interests have within politics, using the standard indicators: donations, lobbyists and jobs for ex-politicians. From 2010-17, according to Australian Electoral Commission data, coal mining companies and fossil fuel-based energy companies donated $5.9 million in declared contributions to the major political parties — $3.8 million to the Coalition and $2.1 million to Labor. The biggest donor, Woodside, routinely gives over $100,000 each year to both sides. Coal mining is also a major source of donations to Labor, with the CFMMEU now Labor’s largest union donor after the SDA. Mining provided the largest single source of donations to the major parties in the period 2015-17, according to the Grattan Institute.
And while major polluters have their own in-house lobbyists, they also employ some of the biggest lobbying firms in the country. Liberal powerbroker Micheal Photios’ PremierState+PremierNational, Liberal lobbying group Barton Deakin, Newgate Communications and GovStrat, which includes former Queensland premier Rob Borbidge, all represent coal miners. Former senior Labor staffer Cameron Milner lobbied for Adani.
The Grattan Institute examined data from Queensland and found mining and energy was the second-biggest source of donations after property developers, had the most lobbying contacts with government of any industry (more than one quarter of the total) and 10% of all meetings with senior ministers. The mining industry’s ability to influence policy was cited by Transparency International as a reason why Australia fell in its transparency ranking the 2017.
And ex-politicians are common among the ranks of polluters. Former deputy PM Mark Vaile chairs Whitehaven. Ian Macfarlane heads the Queensland Resources Council, after Abbott called for the mining industry to give him a job. Former Queensland Labor treasurer Keith De Lacy has chaired coal mining companies and campaigned against renewables. Former senior Labor figure Martin Ferguson now works for mining industry peak bodies. His replacement as resources minister, Gary Gray, had previously worked for Woodside, which employs former DFAT staff and has employed former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer.
Those who benefit from preventing climate action are thus deeply enmeshed in our entire way of governing, and can ensure the system works in their interests, not those of the community, and certainly not those of future generations.
Thus, while the refusal of individual politicians to take climate change seriously may reflect a personal ideology of denialism, that’s no more important than the fact that our entire system of government provides strong incentives at the party, bureaucratic and personal level to hold such beliefs.
That is, the system itself is as much a problem as the old white men who reject climate science. If it was in their personal and partisan interests to accept it and act upon it, they would do so readily.