February 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Warringah warrior

By Paddy Manning
Independent MP Zali Steggall hopes her private member’s bill will take the partisanship out of climate-change policy

After a devastating summer of unnatural disasters, the federal government may finally be forced to do something concrete on climate change. Post­election goodwill towards Scott Morrison has evaporated: the first opinion polls of 2020 show he is no longer preferred prime minister and the Coalition is back behind Labor. A royal commission examining the contribution of warming to the unprecedented bushfires, more public investment in low-emissions technologies, and 2030 emissions-reduction targets that don’t rely on carbon accounting tricks are all suddenly on the agenda, as Morrison casts around for ways the government’s climate policy may “evolve” to meet the new normal of longer, hotter and drier summers, as the PM told the ABC’s Insiders host David Speers.

Into a national debate riven with shock, sadness, hurt and anger, independent MP Zali Steggall will next month put forward a private member’s bill – full title: the Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Action) Bill 2020 – that could make a lasting difference were it to achieve majority support in the federal parliament. Steggall’s bill copies the framework of the United Kingdom’s climate legislation, which locks in a 2050 zero-emissions target and a credible pathway to get there, and has depoliticised the country’s response to global warming. The UK framework has survived a decade of division, from the financial crisis to Brexit, from Cameron to May to Johnson. If the Morrison government is at all sincere about finding a way forward – and if a few Liberal moderates follow up their pro­climate tweets – Steggall’s bid might actually work.

For anyone wanting climate action, Steggall’s victory over former prime minister Tony Abbott in the Sydney seat of Warringah was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak federal election. Abbott single-handedly wrecked any chance of bipartisanship on climate when he took over the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, and in 2014 he made Australia the first country in the world to abolish a carbon price. The electors of the ultra-safe seat of Warringah finally turfed him after a quarter of a century, and Steggall is determined to make the best of what could well be a short stint in federal politics. Her own postal surveys show climate is still the number one issue for Warringah voters, and the climate-change bill is her major legislative focus for this term of parliament.

Focus is something Steggall is good at. A Winter Olympic medallist who became a successful Sydney barrister and then an upset winner on political debut after a well-funded campaign, Steggall has a habit of setting her sights on a goal and then achieving it. Interviewed in her Manly electorate office, she says she does not feel Abbott’s ghost hanging about the place. “I don’t know how much time he spent in this building,” she says. “One of the feedbacks we had was, you were lucky to get a meeting with Tony in two years.”

Steggall rejects comparisons with high-profile medico Dr Kerryn Phelps, who stormed the safe eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth in a 2018 byelection after Turnbull was dumped as PM, only to lose to the Liberals’ Dave Sharma in the general poll less than nine months later. Phelps’s circumstances were unique, says Steggall, who instead compares herself to fellow crossbenchers Rebekha Sharkie, the Centre Alliance MP twice re-elected in the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo, and Dr Helen Haines, who managed to succeed the popular Cathy McGowan as member for the regional Victorian seat of Indi. “They’re the models I look at,” says Steggall, noting that both Mayo and Indi are traditionally conservative electorates, unlike the inner-city, ex-Labor seats held by the Greens’ Adam Bandt and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie.

Sharkie and Haines co-chair the Parliamentary Friends of Climate Action, a collection of nearly 20 MPs from the crossbench, Labor and Liberal parties (but not the Nationals). Steggall is deputy chair, and Sharkie and Haines have already confirmed they will be supporting her climate bill, currently being drafted by parliamentary counsel, in consultation with hand-picked experts including former RBA board member and director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis, Professor Warwick McKibbin.

Central to the Steggall bill, outlined in a two-pager circulated to government and Opposition, is a proposal for a powerful independent Climate Change Commission. It would make annual recommendations to the government on climate risks and adaptation plans, suggest emissions targets based on scientific imperatives, and set rolling five-year carbon budgets for each sector of the economy – energy, transport, agriculture, services and so on – five years in advance. The government would present each element to parliament, explaining any variation from the commission’s recommendations, for open debate each year, as occurs in the UK. More than 10 countries have adopted a similar legislative approach, according to Parliamentary Library research requested by Steggall, including New Zealand, Germany, France, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Mexico, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and South Korea.

It is an overarching legislative framework, independent of specific policy measures such as a carbon price or regulatory tools, that Steggall compares to the Closing the Gap approach to Indigenous disadvantage. “Each year the government reports to the parliament: ‘How are we doing? What’s working, what’s not? Are we improving any of the outcomes?’ That’s the kind of accountability we need to have.” The aim is to take partisanship out of emissions reduction. “It’s just stupid that in Australia it’s become this polarised political football,” says Steggall, who will mount a national public awareness campaign calling for a conscience vote, as ultimately occurred over marriage equality. “Labor is internally conflicted, the Coalition is internally conflicted – it’s not like it’s unanimous on either side,” she says. “Ironically, no one’s really showing their colours because they’ve got all this internal conflict, and I think it’s time for it to be on the table – to show your colours.”

Steggall has already touched on climate in private talks with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and the energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, expects to schedule a meeting to discuss her private member’s bill. Steggall will not canvass her discussions with the government, which has yet to decide how it will respond. Liberal members of Parliamentary Friends of Climate Action include leading moderates Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman and Jason Falinski. Wilson, whose campaign against Labor’s policy on franking credits helped the Coalition to victory last year, rejects the tag “moderate” but has styled himself a “modern Liberal” and aims to represent the progressive views of his well-heeled Melbourne seat of Goldstein. He declined an interview but said via email that while it was hard to comment without seeing the bill, “on principle I am wary of any plan that empowers unaccountable bureaucrats and disempowers accountable politicians. The government took a clear plan to the last election to cut emissions, but not jobs, it was endorsed and Australians rightly expect us to deliver it consistent with our Paris pledge. The PM has rightly identified there’ll be more evolution of policy and I look forward to contributing to that important evolution.”

If the prime minister’s response on climate appears insincere or inadequate, however – holding a royal commission without support of the states or as a delaying tactic, ratcheting up targets without accompanying policies, or too much investment in “clean” coal – there could well be public pressure to do something more substantial, along the bipartisan lines that Steggall is proposing.

The Opposition is a long way from determining its own position on climate, ahead of the ALP National Conference later this year and an election not due until 2022. Labor’s shadow minister for climate change and energy, Mark Butler, is a fan of the UK approach to depoliticising the issue. But he believes it is “very unlikely” that the Morrison government will sign up to a UK-style climate-change bill “no matter who proposes it”.

“Any constructive suggestion into the parliament about how we bring the climate wars to an end in Australia is a welcome one,” Butler says. “I think the fact that Zali has grabbed onto this issue as her primary focus in the Australian parliament is great, but there’s a long way between that and actually getting the Liberal Party to change its current position on climate change.

“I haven’t seen draft legislation – but we’re keen to engage and hopefully give support to any constructive ideas about how to do better on climate change.”

Steggall can hardly expect any political favours from the Morrison government, which would like to reclaim Warringah just as it did Wentworth. (Former staffer to the prime minister Sasha Grebe is one potential candidate, and preselections for some federal seats are getting underway two years out.) Steggall is not interested in symbolism or pure grandstanding on climate­emergency motions. “As an independent it’s a lot easier to put out a motion than a bill,” she says. “But a bill is a lot more effective.” Her best-case scenario is to copy the success of Cathy McGowan in putting up the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018, which got reworked by the government and may yet become law.

“I’m not aiming to wedge, because that’s gotten us nowhere the last 10 years,” says Steggall. She is also not interested in laying blame for the climate wars. “Putting aside the right and wrong of the last few years and all the rest, let’s take the advice of the scientists as it is today, that regardless of what we all thought five years ago, of what the targets needed to be, we need to up the ante.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

Cover image of The Monthly, February 2020

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