Voters of Wentworth can send a message on climate governance

Thursday 11 October 2018

Given the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge, as confirmed by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a major political party without a climate action plan should forfeit the right to govern.

Heavy smoke haze over Sydney from Dover Heights.CREDIT:BROOK MITCHELL
Heavy smoke haze over Sydney from Dover Heights.CREDIT:BROOK MITCHELL

This article by John Hewson was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Wentworth byelection offers a unique opportunity for the electorate to send a clear message to those in government, or who want to be in government, about the intensity of their climate concerns, and to emphasise their willingness to make the transition to a low carbon society with effective political leadership.

With a federal election due by May 18, voters have a chance to register a “protest vote” in the byelection, even though they may return their support to their “traditional” party at that federal election.

While some will undoubtedly want to protest about the “madness” that saw their member Malcolm Turnbull removed, unceremoniously, a decisive protest on climate would hopefully be enough to drive the major players to accept the imperative of an effective climate action plan by next May.

I am not advocating a vote for a particular candidate – sure this is an option, but so is an incomplete ballot.

Given the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge, as confirmed by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a major political party without a climate action plan should forfeit the right to govern.

The challenge is to make the essential transition to a low carbon society by 2050. We, in Australia, have already lost a couple of decades, as our major politicians, across the spectrum, have played short-term, opportunistic politics with the issue – preferring to score points on each other, and to shift the blame, rather than address the challenges.

Even though we made at Paris, modest commitments to emission reductions by 2030, these are well short of what will be required if we are to do our part in achieving the global imperative of at least net zero emissions by 2050.

The Morrison government is simply “spinning the issue” by claiming that we are “on track” to meet our Paris commitments without any over arching, whole-of-economy strategy to achieve those targets, and conspicuously no energy policy beyond “jawboning” the major energy suppliers. To still be here, after some 25 years, is a national disgrace.

This is particularly difficult to understand when most polls and surveys reveal a clear, and increasing, majority of voters want a government-led, decisive climate action plan, with very strong support for an effective transition to renewables, with a managed phase down of coal-fired power. It is very odd, indeed, to ignore such a strong electoral sentiment.

It is also questionable short-term politics. The government has vacated the field to the Opposition who are seen in the polling as “better able” to handle climate, while not being too far behind the government on “best to handle electricity prices”.

Of course, I have been pilloried for expressing this view, especially by some “rusted on” Liberals. What would I know? I should not be the one to give political advice having lost an election.

 

The latest IPCC report has confirmed the magnitude of the challenge on climate change.

The latest IPCC report has confirmed the magnitude of the challenge on climate change.CREDIT:BLOOMBERG

Unfortunately, this does not fit with my sense of democracy - effective citizen participation, freedom of speech, a genuine contest of ideas.

As I made clear in my pre-selection process, I saw myself as an Australian first, and a member of the Liberal Party second. I was proud to represent the Liberal Party, but I always operate in terms of what I see as the “national interest”- it can’t just be “Liberal Right or Wrong”; Liberals were certainly not born to rule!

I have seen my role as attempting to change the Liberal position if it was against the national interest – in my columns before I entered Parliament, while in there, especially as Leader, and since.

I have also been criticised for having “business interests” in renewables and alternative technologies. I became active on the climate issue in the early 1990s. I didn’t get involved in business projects until almost a decade later when our National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development was struggling to interest business in the opportunities that would flow from an effective response to the climate challenge. I have worked on projects in garbage recycling, energy efficient light bulbs, green data centres, bio-energy and fuels, solar and solar thermal generation, and thermal storage – the diversity makes the opportunities point.

I also chaired the Asset Owners Disclosure Project that surveyed, rated and ranked the top 500 global asset owners on their management of climate risks, both because of concern for the mounting risks of a climate-induced global financial crisis, and recognising that investment could be the driving force for change, as governments dithered with various inadequate policy responses. The world is now moving rapidly to compulsory disclosure of such risks.

The climate challenge is bigger than any of our current and prospective politicians. It is a challenge for the next 30-odd years. The policy responses need to be “front-end loaded” – it takes time to change behaviour, industrial and societal structures. It is a transition that can be made cost effectively, with significant “jobs and growth” benefits. The challenge can bring opportunity given our envied endowments of sun and wind and the technologies to use them effectively – we could and should be leading the world on this.

However, to delay in the facile belief that we can wait to respond with a “big bang” in say 2029, or worse 2049, is grossly irresponsible, leaving a massive legacy to our children and grand children to grapple with – a clear case of intergenerational theft. It is irresponsible to take the view that it will not happen on my watch, so I can duck it for now!

Voters today are looking for honesty, authenticity, and outcomes on key issues. They want their politicians to listen, and lead in the national interest. They will cut a government a lot of political slack if it so operates. Voters are fed up with the self-indulgent and absorbed short-term point scoring that just kicks the main issues down the road to our national detriment.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader. He was the member for Wentworth from 1987 to 1995.

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