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Scott Morrison’s secret climate weapon

Mike Seccombe on the documents that reveal who’s behind the federal government’s climate modelling - and what it tells us about the way science is being spun for political purposes.

The federal government has finally released the modelling underpinning its plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

According to the Prime Minister, the economic impact of the plan won’t be that significant. But at the last election Scott Morrison had a very different position when he was opposing Labor’s emissions reduction policy.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the documents that reveal who’s behind the federal government’s climate modelling - and what it tells us about the way science is being spun for political purposes.


Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

The federal government has finally released the modelling underpinning its plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

According to the Prime Minister, the economic impact of the plan won’t be that significant. But at the last election Scott Morrison had a very different position, when he was opposing Labor’s emissions reduction policy.

 

Today, National Correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe on the documents that reveal who’s behind the federal government’s climate modelling - and what it tells us about the way science is being spun for political purposes.

 

It’s Wednesday, November 17.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:

Mike, as we get closer to an election, the battleground issues are becoming more clear. Climate change is obviously one of those issues that was at the last election as well. So, let's go back and talk about how it played out for both parties in 2019. What happened? 

 

MIKE:

Well, yes, in the lead up to the last election, just as now, the Morrison government was in big political trouble on climate change policy. 

 

Archival tape -- Bill Shorten: 

If you want real action on climate change, not more chaos and denial. Vote Labor. 

 

MIKE:

Labor had a comprehensive plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

 

Archival tape -- Bill Shorten:

So today this is our case for change, we say proudly to all Australians: end the chaos, vote Labor. Thank you very much.

 

MIKE:

And the government, on the other hand, had nothing new to propose. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And our policies haven't changed in terms of what our emissions reduction target is. Over the last four years, it's been the same. 

 

MIKE:

But the thing is, the Coalition had a secret weapon. And on February 20, 2019, it used it. And on that day, Rupert Murdoch's national broadsheet The Australian ran a front page headline that read: Carbon Cut Apocalypse Cost of ALP energy plan. 

 

And the story below the headline was just replete with big, scary numbers. It said that Labor's policy would push electricity prices 50 per cent higher, would cost workers up to $9000 a year in lower wages, and would wipe $472 billion from the economy over the next decade.  

 

Archival tape -- Liberal representative: 

A quarter of a trillion dollars by 2030. And he said it'll cost us about one hundred and sixty seven thousand jobs.

 

MIKE:

Over the next couple of weeks. The Murdoch media continued to bring up this modelling. 

 

Archival tape -- Sky news commentator:

Where is the rest of the media in pursuing this? Two hundred sixty four billion was the best case scenario Andrew, and it could be upwards of five hundred and forty two billion. The cost to the economy..

 

MIKE:

And the government used the modelling to hammer the issue of the alleged high costs of Labor's climate policies, just relentlessly right up until the election. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Mr Shorten is still not answering these fundamental questions. Now is not the time to turn back. Now is the time to ensure that we keep our economy strong, now is the time to ensure we keep our financial management strong. 

 

MIKE:

And this was all attributed to quote, ‘the first independent modelling of energy policies of both the government and the opposition.’ 

 

RUBY:

OK, so can you tell me a bit more about this modelling then Mike, and where it came from? 

 

MIKE:

Well, it was done by a bloke called Brian Fisher, who has come to be known as, I think you would say, a very controversial economist. 

 

Archival tape -- Journalist:

Would you like to tell us about your early life prior to becoming an agriculture and resources economist..

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

I guess I could do that, I grew up on a dairy farm on the mid north coast of NSW..

 

MIKE:

He's a former head of the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics. And he's also, I must say, the go-to numbers guy for Australian fossil fuel miners looking for costings that will show their proposals in a good light. 

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

The other thing that became immediately apparent to me was the power of numbers. The person with the number basically holds the power...

 

MIKE:

Under the Howard government, he played an integral role in negotiating Australia's minimal commitment to emissions reduction at the 1997 Kyoto Climate Change Conference. 

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

We built models. We did the work. I participated in the negotiations. 

 

MIKE:

And his influence has continued under successive liberal governments. He was one of four experts tasked by Tony Abbott when he was prime minister in 2014, to decide on Australia's renewable energy target, which was scaled back to 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 and was roundly criticised as being too low.

 

In 2019, he was in the spotlight again because of this modelling. 

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

And as an economist, I find this to be appallingly dishonem..dishonest, frankly.

 

MIKE:

He was quoted expressing his frustration at how deficient, and even outright dishonest, the climate change debate continues to be. 

 

He said that when the inescapable reality was that whoever won the election, Australia would suffer an economic hit. He just found that the economic hit would be several times larger under labor. 

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

You must expect that the cost of abatement is going to be fairly severe under those circumstances. 

 

Archival tape -- Journalist:

Who paid for this modelling?

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

I did.

 

MIKE:

Fisher said that he expected to be quote, “kicked” unquote, by both sides of politics for his assessment. But he was never going to be ‘kicked’ by the Morrison government. When the Australian ran its story, he'd already been in communication with the government for many weeks, if not months, about his work. 

 

RUBY:

OK, so what exactly do you mean by that, Mike? What kind of communication had Fisher been in with the Morrison government and who exactly within the government? 

 

MIKE:

So I obtained an email trail, under Freedom of Information, that shows that the Energy Minister Angus Taylor and his office were liaising with Fisher as he drafted his modelling. 

 

Indeed, seven weeks before Fisher's modelling came out and immediately landed on the front page of the Australian, Taylor sent one of many emails to his team. And in that email, he said he was working on a piece: an op ed piece for publication, comparing electricity prices state by state, and he was using draft numbers from Fisher. 

 

So clearly the government had detailed knowledge of what was coming, had seen drafts and saw it as important that Fisher should provide support for their claim that Labor's proposal would put a wrecking ball through the economy as they as they termed it at the time. 

 

RUBY:

Hmm. OK. So it seems like there's little doubt then, that ahead of the last election, the coalition government was aware of Fisher's modelling. They also knew that it might benefit them. So when it was released, when his research came out on the front page of the Australian, how was it received by the scientific community and economists and other experts? 

 

MIKE:

The report he released was roundly condemned by most other expert economists and energy experts, and to quote them: “Brian Fischer's latest model of climate costs was off the chart. It shows the cost to GDP impacts that were five to 10 times larger than every other economy wide model.”

 

Kane Thornton, another expert chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, said, and I quote: “the report its input assumptions and modelled outcomes are total garbage. Any politician using this to compare or critique energy policies should be laughed at.”

 

But of course, the government persisted and almost three years later, the Morrison government is again playing games with climate modelling. 

 

And once again, Fisher is involved. 

 

RUBY:

We'll be back after this. 

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RUBY: 

Mike, we're coming up to a federal election, we don't know exactly when, but we know that it's a matter of months. Ahead of that, the coalition has released climate modelling and it seems that this person, this economist Brian Fisher, is involved in that modelling. So can you tell me about that -  what do we know exactly? 

 

MIKE:

Well, a couple of weeks ago, on October 25, officials from Angus Taylor's department confirmed to a Senate estimates committee that Fisher had been paid $100,000 for help in its upcoming climate modelling. 

 

Archival tape -- Senate estimates committee speaker: 

And so you've used his modelling to validate 

 

Archival tape -- Angus Taylor’s department representative:

our own 

 

Archival tape -- Senate estimates committee speaker: 

your own modelling, which is then been given to cabinet as 

 

Archival tape -- Angus Taylor’s department representative:

that's correct 

 

Archival tape -- Senate estimates committee speaker: 

as a use for the net zero conversation?

 

Archival tape -- Angus Taylor’s department representative:

That's right 

 

MIKE:

What was not made clear in estimates was exactly what role he had played in doing that work for Taylor's department. So I rang Fisher to ask for more detail. I left a message. 

 

And somewhat to my surprise, he rang back and he was quite affable, if a little guarded as we talked about it. 

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

And so I was engaged to try and give them some guidance on how best to run particular sims in the model basically

 

MIKE:

So anyway, when I spoke to him, I asked about his involvement in this modelling and he told me that there was more to it than had been revealed so far. And he said, quoting There is potentially other work that might be mentioned in the future. I do have a contract, and I can't discuss it with you. 

 

Archival tape -- Brian Fisher:

So I haven't been involved in the modelling directly. Just trying to help them make sure that they don't make silly mistakes.

 

MIKE:

So exactly what that means, I don't know. But what we do know, what is crystal clear is that the modelling is indicating vastly different incomes this time, to what it did in 2019. 

 

RUBY:

OK, So what is the modelling indicating this time and how different is it from what was published before the last election? 

 

MIKE:

Well the interesting thing is this time around, unlike 2019, Morrison is not saying emissions reductions targets will wreck the economy. He's boasting about reaching net zero while boosting the economy. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

We won't just be measuring the fact that we'll be reducing emissions. We'll be measuring the fact that we're creating jobs. We'll be measuring the fact that we're boosting incomes.

 

MIKE:

Morrison says that Australia's gross national income will grow 1.6 per cent under the plan, that nearly 62000 new regional mining and heavy industry jobs will be created and that the average Australian will be nearly $2000 better off. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

We will be measuring the fact that we are preserving Australians' livelihoods right across the country. Because that is also one of the key measures of performance and success with this plan.

 

MIKE:

So, what is clear is that the modelling the government is relying on to lend credibility to its climate policy at this election, is starkly at odds with the Fisher modelling it used to lend credibility to it at the last election. 

 

RUBY:

OK, so why is that, Mike? Why is the modelling producing such a different outcome on the same topic, that topic being the economic impacts of addressing climate change three years on? 

 

MIKE:

Well, good question. So I went looking for people who actually understand the sort of arcane details of modelling. And one economist I spoke to who had 20 years experience in the field, modelling first with ABARE when it was headed by Fisher, and then for several big consulting firms. 

 

He told me that historically, even the best intentioned modellers tend to make conservative assumptions and that as a result, they don't always get it right. 

 

But they also told me that ABARE had led the world, literally led the world in the politicisation of modelling. And that Brian Fisher, when he was executive director of ABARE, had played a big role in that. 

 

He said ABARE had spent a lot of time and money converting what were essentially theoretical academic style approaches to modelling - into making it a tool that spoke, as he put it, the language of government, and that could be used to convince the public that these models were producing numbers that made sense in a political context. 

 

RUBY:

OK. And so what do you make of all of this, Mike, because we are increasingly relying on modelling? You know, we did so a lot last year during the pandemic. We relied on models to work out when we're getting out of lockdown, and they're obviously critical to understanding the impacts of climate change and working out a pathway to meet that challenge.

 

But if modelling is becoming something that's increasingly political, then how can we trust the integrity of the models that we need to rely on? 

 

MIKE:

Well, it's a hard question. I think people tend to give too much credit to modelling as being an exact science - it's not. 

 

What comes out of models depends on what assumptions are fed into the models. People place different emphasis on the competing interests of the economy versus the environment. And there are vested interests. 

 

You know, I'm not suggesting that this is entirely ill motivated, and I'm certainly not suggesting it of Brian Fisher. The political reality, though, is that Fisher's projections are increasingly being seen as outliers. 

 

But you know what? You don't need models to tell you that we're in a climate crisis. You only need to observe the empirical evidence of rising sea levels of melting ice caps of fires and storms, of unprecedented ferocity of growing hordes of climate refugees, et cetera.

 

When COVID hit, the world didn't muck around modelling the economic cost of dealing with it, it acted decisively. And this doesn't seem to be what's happening here. 

 

This seems to be the Morrison government again, using modelling for a political end, which is to say: Hey, we're doing enough, we don't need to do any more. 

 

RUBY:

Mike, thank you so much for your time. 

 

MIKE:

No worries, thank you. 

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today

 

There’s been a dramatic development in the case of William Tyrell, who went missing in 2014 when he was three-years-old. On Tuesday Police searched Tyrell's foster grandmother's home in Kendall on the NSW Mid-Coast, and have identified a new person of interest. 

 

Despite hundreds of police searches and a one million dollar reward, Tyrell has never been found and nobody has been charged over his disappearance and suspected murder.

 

And The Northern Territory has recorded nine new COVID-19 cases overnight, bringing the total number of cases in the Katherine and Robinson River outbreak to 11. 

 

The Chief Minister Michael Gunner said all the new cases were Aboriginal people and household contacts of the two cases confirmed yesterday.

 

The region is currently in a snap lockdown. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

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