“We will be talking about our national economic plan every single day. Jobs and growth. Confidence. Australia – its future. That’s what this election is about.”
The words there of Malcolm Turnbull at the start of Australia’s eight-week general election campaign, which he hopes will consolidate his position as prime minister.
What was missing in his opening 10-minute address was any mention of climate change, an issue that polarises Australian politics like no other.
Since John Howard’s 11 years as prime minister ended in 2007, the office has changed hands five times, and each time the toxic politics of carbon and climate played a part.
Turnbull famously labelled his predecessor Tony Abbott’s climate plans “bullshit”. Former Labor PM Julia Gillard called Abbott’s climate stance a “con”.
— UN Climate Action (@UNFCCC) May 9, 2016
Despite his wish to focus on Australia’s sluggish and commodity-dependent economy, day one of the campaign saw Turnbull forced to focus on his climate plans.
Labor and the Green Party – the country’s third major force – have both unveiled ambitious climate plans that call for a radical change in Australia’s energy systems.
The Greens want “net zero or net negative Australian greenhouse gas emissions within a generation”. Boasting 10 of 76 senators means they are not lightly ignored.
Labor, which trails 49% to Turnbull’s 51% in polling by IPSOS as the country’s preferred governing party, wants 45% emission cuts on 2005 levels by 2030, a tightening of the current goal of 26-28%.
“Australia’s rich renewable energy resources provide the opportunity for Australia to be an energy superpower in a world where clean energy dominates,” reads its energy manifesto.
In contrast, Turnbull seems content to stick with the policies laid down by Abbott, scourge of Australia’s climate scientists and clean energy sector, who once called climate change “crap”.
Those policies saw Australia’s emissions rise 0.2% in the last quarter of 2015, according to government data.
“The way these targets will rise in the future, and I believe they will, is by mutual agreement. So one nation will say, ‘We’ll go up a bit more, if you go up a bit more’. That is the way these agreements are put together,” Turnbull told reporters.
“For Australia to go out on its own and nearly double its target would achieve – would impose a huge cost on Australians and would abandon the leverage we have to get a stronger global response.”
“Climate change is very important. And we have a good climate change policy. We are meeting our targets. We are meeting our 2020 targets. We will exceed them, in fact. And we are well on track to meet our 2030 targets.” – Malcolm Turnbull
Few analysts Climate Home has spoken to believe Turnbull has much wiggle room, leading a party whose members voted in March for the government to investigate the UN climate science panel.
The motion called for public debates between “independent climate scientists” and members of the IPCC on claims the “science is settled”. In New South Wales, 70% voted in favour.
Despite his strong words of support for a global climate deal, many of Turnbull’s MPs are happy to fly in the face of science, notably George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, vocal supporters of coal and moves to nix carbon cutting plans.
Last year the businessman Maurice Newman – then an advisor to Abbott – took this to new levels claiming climate change was a hoax to deliver a “new world order” under the UN.
The reasons for the scepticism appear fairly straightforward. Australia is the world’s fifth largest coal producer. Exports of iron, coal, gas, oil and gold draw in well over AUS$120 billion a year.
The mining lobby is influential, heavily pushing plans for a $22 billion coal mine proposed by Adani, which wants to ship 60 million tonnes of coal to Asia every year.
Last week, Australia’s environment minister Greg Hunt was exposed in the Guardian for claiming in a submission the mine would have no “substantial” impact on global warming.
Yet Australia is on the frontline of a changing climate.
This year its iconic Great Barrier Reef has experienced unprecedented coral bleaching, driven by a strong El Nino phenomenon and already warm waters.
Inland, the decline of rainfall over its south and south west farmlands has been linked to the impact of carbon emissions, while 20 towns and cities in Queensland just experienced their hottest May on record.
Labor stands for jobs, education, Medicare, climate change, fair taxation, equality for women and our belief in young Australians.
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) May 5, 2016
“There’s a bit of a game going on at the moment,” said veteran politician Tony Windsor, standing for election as an independent in New England, in a video posted on twitter.
“We need to sit down, particularly in regional Australia, and start to address what actually occurs if climate change is real. The very victims of climate change are going to be in regional Australia.”
Turnbull’s rhetoric is unlikely to change much in the coming eight weeks, given the widely-regarded pollster and campaign strategist Mark Textor is running his operation.
A business partner of Sir Lynton Crosby, who guided David Cameron back to Downing Street last year, Textor’s playbook majors on simple, narrow and centre-right messaging to win voters.
Not that it always works. Textor arrives back in Australia fresh from orchestrating Zac Goldsmith’s disastrous campaign to be London Mayor, which largely ignored his green credentials.
That – according to UK conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie – was a mistake that cost Goldsmith dear. “Conservatives need to dig deeper, and search for a broader, more popular centre-right agenda,” he wrote.
Selling clean energy shouldn’t be the hardest job in one of the world’s sunniest countries, but the sector sounds worried.
The country needs 6 gigawatts of renewables to meet its clean energy target, but government attempts in the past 12 months to remove and then reduce the goal has left developers uncertain.
The government’s flagship $2.55bn emissions reduction fund (ERF) was not allocated new cash in last week’s budget, raising questions over its long term viability.
What is clear is that – as usual in Australian politics – this will be a brutal campaign across the airwaves and social media, and that leaves some climate campaigners worried.
“The risk is that attention and internal polarisation drives the government to bolster scare campaigns, say silly things or lock themselves into unhelpful positions,” John Connor, CEO of the Sydney-based Climate Institute NGO, told Climate Home.
“In short, climate is a triple edged sword this election. It will test the potency of old scare campaigns, the support for action and the capacity of both parties leadership to leave enough room for credible policies in the election aftermath that both know will require stronger policies.
“How much damage it will inflict on any or all of these over a historically long election campaign remains to be seen.”