The Politics    Thursday, November 30, 2023

Spin of omission

By Rachel Withers

Image of Chris Bowen

Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen arrives for Question Time in the House of Representatives, November 30, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

What is the point of a ministerial climate update that doesn’t mention our emissions are still rising?

It’s a weird day when shadow minister for climate and energy Ted O’Brien starts making some sense. Rising to speak after Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen delivered the second Annual Climate Change Statement in the House, O’Brien noted that Bowen hadn’t actually mentioned in his remarks whether our emissions had gone up or down in the past year. They rose 0.8 per cent in the year to June, experts and journalists quickly pointed out, with Australia still not on track to meet its 2030 target. As O’Brien noted, Bowen had withheld the official figures until only a few hours prior to his speech. In fact, for most people, they weren’t available until the minister started speaking, meaning analysts were rushing to skim the report. O’Brien’s intentions weren’t pure – his party has little interest in seeing emissions go down or understanding why they aren’t, and it wasn’t long before he started ranting about Labor’s promise to bring down power prices. But he was right to question the “accountability and transparency” of a process that involves the minister proselytising about all his great plans and talking up the need to do more, while failing to explain where things are actually at. To quote O’Brien, “I’m afraid the minister is making mockery of it.”

Of course, it wasn’t long before O’Brien took things too far, dramatically decrying the rise in emissions that his side of politics has actively contributed to. But it was nevertheless strange to find myself in agreement with the shadow minister when it came to Bowen’s “bluster”. There is not much point listening to Bowen if you want to understand the real story. The minister is expected to speak to the statement, a key element of the government’s Climate Change Act, in parliament. But the only thing that matters is what the data says. And the data is not good. The independent advice from the Climate Change Authority says that we are still not on track to meet our 2030 emissions target, nor our domestic renewable energy target. The advice is, as Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy summarises, “several versions of HURRY UP”.

In Bowen’s defence, he did repeatedly tell parliament that the job is “far from done”, even if he didn’t say just how far from done. Last week’s big renewables announcement – which several experts I’ve spoken to can’t seem to make much sense of – was an admission that we are not on track to meet our renewables target of 82 per cent. Bowen’s latest speech contained the usual call to action to become a “renewable energy superpower”, noting the opportunities of net zero and the security risks of global heating (time to release that secret report?). But much like last year’s statement, there was little mention of the fact that we are continuing to approve and fund new coal and gas projects, the very thing that is driving the climate crisis.

There were several other things missing from Bowen’s speech, as The Australia Institute noted, including the $11.1 billion spent by federal and state governments on fossil fuel subsidies in 2022–23, the alarming growth of the gas industry, the fact that parliament has just passed sea dumping legislation, or the fact that Australia is still contributing massively to global emissions through its export of gas and coal, regardless of how our domestic targets are going. Former editor of The Monthly Nick Feik observed that the climate statement is not unlike the annual Closing the Gap statement. The message boils down to: “We’ve got big plans and we’re working hard (doing exactly the thing that hasn’t worked before) but for some reason the actual data isn’t bending to our public relations statements.”

This is all getting a bit repetitive, with Bowen talking up his government’s progress and achievements, and telling us that we are “in striking distance” of our (insufficient) 2030 emissions goal, when the data tells us the opposite. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we are being gaslit here, subjected to episode after episode of the emperor’s new clothes (also known as carbon capture and storage). Bowen knows things are not on track. But how are Australians going to ever get on board with what must be done if he won’t be upfront about just how bad things are?

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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