The shameless Australian political pragmatism hampering global climate action

A by-election demonstrates the power of coal in Australian politics

A little local election has brought out the most shameless pandering to an industry you’re ever likely to see, at least in a developed democracy.

And it’s a microcosm that explains why Australia will continue to drag the chain on global climate action.

In the seat of Upper Hunter, just over three hours north of Sydney, the truth about the dire economic future of coal and the facts about coal’s contribution to climate change are not merely ignored.

To mention these truths is twisted into a betrayal of working-class values, entire communities, families, and Australia itself.

The Upper Hunter is a traditional coal mining area, and 14% of its population is employed in the industry.

The ruling coalition’s National Party have never lost the seat before but they’re barely holding on, and if they do lose, the coalition’s majority in parliament goes too. Unfortunately, the reason for the by-election is that the sitting member was accused of rape and sexting a prostitute from the floor of parliament. Not a great start.

So, the desperate government decided to tell constituents what they wanted to hear.

Despite its own reports discussing the phase out of thermal coal mining, the State Treasurer announced the National Party’s candidate for the seat at an open cut coal mine and wrote, “the death of coal has been greatly exaggerated” claiming only extremists would suggest otherwise.

And the State National’s Leader, John Barilaro went further, declaring, “Coal mining will be part of this landscape today and forever,” adding a bizarre, emotional ode to a coal train on Twitter.

Not to be out done, the opposition Labor Party selected an actual coal miner as its candidate. Jeff Drayton proclaimed, “Every time I open the newspaper or every time I turn the TV on I see somebody having a go at coal miners and that has to stop.”

And the Labor party leader supported more coal mines saying, “Our coal is clean, it’s efficient, and where there’s a market for it, we should be selling.”

Such is the desire to win at all costs, that the head of the Clean Energy Board, former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was sacked one week after being appointed. His crime? Writing a letter, long before his appointment, against the expansion of a coal mine. The letter ended up on the front page of the powerful Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph newspaper, threatening the government’s pro-coal pantomime.

The cosplay of politicians, their media advisors and journalists in hi-vis and hard hats is not just disingenuous, it shows the utter power of the coal and resources lobby across the country.

Australia is one of the largest exporters of coal and gas in the world. If you add its domestic and exported emissions, it’s carbon footprint is on par with Russia. While many of the companies don’t pay tax in Australia they are some of the biggest funders of State Governments through royalties, and several are also the largest political donors.

The industry’s power was most famously flexed in 2009 against Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who had proposed a 40% tax on mining ‘super profits’. The mining industry spent $17.5m (AUS) on a campaign to fight the tax — twice the budget of the Government. The ads were played an average of 33 times a day on TV. Kevin Rudd was soon out of a job.

Now, any politician who criticises coal or gas, knows they could be next.

Since 2009, Australia’s list of delays, distractions and deceptions on greenhouse gas emissions at home and abroad is lengthy indeed. Last years’ Climate Change Performance Index, ranked it 56th overall and the worst in the world on national and international climate policies, calling it a “regressive force”.

But with Joe Biden in the White House, there’s less wiggle room for current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who famously brandished a lump of coal in parliament.

In response to Biden’s strong climate platform, Scott Morrison made the insignificant concession that Australia should get to net zero “as soon as possible”. He also appointed a former Chief Scientist to spruik the country’s weak emissions plans to the international community and trotted out the U.S. ambassador for some hand-picked public relations opportunities

But that is all it is — PR. There’s still no 2050 goal, no stronger 2030 commitments and absolutely no plans to phase out coal. At Biden’s climate summit and COP26 this year, instead expect weasel words about a ‘strong commitment’ to ‘clean technologies’ or ‘lower emissions’ that allow Australia to get richer while the world warms.

Helping people achieve their objectives through compelling stories and effective strategies. Co-founder Communicators Declare.