Coal lobby influences new Australian government

By Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan at the Pacific Islands Forum, Nauru

It’s the end of winter. Large areas of Australia are suffering under a major drought. Bushfires are raging across New South Wales. But once again, an Australian prime minister has been deposed and the coal lobby has extended its influence over government climate and energy policy.

In an internal spill, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lost his leadership in Australia’s governing Liberal-National Party Coalition. Incoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first trip was to drought affected regions of Queensland, while new Foreign Minister Marise Payne replaces him at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, where climate change is high on the agenda.

But Pacific island leaders are concerned about the drift of climate policy in the Forum’s largest member state. Speaking in Sydney en route to the Nauru meeting, outgoing Forum chair Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi was characteristically blunt: “We all know the problem, we all know the solutions, and all that is left would be some political courage, some political guts, to tell people of your country there is a certainty of disaster. So any leader of any country who believes that there is no climate change, I think he ought to be taken to mental confinement. He is utterly stupid.”

Forum island countries have every right to be anxious. In his previous ministerial roles, Australia’s new Prime Minister has been a strong critic of the environment movement. In February 2017, Morrison famously brought a lump of coal into the House of Representatives, in a stunt designed to taunt Labour and Greens MPs over their opposition to new coal-fired power stations.

Despite the defeat of the hard Right’s candidate Peter Dutton in the recent prime ministerial vote, the coal lobby still has significant clout in the new Morrison Government.

The incoming Prime Minister has appointed former deputy CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia John Kunkel as his chief of staff. Kunkel also worked as a lobbyist for Rio Tinto, one of Australia’s largest coal exporters.  Key government members are supporters of the conservative think tank Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which has received millions of dollars of funding from Australia’s richest citizen, mining magnate Gina Rinehart.

As Foreign Minister Marise Payne travels to Nauru this week, a significant bloc of Australian government ministers and backbenchers are calling for greater priority on energy pricing. This conflicts with the priority given by neighbouring island governments, which seek the rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from Australian energy and transport systems, which are both still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

Withdrawing from Paris?

Former Coalition leader Tony Abbott, who served as prime minister in 2013-15, played a key role in ousting his successor Malcolm Turnbull. Supported by backbenchers Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, Jim Molan and Eric Abetz, Abbott has called for Australia to follow the Trump administration and withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Although their candidate Peter Dutton lost last month’s contest for prime minister, the conservative rump succeeded in gutting Turnbull’s signature climate policy, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). Trying to shore up his position, Turnbull hurriedly removed requirements from the NEG that mandated power industry emissions must decrease by 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 (even though many environmentalists argued that the NEG was a weak policy that would have meant no new investment in wind and solar for a decade).

In July, Tony Abbott gave a speech proposing to ditch the global Paris Agreement and re-focus on domestic power prices, rather than Australia’s treaty obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: “As long as we remain in the Paris agreement – which is about reducing emissions, not building prosperity – all policy touching on emissions will be about their reduction, not our well-being. It’s the emissions obsession that’s at the heart of our power crisis and it’s this that has to end for our problems to ease.”

Incoming leader Scott Morrison has split the energy and environment portfolio, appointing Angus Taylor as the new Energy Minister. Taylor is a fervent opponent of wind power and renewable energy. As a private sector consultant, he called for the abandonment of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) and has denounced those who believe in anthropogenic climate change as “the new climate religion, recruiting disciples every day, with little basis on fact and everything to do with blind faith.”

Just weeks before the Canberra coup, Taylor stated: “The obsession with emissions at the expense of reliability and affordability has been a massive mistake.”

Melissa Price is the new Minister for the Environment. Before her parliamentary career, Price was a lawyer with Clayton Utz, specialising in the mining industry.

Changes affect the Pacific

Numerous ministers resigned their positions during the chaotic week of plotting in the governing Liberal Party, but outgoing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull initially accepted only two resignations: his chief opponent Peter Dutton and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

The conservative NSW Senator is a close ally of Tony Abbott. She had a fractious relationship with outgoing Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who lost the Deputy Prime Ministership and retired to the backbench along with Turnbull.

Last January, Fierravanti-Wells attacked Chinese investment in the Pacific as “roads to nowhere” and “white elephants”, comments which were downplayed by Bishop and condemned by Forum chair Tuilaepa.

“The comments by the Development Minister have certainly surprised me, indeed, they are quite insulting to the leaders of Pacific Island neighbours,” the Samoan Prime Minister said. “To me the comments seem to question the integrity, wisdom and intelligence of the leaders of the Pacific Islands. These kinds of comments can destroy the excellent relationships existing between Australia and the Pacific Island neighbours, particularly Samoa.”

In her resignation letter last week, Fierravanti-Wells complained that: “In my own portfolio, I was disappointed that my frank and forthright comments regarding China were criticised [by Foreign Minister Bishop]. I am pleased that subsequent events and media scrutiny have fully vindicated me raising these concerns.”

After resigning her ministerial post, Fierravanti-Wells has joined the chorus of conservative MPs opposing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, stating: “On the energy issue, there needs to be a clear distinction between us and Labour, including considering ditching the Paris Agreement and more coal-fired power.”

The incoming Morrison Cabinet see key changes that affect the Pacific islands region. Former Defence Minister Marise Payne has been elevated to replace Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, while Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has been replaced by Turnbull loyalist Simon Birmingham.

In a significant step, the incoming government has downgraded the position of the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. The position will now be ranked at Assistant minister level, a junior post in the outer ministry rather than the Cabinet.

The incoming Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Anne Ruston, is a member of the ruling Liberal Party from the rural area of Renmark in South Australia’s Riverland. In July, Ruston represented Australia at the 15th Forum Fisheries Committee Ministers Meeting in Rarotonga, in her previous role as assistant minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.

There have been calls for the Right’s standard bearers Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce to be included in the new Cabinet, but Prime Minister Morrison has rejected this push. Instead, he has appointed Abbott to serve as a special envoy on indigenous affairs, and Joyce as a special envoy on the drought that is ravaging much of New South Wales and southern Queensland.

Despite this, the climate deniers in the governing Liberal and National parties will have an ongoing influence on climate policy in the remaining months of the government. Australia must hold national elections by May next year, and the mid-term replacement of a serving Prime Minister – once again – has badly damaged the government in public opinion polls.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Australian Labour Party (ALP) is calling for an urgent election now, before the coal lobby can inflict any more damage on climate policy – and on Australia’s vulnerable island neighbours.