Zali Steggall’s bold move for a national climate Act

Despite a lack of interest in the major parties, the Steggall bill may yet get traction

Last week Zali Steggall, the skier turned barrister who ousted former PM Tony Abbott from his blue-ribbon seat of Warringah nine months ago, unveiled what’s been keeping her busy lately: her framework legislation on climate change.

Modelled on the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008, it seeks to emulate its predecessor’s success in drawing opposing parties together and creating a tamper-proof institution to determine the general direction of the country’s climate policies into the indefinite future.

The UK legislation was a joint achievement by Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s conservative opposition. There is no such cross-party effort happening here, so Steggall has stepped up, supported by some other independents including Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie.

Our sad history on climate change policy says this will be like climbing a mountain, but Steggall has climbed mountains before. Though born in Manly, where she has lived for many years, she spent most of her childhood with her family in the French Alps, where she learned to ski exceptionally well.

It was a privileged upbringing, but that’s not the whole story. In 1999 she was world’s best in the slalom, a sport virtually unknown in her own country, and she remains the only Australian to win any world title in alpine skiing. Talent and luck no doubt played a part, but so did grit and effort.

Another thing she learned from skiing was a deep love of the alpine environment and an awareness of the rhythms of weather and climate. It was a given that her campaign would focus on climate change and Abbott’s well-known denial of its human cause.

Steggall won Warringah, held by the Liberal party and its predecessors since it was created nearly a century ago, with more first-preference votes than Abbott himself. Her final winning margin was over 14 per cent, a fact not lost on other inner-city Liberal MPs like Trent Zimmerman.

Nine months into her term Steggall has managed to draft framework climate legislation mandating processes for targets, actions and reporting, including binding legal commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement and to a 2050 target of net zero emissions.

The bill’s centrepiece is an independent Climate Change Commission, whose role Steggall described as “to assess risks, advise Parliament and monitor climate change actions and impacts.” Like the UK committee on which it is modelled, it would be at arm’s length from government.

Scientific, economic and administrative expertise would be well represented in the commission, which would be tasked with reviewing climate changes including water availability, plant cover and air quality, and assessing risks each year, taking in international climate and trade policies.

The proposed legislation would lay down principles for Australia’s international engagement on climate. It would provide for five-year emissions budgets and plans to be set in advance, with safeguards to ensure the pathway to the long-term target is both achievable and equitable.

It would also require government to set five-year national and regional adaptation plans, taking in nominated sectors such as agriculture, biodiversity, health, energy, transport, education, planning and infrastructure.

“A large and growing majority of Australians”, says Steggall, expect their government to abandon “fear mongering and misinformation” and plan for Australia to become a low carbon economy drawing on “our enormous natural, human and financial wealth.”

Some inner-metropolitan Liberals like Zimmerman are wondering aloud whether they should agree, but the broad Coalition view, expressed by Nationals leader Michael McCormack on Sunday, is that coal jobs and export income are more important than the science telling us that global emissions must fall to net zero by 2050, preferably much earlier.

Since 2010, when Abbott began the campaign that ultimately trashed Julia Gillard’s national carbon price scheme, the Coalition has failed to grasp that cutting emissions is like stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus: a real imperative that business-as-usual cannot deal with. Now another woman is trying to get a bunch of clueless blokes to lift their gaze and see what we’re facing.

Steggall’s draft bill has a long way to go. The Morrison government is not going to offer help to the woman who replaced its former leader, even just to get a debate, and Labor is not currently inclined to help. So that would seem to be that.

But nothing is ever certain in these unusual times. This summer’s fire and flood experiences, and some missteps by the Morrison government, have disturbed people’s comfort zone and shifted the mood in the electorate. If that mood persists, the unlikely might become possible. You never know.

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