The Politics    Monday, May 15, 2023

The poisoned portfolio

By Rachel Withers

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek speaks to the media

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek speaks to the media in Brisbane, May 15, 2023. Image © Jono Searle / AAP Images

Even Tanya Plibersek sounded unconvinced by her feeble defence of the Isaac River coalmine

Tanya Plibersek must be seething. The environment minister this morning had the unenviable task of defending her decision to greenlight a coalmine – her first such decision, but unlikely her last. While Plibersek was ostensibly on RN to talk about plans to establish a national flood warning network, questions quickly turned to Isaac River, an approval that was quietly passed late on Thursday. “What was your rationale for that decision?” host Patricia Karvelas asked, noting the IPCC says existing project emissions are already enough to push us beyond 1.5C. “I need to make decisions in accordance with the facts and the national environmental law,” Plibersek replied, noting that it was a “small project”, and would be producing metallurgical coal, needed for steelmaking (it’s not). “Do you believe as environment minister that keeping warming below 1.5 degrees is still a viable option?” Karvelas probed. “We absolutely need to do our very best as a country and as a planet to do that, and that’s why I’m so pleased to be part of a government that has legislated net zero,” the minister said half-heartedly. It sounded like Plibersek, usually a seasoned media performer, was struggling to convince even herself, as the poisoned chalice that is the environment portfolio threatens to damage both her and the planet.

This was bound to happen eventually, what with the Albanese government’s baffling determination to push ahead with new coal and gas projects. But this is the first time since the post-election reshuffle – widely seen as a demotion or punishment of Anthony Albanese’s main left-wing rival – that Plibersek has been forced to do the dirty work on coal. (She has previously knocked back other mines, including one belonging to Clive Palmer.) The minister’s lukewarm answers this morning said it all: she wasn’t supposed to be the one fronting up to defend Labor’s ongoing approval of coal, and she’d clearly much rather still be in the education portfolio. The fact that former environment spokesperson Terri Butler isn’t around to do it, having lost her seat to the Greens in Brisbane, should send shivers down Plibersek’s spine. Resources Minister Madeleine King also cops it, while Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen is happy to steamroll critics. But neither of them is facing a Greens threat in their electorates. And it is Plibersek who is going to continue to appear in cartoons such as this, as well as feature in legal challenges and damning international news coverage, regardless of how she feels personally. (This morning’s interview felt akin, many noted, to when Tony Abbott tasked Malcolm Turnbull with demolishing the NBN, messing up his reputation, and leaving him unable to offer a serious-sounding defence of what he was doing.)

In Chloe Hooper’s profile of Plibersek from last year, the environment minister insisted that she wasn’t mad about her apparent demotion (or “political kneecapping” as Hooper put it). But if she’s genuinely not mad, she should be. In that August interview, Plibersek spoke of “relishing” the portfolio’s “intellectual challenge”. But far from being intellectually challenged, Plibersek is being humiliated as she defends the indefensible with a straight face and climate denialist talking points. This morning’s claim, that she is acting “in accordance with the facts”, has prompted widespread derision, considering, well, the facts of climate change. “How about the science?” tweeted economist Greg Jericho. Plibersek says she is acting in accordance with environmental laws, which the government claims restrict it from stopping a project without proving its emissions would cause substantial climate effects on matters of national environmental significance. But, as Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted in response to this morning’s interview, “the law is broken”, as she called for a climate trigger.

Whatever the law is, Plibersek is now the one responsible for implementing it – and for defending Labor’s lacklustre environmental policy. As Hooper pointed out to Plibersek in that profile, environment comes with a different responsibility than most portfolios, because she has a responsibility for extinction. “I actually do feel that responsibility really strongly,” she told Hooper, adding that she had to behave in line with her moral compass. “And all I can really say is, I’ll do my best.” It was a phrase she echoed in this morning’s interview. You almost had to feel sorry for Tanya Plibersek, as she struggled to defend the indefensible. Almost. Plibersek must be seething over the position she has been put in. But it is the planet that is boiling, and no amount of cute photos with koalas will make up for the long-term damage being done.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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