Scandals, climate take toll on Australia’s Abbott

It hasn’t taken long for Australia’s new government to feel the chill of voter dissatisfaction. Less than 100 days in fact.

A damaging scandal over ministerial expenses, a row with Indonesia over spying allegations, an embarrassing backflip on education funding and the gutting of the previous Labor government’s climate policies have all hurt the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, according to opinion polls.

And then were was Abbott’s refusal to accept a link between global warming and a greater chance of more intense bushfires, just as blazes swept through large areas of New South Wales state in October, leaving hundreds homeless.

The athletic Abbott is now seen as far less the man of action who swept Labor from power in September and more a leader besieged by mounting problems.

Abbott, though, seems unworried and is determined to roll back on climate change policies, despite the government’s own Bureau of Meteorology saying 2013 is likely to be the hottest in Australia’s recorded history.

Voters, though, do seem worried by Abbott’s performance.

Recent opinion polls point to a resurgent Labor, the very party Abbott fought bitterly over its carbon pricing scheme. He ran a successful scare campaign before and during the election saying carbon pricing would raise power bills, hurt industry and cost jobs. None of those came true.

In late November, a Newspoll survey revealed the ruling Coalition’s primary vote dipped to 43 per cent (from 45 percent two weeks prior) while a Fairfax-Nielsen poll showed a primary vote of  41 per cent. On a two-party preferred basis, Labor led the government 52 percent to 48 percent.

The majority of respondents in the latter poll were in favour of Abbott’s drive to repeal carbon pricing legislation, which will require agreement by the Senate. That seems unlikely, with Labor and the Greens set to vote against the repeal bill in the upper house this week.

However, respondents to the poll expressed an overwhelming belief in the reality of climate change, with nearly nine in 10 voters – or 87 per cent – judging the 5 per cent emission reduction target for 2020 as either about right (46 per cent) or too low (41 per cent), according to the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

That backs up another recent survey in Australia, which found the majority of respondents wanted more government action on climate change. The survey, seeking the views on a wide range of current topics, received a total of 1.4 million responses. Australia’s population is 23 million people.

An emboldened Labor party and the Greens have made clear they will fight Abbott all the way on climate. Last week, Labor and the Greens teamed up to force a Senate inquiry into the Abbott government’s Direct Action plan to curb emissions.

Direct Action has been touted by Abbott and his Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, as a more cost-effective way to cut emissions and to achieve Australia’s pledge cut carbon pollution by 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.

The problem is, the government has not fully explained how the scheme will work. The details that have been released have been panned by analysts, Labor and the Greens as costly, flawed and doomed to fail. Some industry players, though, support it.


The Senate inquiry would also scrutinize the government’s policy to repeal a price on carbon and scrap the Climate Change Authority and the multi-billion dollar Clean Energy Finance Corporation, both created by the previous government. The authority advises on carbon pricing and the corporation helps leverage private financing of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

“This will expose how Direct Action is just a slogan,” said Greens leader and senator Christine Milne of the inquiry. “I hope it will be able to expose just how expensive it is, but also how dubious the plan is,” she said in comments in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Hunt disagreed and was quoted in the same paper saying: “We won’t stop until we have repealed the carbon tax and taken practical action to clean up our power stations, improve energy efficiency and clean up our landscapes.”

Abbott wants to replace the carbon pricing scheme with a $2.55 billion emissions reduction fund that the Greens say can’t be scaled up.

The final design of the fund is still being worked out but the idea is to set emissions intensity baselines for industries and power generators based on five-year historical averages. Companies that beat those baselines would be paid for the emission cuts they achieve.

But Reputex, which does emissions research in Australia,  say that any baseline set purely on physical production is likely to be flawed since emissions intensity is steadily falling in Australia. That means most of the carbon cuts the government wants to achieve have already been made and much of the fund would become windfall payments to polluters.

“As a result, nearly $2 billion of the government’s total $2.55 billion ERF could be spent acquiring ‘grey’ emissions reductions,” said Bret Harper, head of research at Reputex, told Reuters.

He said the biggest polluters would stand to gain the most from the arrangements because the more companies emit, the more emission reduction credits they could get. This meant the baselines needed to be much tighter.

A separate study by Reputex earlier this year, estimated that Direct Action would lead to emissions growth of 16 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020, driven by higher power and industrial sector emissions. To meet Australia’s unconditional 5 per cent emissions reduction target, additional funding of $5.9 billion per year would be required – or an additional $35 billion in total.

Abbott and Hunt are likely to face more intense scrutiny of their keystone Direct Action climate policy as its final shape becomes clearer. And minor parties that the government will rely on in the Senate from next July to pass the carbon price repeal legislation have yet to fully support the bill.

There is, too, the spectre of more extreme weather as the current summer, Australians’ favourite time of year, really gets cooking. Summer is cyclone season.

A recent profile of Hunt described him as a weather vane, contrasting the man who believes in the science of climate change with the politician who rejects emissions trading in favour of a still-undefined direct payments scheme.

Hunt denies he’s sold out his climate beliefs. But he could well find the upcoming political storm makes it much harder to stay true to Abbott’s climate course.

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