While Malcolm Turnbull routinely advocates for climate change, we should not forget what he did and failed to do when he had the opportunity.
Malcolm Turnbull has excoriated Scott Morrison’s net zero plan, labelling it as a “con” and “distraction” authored by the coal industry. In conversation with The New Daily, Turnbull said that carbon capture and storage (which the government is relying on to cut emissions) is “a proven failure and it keeps getting run up the flagpole by the fossil fuel sector as a way to defer action.”
Turnbull has been a notable figure since leaving parliament, offering a counter to the Liberal Party’s views on climate change. He’s often led the criticism against Morrison, with most agreeing with him while wondering where all this was when he was in power.
In April, The Conversation‘s Richard Denniss asked ‘Is Malcolm Turnbull the only Liberal who understands economics and climate science – or the only one who’ll talk about it?’
At the time of the article, Turnbull was “dumped as chair of the New South Wales government’s climate advisory board, just a week after being offered the role. His crime? He questioned the wisdom of building new coal mines when the existing ones are already floundering,” as Denniss wrote.
While it’s easy to point at the image of Scott Morrison fondling a piece of coal as the pertinent point, those with longer memories will remember his stance on climate change during his stint as Prime Minister. He, of course, enlisted the Nationals to topple Tony Abbott, effectively neutering his climate policy out of the gate. As John Hewson wrote in 2016, “The broad-based electoral expectation that Turnbull would stand against all this by continuing with his ‘principled position”‘ on climate was soon thwarted, as it became clear that he had sold out to the ‘right’ and the Nats to gain their support for him to replace Abbott as PM.
“The Nats have since not missed an opportunity to hold Turnbull to account, and have run, dragging Turnbull along, a very high-profile opposition to any further development of climate policy – blaming the SA blackout on renewables, attacking Labor states over their renewable energy targets, supporting new coal mines, and now rolling Josh Frydenberg over his desire for the promised Climate Review to consider an ’emissions intensity scheme for the electricity sector, which they painted as a ‘dumb’ attempt at a limited carbon price.”
In 2018, the Turnbull government gave $444 million to a freshly-funded entity called The Great Barrier Reef Foundation; its membership comprised of the former head of the Commonwealth Bank, a director of Qantas and BHP Billiton, as well as execs from Origin Energy, Suncorp, GE Mining and Boeing.
A 2017 trip to Barcaldine highlighted Malcolm Turnbull’s (self-professed) climate agnosticism. He travelled to a solar farm to reiterate to state that we should approach this nation’s energy problem by taking advantage of our great natural advantages (coal, gas), before mentioning that Maranoa (a place that has an industry for all energy theories) is an example that we should follow.
If we wind the clock forward to August 2018, The New York Times reported “Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia abandoned plans for emission targets bowing to pressure from conservatives who considered toppling Mr Turnbull’s government over an energy policy that aimed to reduce prices and bring the country into line with international climate change commitments.
“Mr Turnbull, who looked tired after a weekend of negotiating with colleagues, told reporters Monday morning that the energy policy bill, known as the National Energy Guarantee, would not be introduced in the House of Representatives because there was not enough support.
“‘We are not going to propose legislation purely for the purpose of it being defeated,’ he said.
“Critics immediately called that claim inaccurate, noting that the proposal had support from other parties. But whatever its chances, the defeat spurred intense speculation about Mr Turnbull’s future and frustration among those increasingly worried about Australia’s vulnerability to climate change and its effects, from extreme drought to bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.
“‘All it does is reconfirm that they have no interest in doing anything about climate change or the Great Barrier Reef really,’ said Jon Brodie, a well-known coral reef scientist at James Cook University.”
Which isn’t exactly true. Earlier that month, it emerged that the Turnbull government gave $444 million to a freshly-funded entity called The Great Barrier Reef Foundation; its membership comprised of the former head of the Commonwealth Bank, a director of Qantas and BHP Billiton, as well as execs from Origin Energy, Suncorp, GE Mining and Boeing. At the time, the foundation had annual revenue of about $10 million and only six full-time staff.
As The Big Smoke‘s Matthew Reddin wrote at the time, “And they’d only ever been given $12 million by the government previously, as a deal set to match the donations made at the corporate level. So, all of a sudden, a sum just shy of half a billion dollars flows into their coffers, and an org devoted to selection causes and projects “of note” can spend my tax dollars on it. But why them? Why now? Why from this government, whose other half is made up of members of the National Party, an organisation who never got a vote from anyone who thinks that climate change is real, let alone sitting members of parliament who would believe that funds and resources should be devoted to “green” causes? It doesn’t make any actual sense.”
Six months later, the National Audit Office ruled that the department “failed to comply fully with rules designed to ensure transparency and value for money”. The rules demand clear and specific objectives for the funding.
“For non-competitive grants, assessment criteria provide a transparent means of assessing whether the particular proposal under consideration is of a satisfactory standard that approving a grant would represent value for money,” auditor-general Grant Hehir wrote in his report.
As the ABC noted, “They included ambitions such as ‘improved management of the Great Barrier Reef’ and ‘management of key threats to the Great Barrier Reef'”.
He stood idly by as Australia’s world-renowned science agency, the CSIRO, announced it would cut 80% of its climate scientists, effectively ending Australia’s climate research program.
In 2020, Malcolm Turnbull told Hack that “Australia really needs to address climate change. The need is more obvious than ever. We’ve battled the forces of climate denialism in our Parliament and in our political life…I lost the leadership twice over this. I fought very hard to get an emissions trading scheme passed, and to keep it as Liberal Party policy.”
But as British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt wrote in 2016, “when Malcolm Turnbull wrested the prime ministership from Tony Abbott the international climate community breathed a deep sigh of relief. By contrast, Turnbull had done OK on climate change as a previous leader of the Liberal party, so it was assumed he would do a lot better the second time around.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. As I discovered on my latest visit, Turnbull has been utterly pusillanimous in pursuing any kind of progressive climate agenda. As part of his ‘oil on troubled waters’ strategy, he apparently decided not to take on Abbott’s climate-denying guerilla fighters and has offered zero leadership to Australia’s confused and polarised citizenry either before or after Paris.
“He stood idly by as Australia’s world-renowned science agency, the CSIRO, announced it would cut 80% of its climate scientists, effectively ending Australia’s climate research program. Turnbull is not the only politician having to deal with totally unreasonable flat-earthers. But that’s no excuse. Australia’s citizens deserve a lot better than that.”
Sadly, we know how the story ends. If we’re happy to rally behind him to fight a more contemporary evil, we should not forgive, nor forget.