The Politics    Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Promised bland

By Rachel Withers

Image of Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek at the National Press Club, July 19, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek at the National Press Club, July 19, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Nothing, it seems, will sway Labor from its “promise” to not do enough to combat global warming

The Albanese government has released the long-awaited 2021 “State of the Environment” report, a damning document that was intentionally buried by the former government. The results are predictably grim, with mining and climate change found to be key contributors to our dramatically declining ecosystems. Speaking to the report today, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek slammed the Coalition, in particular the former environment minister and now Liberal deputy Sussan Ley, who was responsible for burying it. In her National Press Club speech, Plibersek took a few whacks at the previous government for ignoring the science before announcing a suite of measures, including a pledge to respond to the overlooked Samuel review by the end of the year, plans to develop new environmental legislation by 2023, and a new goal of protecting 30 per cent of our land and oceans by 2030. It was difficult, however, to listen to Plibersek announce such initiatives while remaining stubbornly committed to Labor’s 43 per cent emissions-reduction “floor” and refusing to rule out new coal and gas projects. Why invest billions to protect the environment while carrying on with the very activities that are destroying it? Why not seize this moment as an imperative to go further on climate action?

That was the question on many people’s lips today, including the Greens and several of the journalists present for Plibersek’s speech. The opening query, in fact, was on the government’s 43 per cent target, with Australian reporter Sarah Ison asking if it was still good enough for Labor to stick by it given what the report had found. “We made a promise to the Australian people, and we will keep that promise as a government,” Plibersek replied. A follow-up question from SBS’s Pablo Viñales pointed out that Labor had made that 2030 commitment before it saw the report, and asked whether the findings might prompt a reassessment. That prompted an awkward non-answer from Plibersek, who ignored emissions and said the government did not plan to go beyond its new 2030 land protection target. Another member of the press club later completed the trifecta, pointing out to Plibersek that this new information surely “absolved” Labor of needing to stick to its previous pledges. “We’re not going to start breaking promises,” she repeated, a farcical answer that implied no amount of damning new evidence could compel Labor to veer from its plainly inadequate course.

Truly, it’s hard to think of a better or more immediate excuse for Labor to boost its climate ambition than this catastrophic report (other than, of course, those catastrophic “one in 100 years” floods that keep hitting the east coast). As Plibersek kept saying today, the report calls for urgent reforms – urgent reforms that the government intends to take, just not when it comes to its emissions-reduction target, which fails to live up to the definition of a target. The government is no doubt worried about any accusation of breaking a promise on its 2030 goal, and it is also reluctant to be seen to be bending to the Greens. But with the Coalition and the Murdoch media having sidelined themselves when it comes to climate change, whose criticism is Labor worried about? And what respectable commentator would admonish it for responding to the evidence, for going further, following the climate-driven election result we’ve just seen?

Plibersek’s comments today point to the exasperating inflexibility at the heart of the government’s position. Labor knows – and it has always known – that we need to go harder on emissions reduction (after all, it went to the 2019 election with a 45 per cent 2030 target). But for reasons that may have more than a little to do with its fossil-fuel donors, it has decided to lock itself into a target, declaring it has a rock-solid “mandate” that cannot be altered by new evidence, damning reports or disappearing species. The more Labor says it would be a broken promise for it to improve on its 2030 targets, the more it makes it so.

For weeks now, anyone who has suggested Labor should increase its climate ambition – as it so easily could have by citing the floods, the energy crisis, this report, or the deadly heat waves raging across Europe – has been told that they are asking the government to break an “election promise”. Unfortunately, as we have learnt today, the government would rather let our sick nation get sicker than change its mind in the face of the changing facts.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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