The Politics    Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Off target

By Rachel Withers

Image of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton arriving for Question Time in the House of Representatives, August 2, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton arrives for Question Time in the House of Representatives, August 2, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The Coalition will formally oppose Labor’s modest 2030 emissions target, declaring the bill a “stunt”

Today was partyroom meeting day, as the caucuses got together to quasi-publicly decide what positions to take on the issues that may define our future. In Labor’s room, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher briefed MPs on a rather un-Labor-like bill to block a claim from retired public servants for superannuation entitlements worth up to $8 billion, for which the government is hoping to secure bipartisan support. PM Anthony Albanese also spoke, declaring his address at the Garma Festival to be “as important a speech as I will give in my life”. All eyes, however, were on the Greens and the Coalition, with both discussing what they intend to do about Labor’s climate bill in the lower house this week. The Greens, whose support will be essential in the Senate, were not able to come to a consensus, and will meet again tonight in what is expected to be a late one. Their position remains that the 43 per cent emissions-reduction target is not enough, but it’s clear at least some party members think that something must be passed. There was no such maturity from the Coalition, however, with the caucus formalising the Opposition leader’s previously unilateral opposition to the bill. The government’s bill is an unnecessary “stunt”, Peter Dutton said – an ironic description from a leader refusing to back a higher target now while promising to lift his party’s 2030 ambitions later. Take your time, guys.

There were a few dissenting voices in the Coalition party room, though not many, with the ranks of so-called moderates having been decimated at the election. Liberal MPs Bridget Archer and James Stevens and Senator Andrew Bragg reportedly all suggested the party support Labor’s target, although none committed to crossing the floor over it. (There was no word on veteran moderate MP Warren Entsch, who overnight said he might support the bill, if he could be shown it wasn’t a “brain fart”.) Opposing the bill, said shadow climate change minister Ted O’Brien, didn’t necessarily mean that the Coalition was against targets. (It is merely against any targets that Labor proposes, it seems.) Dutton and O’Brien announced plans to develop a “detailed and specific policy” before the next election, including tougher emissions-reduction targets, with the party recently having been warned by a strategist not to be “weirdos” on climate. Dutton proposed the party conduct a review into nuclear energy, “to contribute to Australia’s energy security and reduce power prices”. As many were quick to note, Australia has had numerous reviews into nuclear power, with studies repeatedly showing that renewables are the cheapest option available.

It’s profoundly ironic that the Opposition leader would declare Labor’s target bill a “stunt” on the basis that legislating it is unnecessary. The Coalition’s opposition to the bill is, after all, equally meaningless if the target can be set without legislation as it claims. But there’s something especially ridiculous about Dutton crying “stunt” while continuing to spend Question Time posturing. While independent Wentworth MP Allegra Spender used her first ever question to ask the government to justify a 2030 target far lower than what is required (Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen thanked her for her engagement), the Coalition went on treating the entire thing as a joke. Once again, Dutton opened the session by asking Labor whether it could still carry out its promise to cut power bills by $275 a year – a question we might be able to take more seriously if he was bothering to engage on Labor’s climate bill at all. Things did not pick up from there.

For what it’s worth, Dutton does seem to have realised that something’s got to give on climate. Today’s announcement – that the Coalition plans to adopt higher targets ahead of the next election – is being viewed in some corners as a “significant change” in its climate position, driven by that warning not to be “weirdos”. (It may also have something to do with that damning Newspoll, which has seen Dutton dubbed Mr 25% on Twitter, in reference to only a quarter of voters preferring him as PM.) But even as Labor and the Greens inch closer to an agreement, the Coalition remains on the sidelines, refusing to back a modest proposal and happily engaging in ludicrous stunts. Dutton understands, deep down, that the Opposition needs to be taken seriously at the next election if it is to have any chance at success. But it’s hard to see how it expects voters to swallow a change of heart when it refuses to vote for legislation now, when it has the chance.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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