A challenge to the PM to lift his game

Effective climate action in Australia is looking farther away than ever, but it’s not an impossible task. [25 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

In early July 1971, Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam stirred a hornets nest when he shook hands in Beijing with Zhou Enlai, premier of the country we knew and feared as “Red” China.

Gough Whitlam meets with Zhou Enlai, Premier of China, in Beijing, July 1971. BELOW: The telegram that started it all [WHITLAM INSTITUTE, SYDNEY]

Gough Whitlam meets with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing, July 1971. BELOW: The telegram that started it all, 14 April 1971 [WHITLAM INSTITUTE, SYDNEY]

Sensing electoral advantage, prime minister William McMahon and others in the Coalition went on the attack, labelling Whitlam a communist puppet who’d been duped by China’s leaders into taking the side of Australia’s enemies in Vietnam.

Their fun at Whitlam’s expense ended abruptly just 10 days later, when US president Richard Nixon announced that he would visit China in 1972. McMahon never recovered from the shock.

How times have changed. In welcoming China’s president Xi Jinping to Parliament House last week, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, acknowledged Whitlam’s bold vision in putting aside ideology to pave the way for what is now our most important trading relationship.

It would be nice to think that Abbott fully grasps the universal truths about leadership revealed by Whitlam’s China visit, about exploring new paradigms and cutting across established boundaries.

If so, it would be even better to think he might find a way to put these into practice. There’s no time like the present, with his prime ministership and government now stuck up several policy dead-ends, the result of blinkered ideological thinking.

The signs weren’t good in the lead-up to the G20 meeting in Brisbane. An early mistake was trying to keep climate off the agenda, driven by his position that climate and the economy are two separate, discrete entities. It’s a position he shares with treasurer Joe Hockey.

As the G20 wound down, Hockey was asked by Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders program whether he accepted that climate change was potentially one of the biggest impediments to economic growth. “No, no I don’t – absolutely not,” was Hockey’s emphatic reply.

Science tells us that human-induced climate change is with us now and will have a rising impact on our lives. Whether we deal with it or not there’s a large and rising cost attached, which must affect economic growth. Hockey’s response makes sense only if he denies the science.

Two days later came the news that the Indian government, through its State Bank of India, was offering a $US1 billion line of credit to Adani Mining, an Indian-owned company struggling for private funding to exploit Queensland’s huge Galilee Basin coal reserves.

Campbell Newman’s Queensland government is throwing in hundreds of millions dollars for port and rail infrastructure. Newman shares with Abbott a passion to see Galilee reserves exploited.

But it’s a doomed passion. Private investors are staying away in droves, spooked by announcements that India’s and China’s long-term energy policies will be focusing increasingly on renewables.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi made positive noises about coal while in Australia, but in India Modi’s energy minister Piyush Goyal is moving in an altogether different direction, declaring a firm policy to develop renewable energy and phase out coal imports.

In China, a government think-tank analysis released last week found that to meet its pledge to have its emissions peaking by 2030, China will have to begin cutting coal consumption in its industrial east before 2020. Not a nice prospect for Australian coal exports to China.

The Abbott government’s support for a doomed coal industry and its separation of economy and climate are wins for ideology over commonsense. If that problem persists we’re in deep trouble.

The government faces multiple policy imponderables mainly of its own making. Not least of these is Direct Action, a friendless climate policy that’s failed to win scientific or economic endorsement. In its present form it’s a dodo, incapable of flying and headed for extinction.

The evidence is mounting that ditching the carbon price scheme in July was a serious error. Pitt & Sherry electricity market specialist Hugh Saddler has discerned from July onwards a distinct upward movement in both black and brown coal generation, and a downward shift in renewables.

There’s always hope. One prospect is a new post-2020 climate treaty with China. Two of that country’s recent bilateral agreements, with the US on limiting carbon emissions and with Australia on free trade, provide an opening.

Given China’s determination to ratchet up renewable energy production and its expressed interest in helping other countries develop infrastructure, like very fast rail systems, such a treaty could provide a huge shot in the arm to clean energy and transport infrastructure in Australia.

At the same time, with international pressure for more ambitious emissions targets it’s clear that we won’t have a hope of lifting ours without both a price on carbon and a modified “direct action”, with teeth, to plug inevitable gaps.

To achieve this Abbott would need a good measure of Whitlam’s big thinking. His handling of the Ebola crisis isn’t encouraging, but you never know. The threat of oblivion is a great motivator.

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