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The Bill a decade in the making: Australia’s ‘climate wars’ explained

Labor this month successfully passed their climate bill through the lower house with amendments, marking a dramatic change in Australia’s approach to dealing with climate change.

This bill was backed by the Greens, teal independents and Liberal MP Bridget Archer gaining an end-vote of 89 to 55 in favour.

This marks the first definitive act on Australian climate policy in the past decade.

The “climate wars” refer loosely to the period 2009–2014 where Labor, Greens and Liberals clashed on introducing legislation to reduce carbon emissions.

Kate Crowley, Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Policy at the University of Tasmania, says the climate wars really started “when climate change became weaponised as a political issue, as a means of gaining power in a political party”.

The Bill a decade in the making: Australia’s ‘climate wars’ explained

Associate Professor Kate Crowley. Picture: Twitter

“It was really kicked off by Tony Abbott … he used it to roll Malcolm Turnbull, who was the opposition leader,” she says.

The Greens and Labor Party also have historically clashed on climate policy, with the Greens believing that Labor’s approach to climate change is too “soft”. In 2009, they blocked Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

Bob Brown, then leader of the Greens, loudly rejected the plan, saying it would not reduce emissions enough and was “locking-in failure”.

The Greens did later back the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme which was proven to lower Australia’s emissions during its two-year run.

However, Labor blames the 218 million additional tonnes of carbon pollution since 2010 on the Greens’ lack of support of the CPRS.

The Kyoto Protocol

The catalyst that really got the “climate wars” going was the Kyoto climate negotiations in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol proposed a framework for target quotas of greenhouse gas reduction in industrialised countries.

John Howard, the prime minister at the time, refused to sign the Kyoto agreement and instead demanded that Australia have their target amended.

He failed to get the change he wanted, making Australia one of the only developed countries besides the United States to refuse to participate.

The Rudd Government: Pursuing the “great moral challenge

In 2007, former prime minister John Howard promised if re-elected he would implement an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to help combat the climate crisis.

Instead, Labor leader Kevin Rudd was elected and it fell to him to introduce an ETS.

In Mr Rudd’s famous speech at the 2007 National Climate Summit at Parliament House, he said: “Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.”

He entered leadership with a strong stance on climate policy and proved this by signing the Kyoto Protocol as one of his first acts as prime minister. The Rudd Government then attempted to introduced their Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

The Coalition leader at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, supported a revised CPRS and negotiated with Labor about a potential bipartisan approach in late 2009.

In an interview during this period, Turnbull said: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.”

But his support of the CPRS was divisive for the Liberal party and Mr Turnbull lost his leadership to Tony Abbott soon after.

The CPRS was outvoted twice when brought to parliament; the Greens rejected it both times because they believed “it was bad policy that would have locked in failure to take action on climate change”.

Crowley says a tradition was needed.

To go from the reliance on fossil fuels to transitioning to a low carbon economy with one piece of legislation was just impossible, so something had to be put in place.

“What the Rudd government was proposing to put in place was something that was quite favorable to industry and had a lot of exemptions in place that undermined effectiveness,” she says.

However then leader of the Greens Bob Brown was adamant in his opposition and public condemnation of the CPRS.

Crowley says the Coalition and the Greens allied in their opposition. “The Greens were not to blame entirely for that, but I think they were considerably to blame for the decade of climate wars that followed, because it could have been different.”

“But, to do the Greens credit, it’s a war because they want aggressive action on climate change, they don’t want mild-mannered action on climate change, and they want it accelerated and they want it all now.”

Because of the contentious nature of the CPRS discussions, Mr Rudd chose to defer the policy to 2013, a decision that lost Labor favour in the polls.

The Gillard Government: To carbon tax or not to carbon tax

When Julia Gillard unseated Kevin Rudd in a leadership spill in 2010, she stated there would be “no carbon tax under the government I lead”.

This came back to haunt her when she announced a carbon price in 2012. Her run as prime minister was plagued by critiques of the carbon tax, many from the Abbott-lead Liberal Party, which campaigned against the policy in the lead-up to the next election.

The Gillard government, with the support of the Greens, was able to pass the carbon price through the senate with a close vote of 36-32.

Despite the criticism, there is evidence the carbon price worked.

According to a study by Matt Grudnoff for the Australia Institute on the impacts of the carbon price, “Australia’s emissions declined by approximately 2 per cent, and subsequently increased for the four years after its repeal.”

The Liberal Government: Axe the tax

In the Coalition’s 2013 election campaign, Abbott pledged to repeal the carbon tax and other climate change policies.

He won and the carbon tax was axed soon after, making Australia the first in the world to do so. Both Labor and the Greens voted against the repeal.

Crowley says:

I think the Greens learned their lesson … I haven’t met anybody anywhere, commentators or political types, who think the Greens did the right thing in 2008.

In 2015, Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister after unseating Abbott in a late-night party leadership ballot. Turnbull had the opportunity to make changes to climate policy, especially as he previously backed the CPRS, but no substantial changes were made.

Climate policy was stagnant by the time Morrison took over the leadership; however, Australia faced a horrific bushfire season in 2020 – followed by repeated, devastating floods – and this once again sparked the conversation on a national climate policy.

Morrison’s lack of presence during a national crisis as well as his continued inaction towards reducing carbon emissions in a world quickly prioritising the climate crisis, were key factors in him losing favour with the public.

And now, the Albanese Government

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has now passed Australia’s first climate change legislation in a decade.

This bill will make into law an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

“This Bill records the Government’s ambition to take the country forward on climate action – and it reflects our determination to bring people with us,” he said in a media release.

The Greens supported the bill, and some speculate this decision marks the end of the climate wars.

Greens leader Adam Bandt has been vocal in his desire for more definitive action in stopping emissions.

His campaign slogan reads: “If you don’t have a plan to phase out coal and gas, you don’t have a plan for the climate emergency.”

The Climate Bill has passed the House. But the work to stop Labor's new coal & gas continues. Our communities need a safe climate future. We’re ready to fight for them. The only obstacle now to more action is Labor. — Adam Bandt (@AdamBandt) August 4, 2022

Crowley says: “So far, the Albanese government’s been pretty open to everything, but they won’t say no more coal, oil and gas, the key plank of the teals and the Greens platform.”

Albanese’s election with a record low winning primary vote coincided with a dramatic rise in community support for climate policy, showing in the election of a number of independents on a climate platform, and a record number of Greens in both lower and upper houses of parliament.

The mostly female independent candidates known as the “teals” – Liberal leaning but with strong pro-climate ideas – were community-based and partly funded by the group Climate 200.

They gained traction by unseating prominent Liberal MPs such as the former treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who lost the Kooyong seat to teal independent Monique Ryan.

While Australia’s climate legislation is moving in a positive direction, it’s clear that the Greens and Labor are still aiming for different emission targets.

Albanese is optimistic. “The passing of this bill in the house of representatives starts a new era of climate and energy certainty, one that is well overdue.”


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