richard di natale fact check climate change
(Image: ABC News/ Brett Worthington)

The claim

As climate change emerges as a dominant issue in the 2019 federal election, the Greens have accused the Coalition of spending “bugger all” to fight what they call the nation’s biggest challenge.

The day after the budget, on April 3, Greens leader Richard Di Natale told Sky News: “I mean, 189 million bucks over the next four years. They are spending almost as much to keep Christmas Island open in the previous four weeks as they will spend in new money over the next four years on climate change.”

Is he correct? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Di Natale’s claim is overblown.

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The Greens leader has compared several months of detention costs with only part of the Coalition’s new spending on climate change, allocated in the 2019 budget.

And by focussing on “new money”, Di Natale ignores ongoing spending on climate change.

In 2018-19, the government budgeted $161 million for Christmas Island. This could be spent over not just four weeks but as many as 20 weeks.

For its new “climate solutions package”, the Coalition has budgeted an extra $261 million over the next four years. Of that, Di Natale has only counted spending on the Climate Solutions Fund, worth $189 million.

But experts told Fact Check that other parts of the Coalition’s climate package could also reduce emissions, as could initiatives found in other parts of the budget.

Ultimately, one expert warned, the dollar figure was a meaningless way to assess action on climate change.

Reopening the detention centre

Once the face of Australia’s offshore immigration detention regime, the Christmas Island facility was wound down in October 2018 after operating for a decade.

It remained on standby and could be made ready for new asylum seekers within 72 hours.

Then, on February 13, 2019, parliament defied the government by passing the so-called “medivac bill”, which allowed asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island to be temporarily transferred to Australia for urgent medical treatment.

Warning the law created a back doorway into the country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on the day it was passed that he would restart detention centre operations on Christmas Island and that medical evacuees would be treated there rather than mainland Australia.

On April 2, the government used its federal budget to announce operations would again be suspended by July 1.

On April 4, the day after Di Natale made his claim, customs officials confirmed that no one had been transferred to the centre.

How much did it cost?

Referring to the detention centre spending, a spokesman for Di Natale told Fact Check the “four week PR stunt cost the Government $185 million”, and said this figure came from the 2019 federal budget.

Indeed, that expense measure can be found in Budget Paper 2 under the headline “Regional Processing — Christmas Island”.

The largest component, $178.9 million, was “to manage the transfer of [asylum seekers] from Nauru and Papua New Guinea to Christmas Island for medical treatment”.

However, these figures cover two financial years.

Of the total $185.1 million set aside for regional processing on the island, only $161.4 million was allocated to 2018-19, the year of the claim.

The remaining $23.7 million will be spent winding down the centre in 2019-20.

A four-week window?

Di Natale spoke of money spent “to keep Christmas Island open in the previous four weeks”.

Fact Check was unable to find publicly available information showing when the government began spending the $161.4 million total.

A spokesman for Di Natale told Fact Check the claim referred to the time between the government’s two announcements, on February 13 and April 2, about opening and then closing the centre, a seven-week period.

Under Senate questioning on April 4, the day after the claim, customs officials could not say how much had been spent to date on “opening, preparing and staffing the centre” on Christmas Island.

Fact Check asked the Department of Home Affairs when the centre was ready to accept medical evacuees, but did not receive a response.

Still, if the centre opened on the day of Mr Morrison’s announcement and operates until July 1, 2019 — the last possible date, according to the budget — it will have been open nearly 20 weeks.

Though it’s not possible to say exactly what spending happened when, Madeline Gleeson, senior research associate at the University of NSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, told Fact Check that reopening a detention centre could involve a lot of up-front costs.

She also said that while overall costs could blow out, some budgeted expenditure may never eventuate.

The climate comparison

In his claim, Di Natale equated detention centre spending with “new money” the government had budgeted for climate change over the next four years.

Di Natale’s spokesman said this referred to the Government’s Climate Solutions Fund, which pays businesses and organisations for projects that will reduce their carbon emissions.

On this initiative, the Coalition has budgeted to spend an extra $189.1 million in the years 2019-20 to 2022-23.

The total package

Critically, the fund cited by Di Natale’s spokesman is just one element of the Coalition’s new “climate solutions package”, a suite of policies the government says will cut carbon emissions to deliver on Australia’s international 2030 climate commitments.

Over the four years of Di Natale’s claim (2019-20 to 2022-23), the Coalition has budgeted to spend an extra $261.3 million on its climate package, including the $189 million for the Climate Solutions Fund.

Of the remaining $72.2 million, $9.8 million will go to overseeing the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro initiative and $61.2 million will be spent on grants to help businesses and communities increase their energy efficiency.

Amandine Denis-Ryan, head of research at ClimateWorks Australia, told Fact Check that some elements of the Coalition’s package could fairly be ignored because they may not reduce emissions.

“Snowy Hydro, for example, could store high emissions electricity from NSW and increase the usage of coal … if it was not linked to renewables.”

But other initiatives such as energy efficiency grants could be counted as supporting climate change action, Denis-Ryan said.

Alan Pears, senior industry fellow with RMIT, also told Fact Check that Snowy 2.0 may not reduce emissions.

Still, he said that while the Coalition’s approach to reducing carbon emissions fell short of what the science required, most measures in its package “have potential”.

Is that the lot?

The climate solutions package is not necessarily everything the Coalition has budgeted for action on climate change over the next four years.

According to the 2019 budget, the government has allocated a combined $6.25 billion for new and ongoing spending on climate change over the four years of the forward estimates.

This includes spending on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Regulator.

Referring to new spending, Mr Pears said “total spending seems to exceed $300 million over four years”.

He noted spending for reliable energy infrastructure, worth $69 million over the forward estimates, some of which could be called spending on climate change.

“Reliable energy infrastructure is mostly about supporting emission reduction,” he said.

That infrastructure spend includes $50.4 million for building micro-grids in remote and regional communities, the bulk of which is budgeted in the years to 2022-23.

Denis-Ryan said that, if built, “some of these would likely enable renewables”.

Picking the right measure

Director of ANU’s Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Professor Frank Jotzo, told Fact Check that when it came to defining spending on climate change, it was “impossible to know where to start and end”.

He questioned how any definition might account for adaptation measures by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, for example, or Australia’s foreign aid spending, or government investments that could eventually make a financial return.

He was critical of Di Natale’s comparison at a more fundamental level.

“Trying to gauge the strength of climate policy by tallying up dollars set aside in the federal budget for it is the entirely wrong way of looking at it,” he told Fact Check.

“Budget spending should be only a small part of what the government does on climate change,” he said, adding that Labor’s plan would put stringent emissions limits on industry rather than pay businesses to reduce emissions.

“In a ‘spending only’ type comparison that policy would look weaker than the Coalition’s, even though in reality it’d be much stronger.”

Principal researchers: David Campbell, Alexander Gudic-Hay


© RMIT University 2019