Is Dutton restarting the climate wars, or just turning up the heat on a wobbly government?

With polls heading in his direction, Peter Dutton has taken aim at at a familiar target to keep the ball rolling, writes Michelle Grattan

Jun 10, 2024, updated Jun 10, 2024
Climate cronies: Australian Opposition Leader Peter Dutton listens to shadow Energy Minister Ted O’Brien during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, June 3, 2024. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Climate cronies: Australian Opposition Leader Peter Dutton listens to shadow Energy Minister Ted O’Brien during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, June 3, 2024. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

In his latest foray into the climate change debate, Peter Dutton has sown fresh confusion around the opposition’s policy, whether intentionally or by failing to spell out what he means.

It’s yet more frustration for potential investors in the energy and other clean industry sectors who crave greater certainty about where Australian policy could go over coming years.

In an interview with the Weekend Australian, Dutton claimed the Albanese government “just have no hope of achieving the targets and there’s no sense signing up to targets you don’t have any prospect of achieving”.

So presumably the Coalition goes to the election opposing the 43% emissions reduction target to which Australia is committed under the Paris climate agreement. But what does that actually mean?

Australia can’t simply rewrite its Paris target – which Labor also legislated – to reduce it. So, is Dutton saying that a government he led would leave the Paris Agreement?

No, says opposition energy spokesman Ted O’Brien.

“We are committed to Paris, the 2050 net zero target,” he said at the weekend.

But “the 43% by 2030 is unachievable. If you look at the centrepiece of Labor’s entire policy, it is 82% renewables by 2030. At best they’re running at half pace.

This will not happen. And the more that Labor pretends to the Australian people and the international community, they set Australia up to fail,” O’Brien said.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen claims Australia is “on track” to meet the target, although there’s dispute about that, which is one reason gas is now being talked up by the government.

Dutton seems to be simply declaring a Coalition government would just ignore the target, paving the way to cut back Australia’s efforts to meet it.

“We’re not going to destroy agriculture. We’re not going to stifle investment. We’re already seeing investment being withdrawn,” he said in the interview.

“We’re not going to create sovereign risk with our export partners, as Labor is doing with Japan and Korea.”

Once again, the Nationals are to the fore in wanting to apply the handbrake on climate action – this time on the accelerated rollout of renewables and the (often unpopular) power lines that carry them.

“What we’re saying is, let’s pause and let’s get this right,” Nationals leader David Littleproud said. He said it was “totally false” to believe failure to meet the 2030 target would “see us kicked out” of the Paris agreement.

“We are committed to our 2050 target.” Helped, according to the Coalition, by the yet-to-be-unveiled nuclear power policy.

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Some Nationals don’t like the 2050 target but the Coalition leadership is keeping the minority party locked to it. After all, 2050 is a long time away, in political terms. And Dutton walking away noisily from the 2030 target will help mollify the 2050 sceptics.

On the other hand, he will have given a fillip to the “teal” independents, for whom climate change ambition is a major issue. Kooyong MP Monique Ryan told the Guardian,

“They’re just trying to keep the door open for as long as possible for coal and gas and they’ll say anything in the meantime”. For Dutton, winning back teal seats comes behind the priority he gives to outer suburbia and the regions (although he has visited the teals seats of North Sydney and Curtin as well as Kooyong in recent weeks).

Leaving aside the domestic politics, vociferously rejecting a target to which Australia has committed would carry international consequences. Once again, Australia would be on the outer on climate issues.

These days, with climate action written into various trade and security policies by other countries, that could carry significant economic costs, if not sovereign risk.

The 2030 target is not the only one on the medium term horizon. By February, the government has to produce a 2035 target. That is before the likely time for the election.

It could be a challenge for Labor, especially if there is still a question mark over the pace at which we are moving to reach the 2030 commitment.

We can bet the house on the Coalition rejecting whatever Labor comes up with for 2035.

Labor will be pulled in different directions. Its rhetoric, plus the need to hold votes against inroads from the Greens, will push it towards ambition. But the need to appeal to the voters in the outer suburbs, where it is competing with the Coalition, could work against being too bold.

Most Australians want global warming tackled. But in tough times, many become more worried about the costs involved.

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at Canberra University. This article first appeared in The Conversation and is republished here under Creative Commons Licence

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