hugh morgan
Hugh Morgan (Image: CInnovationGlobal/YouTube)

A national poll has found a majority of Australians want to see more action on climate change.

At the same time it revealed a deepening partisan divide around acceptance of the climate science: almost 40% of Liberal and National voters — against 9% of Labor voters — say they have “serious doubts” as to whether climate change is happening. 

With the public debate increasingly muddied by misinformation and vested interests, Crikey takes a look at the influencers shaping public perceptions — and political action — against faster action tackling climate change.

Named after the arid climate plant that naturally captures and stores carbon dioxide, The Saltbush Club brings together veterans of Australia’s climate sceptic-denialist movement, clustered around the formidable figure of Hugh Morgan, one-time CEO of Western Mining and Liberal Party grandee.

Morgan has a long record of influencing conservative government climate policy through pro-fossil fuel and free market groups such as the Lavoisier Group and the Institute of Public Affairs.

Other big names in the Saltbush ranks include former BHP head Jerry Ellis, Melbourne geology academic Ian Plimer, Queensland mining millionaire and serial lobby group participant Viv Forbes, business luminary Sir Roderick Carnegie and prominent blogger and science communicator JoNova (real name Joanne Codling).

Nova is the author of The Skeptics Handbook. Her views have been given prominence in The Australian and on Sky News, and she warrants a long entry in the international DeSmog blog which is devoted to exposing what it calls global warming misinformation campaigns.

Saltbush boasts that it has hundreds of members, including “knights, Senators, MPs, and those with such experiences as state premier, cabinet ministers [and] mayors”. The state premier, by the way, is former Queensland LNP premier Campbell Newman.

The senators are former One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, and former Family First senator Bob Day.

“Not one of them,” the website says, “has seen proof that man’s emissions of carbon dioxide can control global climate or will cause dangerous global warming.”

The group is keen to point out that it is not the preserve of the high powered but includes ordinary folk like jackaroos, builders, developers, fitter-and-turners, boiler-makers and power station operators.

It lists the names of hundreds of individual supporters but does not reveal the source of its funds. It also claims to have a large group of “silent members”, who don’t want to be known publicly for fear that exposure would harm their prospects for employment, promotion or business.

The group went public in November 2018 following the Liberal party overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull which appears to have put a spring in the step of the group’s members.

Co-founder and chairman Jerry Ellis said he hoped “the new leadership of the Australian government has the courage to guide our country in a rational manner … and abandons the Paris Treaty”.

Ellis also endorsed Morrison’s newly installed energy minister Angus Taylor, noting that Taylor “seems keen” to take the course of action Ellis considered necessary.

Taylor had previously been a key figure in moves to unseat Turnbull on energy policy.

The Saltbush solution

Saltbush has a long and detailed shopping list of demands, some of which have already been embraced by the Morrison government.

Morrison’s messaging that the government’s response to climate change will focus on “resilience and adaptation” is in tune with the Saltbush Club’s big picture view that the answer does not lie in reducing CO2 emissions or in encouraging renewables.

The group argues that rather than “wasting community savings on low-density intermittent green energy” Australians should ensure essential infrastructure such as water supply, roads, rail lines, airports and power supply is better able to survive the droughts, floods, cyclones and bushfires “that will inevitably recur”.

This is a position close to that set out by Morrison at his recent National Press Club speech when he spoke of the need for “practical action on climate resilience and adaptation”, such as building dams and improving planning for natural disasters.

This, Morrison said, was “climate action now”.

Saltbush advances the rights of rural property owners, calling for an end to “the war” on cattle, sheep and grasslands.

“All property rights should be respected,” it says. “The continuing injustices caused to landowners by the Kyoto Agreement bans on control of woody weeds should cease” (pro-carbon activists have it that Greens “worship” woody weeds).

In his Press Club speech, Morrison pointed to the need “to seriously engage” with issues such as “how we manage native vegetation, how we allow land-owners to clear asset protection zones on their property, where they’re stymied”.

“Hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction,” he declared.

From the start, though, Saltbush’s primary target has been the United Nations and its climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as the UN’s Paris Treaty on emissions targets.

Saltbush Club founder Hugh Morgan, characterises the Paris accord as a deception. “People think the Paris Accord is just about commitments to lower CO2,” he says. “It is really about transferring wealth through the UN to the so-called less developed countries”.

For Morgan, the UN’s climate work was about “advancing centralised control of people’s lives on a global scale”.

The assault on the UN — and the risk it supposedly poses to Australian sovereignty — has been picked up by Morrison. Speaking at the Lowy Institute late last year after returning from spending time with US President Donald Trump, Morrison attacked the authority of the UN and what he termed “negative globalism”.

Australia could not accept decisions by an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”, he warned.

“The world works best … when the character and distinctiveness of independent nations is preserved within a framework of mutual respect. This includes respecting the electoral mandates of their constituencies.”

Energy Minister Angus Taylor took up Morrison’s theme of “negative globalism” in attacking the UN’s role in climate change.

Facing international condemnation for dodging the obligations of the Paris accord by using carry-over accounting of emissions to meet reduction targets, Taylor maintained that “top-down” pressure from the UN to address climate change would fail.

Defending his performance at UN negotiations in Madrid in December, Taylor wrote in The Australian: “There are serious limits to pressuring countries into aggressive top-down targets without ­offering clear pathways to ­deliver. Many countries understandably see that as negative globalism and a gross infringement on their national sovereignty”.

Rejection of the UN is a common theme with organisations allied with Saltbush. The group is affiliated with an international body led by the UK’s Christopher Monckton under the banner of Clexit, named after Brexit and a reference to exiting the UN’s Paris agreements.

The Saltbush Club informal network also includes a dozen other like-minded groups based in Australia and internationally. One of those is the Global Warming Policy Foundation — which, as Inq has previously reported, is linked to London-based Australian hedge fund billionaire and Liberal donor Sir Michael Hintze.

Another is the anonymously funded NSW anti-wind turbine group Stop These Things, which served as a launchpad for Angus Taylor’s political career as federal member for Hume in 2013. 

There's more to Crikey than you think.

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

And now you get more from your membership than ever before.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
Get more and save 50%