The Politics    Thursday, June 2, 2022

Gaslight on the hill?

By Rachel Withers

Image of Former NSW fire and rescue commissioner Greg Mullins and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at a press conference earlier today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Former NSW fire and rescue commissioner Greg Mullins and Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at a press conference earlier today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Labor’s energy minister’s door may be open, but is that true of his mind?

It was noteworthy that Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen had members of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action – “the group that Scott Morrison refused to meet with” – stand alongside him at today’s presser. While the event was mostly dedicated to the unfolding energy crisis (the government won’t be pulling the gas-market “trigger”, but it will convene a meeting of state ministers), Bowen was eager to foreground the climate leaders he had just met with, adding that Labor would be listening to experts. Former NSW fire and rescue commissioner Greg Mullins said this was a “stark contrast” with the Coalition, which famously refused to heed the group’s warnings ahead of the Black Summer bushfires. “The last government had closed doors and closed minds,” Mullins said, noting that the incoming one had already “opened the door”. Bowen, when pushed on whether he would consider the 75 per cent emissions-reduction target that the group advocates for, returned to crowing about a mandate, claiming that Labor had to stick to its election pledge. (“Forty-three per cent is a lot better than 26–28 per cent,” Mullins said diplomatically.) Labor’s doors may indeed be open. But amid reports it has now backed in Woodside’s Scarborough gas project (which will make its lacklustre 2030 target even harder to achieve), just how open are its minds?

There were other green shoots today, not least the news that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s public service overhaul includes a new mega-department covering climate change, energy, the environment and water, which will advise on implementing climate policies. (It will also, no doubt, advise on reinstating recovery plans for 176 threatened species, which the new Liberal deputy, Sussan Ley, scrapped in one of her final acts as environment minister. Incoming Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has already expressed her concern.) It was also heartening to see Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong standing alongside Samoan prime minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, reaffirming Australia’s commitments on climate. Mata'afa, who has long sought more ambitious targets from Australia, was “greatly encouraged” by Labor’s climate stance, and added a gentle dig at Australia’s former regime. Speaking to reporters, Wong said that climate was the issue she had been most itching to change, while Mata'afa wanted to make it clear that Samoa had not signed any new proposal from the Chinese government.

Bowen, meanwhile, had some promising things to say on coal, telling reports that it was ridiculous for LNP senator Matt Canavan to blame renewables for the coal-related crisis we currently find ourselves in, while blasting the former government for the energy-sector “bin fire” that Labor has been left with.

And yet. Anything positive Bowen and Wong had to say about climate hopes or “listening” to experts today was overshadowed by the news that the Albanese government will be supporting Western Australia’s Scarborough gas project – something that former WA Greens senator Scott Ludlam summarised as “same fight, different faces” when it comes to state capture by fossil-fuel interests. The project is expected to release 1.4 billion tonnes of pollution, and there is practically no evidence to back up claims that liquefied natural gas is less dirty than coal, as Guardian Australia’s Graham Readfearn writes. The approval of Scarborough will only make it harder to achieve our 2030 targets (while also threatening significant Indigenous rock art). There is no way that the “experts” Bowen promises to now be listening to would approve of the project going ahead.

Perhaps the energy minister’s door really is open, and perhaps Labor’s minds are open to change on targets – as Mullins seems to believe they are – as well as on mandates and gas projects. Bowen seems far more likely to listen to the respected former emergency leaders than he does the Greens, who Labor is intent on sidelining for political reasons. Speaking in front of reporters today, Australia’s longest-serving former fire commissioner addressed his most pointed comments on the 2030 target to Bowen. “Minister, we did say today that if you meet and beat 43 per cent, there is a trophy at the end of it for you,” Mullins said. “And that is the safety of our kids and grandkids.”

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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