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Cabinet papers 1994-95: Keating’s climate policy grapples sound eerily familiar


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

A highly publicised international deal on climate change is two years old. Australia’s federal government, under pressure from environmentalists and with a new prime minister at the helm, signs up and quickly ratifies it. However, its emissions reductions actions don’t work, and the government faces a dilemma: strengthen the measures (including perhaps carbon pricing), or keep cooking up voluntary measures, spiced with a dash of creative accounting.

While the paragraph above might just as well describe the present day, it also sums up the situation in 1994, when Paul Keating’s government was wrestling with Australia’s climate policy. The period is better remembered for angry timber industry workers blockading Parliament, but there were also important battles over carbon pricing and Australia’s international negotiating position.

Cabinet papers from 1994 and 1995, released today by the National Archives of Australia, show how Keating’s cabinet fought an internal civil war over how to respond to climate change, while working hard to protect Australia’s fossil fuel exports.


Read more: It’s 30 years since scientists first warned of climate threats to Australia


International pressure building

Two years previously, in 1992, Australia’s environment minister Ros Kelly had enthusiastically signed up to the new United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit. Australia’s willingness to support targets and timetables for emissions reductions (something the United States ultimately vetoed) gave it credibility.

Australia used this credibility to propound a “fossil fuel clause,” which made the now-familiar argument that:

…economies that are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or consumption of fossil fuels and associated energy-intensive products and/or the use of fossil fuels … have serious difficulties in switching to alternatives.

The cabinet papers released today reveal that defending this clause was a major preoccupation of the government of the day.

In early 1994 Ros Kelly’s political career was brought low by the “sports rorts” affair. She was briefly replaced by Graham Richardson, and then the highly respected John Faulkner.

By this time, all climate eyes were on the first UNFCCC summit, to be held in Berlin in March-April 1995. As an August 1994 cabinet memo noted:

…international pressure is mounting to strengthen the Convention’s emission reduction commitments,

and

…Australia’s measures will fall short of reaching greenhouse gas emission targets and that Australia’s greenhouse performance is likely to compare unfavourably with that of most other OECD countries.

This was a reference to the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy, which was already being shown to be toothless, with state governments approving new coal-fired
power stations and renewable energy ignored. Environmentalists wanted more mandatory action; business wanted to keep everything voluntary. After a roundtable hosted by Keating in June, cabinet debated climate change in August.

The political calculations involved are evident in the official record, which states:

[Australia’s] ability to influence international negotiations away from unqualified, binding uniform emissions commitments towards approaches that better reflect Australia’s interests will be inhibited by a relatively poor domestic greenhouse response.

And what are Australia’s national interests? It won’t surprise you to learn that the government worried that:

…action by the international community could have a major impact on Australia’s energy sector and on the economy in general, by changing the nature and pattern of domestic energy use and/or by changing the world market for energy for Australian exporters.

Cabinet pondered finding international allies – such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand – for the get-out-of-jail idea of “burden sharing”, which would allow countries to finesse their climate commitments by funding emissions reductions elsewhere.

Cabinet also canvassed the possibility of adopting either a proactive or reactive stance, or even withdrawing from the UN climate negotiations altogether. That last option – one that in essence would be adopted by John Howard, at least after George Bush opened up that space in 2001 by withdrawing from Kyoto – was seen as too risky. While the UNFCCC didn’t contain provisions for banning imports from recalcitrant countries, nevertheless:

As a major exporter of energy and energy intensive products, Australia would need to be involved in the negotiations to guard against the possibility of this occurring.

Carbon tax?

Faulkner had already flagged that he would bring a proposal to December 1994’s cabinet meeting, possibly including a small carbon tax – something the Greens, Democrats and Australian Conservation Foundation were all pushing for.

His opponents were ready, with a two-pronged approach. First, they produced economic modelling (with, it later emerged, significant help from fossil fuel companies), which warned that “to stabilise emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, taxes per tonne of CO₂ would need to be around US$192 for Australia and US$24 for the OECD.

So far, so frightening. But given that decisions reached at the Berlin summit might have consequences for Australia’s prized coal exports, some sort of
response was necessary. Fortunately, the Department of Primary Industry and Energy had prepared a document, called Response to Greenhouse Challenge “in consultation with key industry organisations” such as the Business Council of Australia. This had provided a “basis for discussions with industry and incorporates the key principles that industry wants included in the scheme”.

The carbon tax decision was deferred, and ultimately after a series of meetings in February 1995, Faulkner was forced to concede defeat. A purely voluntary scheme – the “Greenhouse Challenge” – was agreed, with industry signing on to what was essentially a reboot of the demonstrably ineffective National Greenhouse Response Strategy.

The Berlin meeting did lead to a call for binding emissions cuts for developed countries, and
Australia signed on, albeit grudgingly. By the end of the year, the same industry-funded modelling was used to produce a glossy report which argued that Australia deserved special consideration because of the makeup of its economy. Australian diplomats would use this argument as a basis of their lobbying all the way through to the 1997 Kyoto climate summit.

In one of history’s ironies, on the same day that this report was released – December 1, 1995 – Keating’s cabinet discussed “the development of a more comprehensive effort in greenhouse science”, noting that:

Climate change is capable of impacting severely on coastal infrastructure, living marine resources and coastal ecosystems such as reefs. The Australian
regional oceans strongly influence global climate, and Australia is vulnerable to oceanic changes affecting rainfall and possibly the incidence of tropical cyclones.

A look at 2017’s weather tells you they may have been onto something there.

Read more: It’s ten years since Kevin Rudd’s ‘great moral challenge’, and we have failed it


The ominous parallels

As I pointed out in last year’s cabinet records article, “when it comes to climate policy, there are no real secrets worthy of the name. We have always known that the Australian state quickly retreated from its already hedged promise to take action, and told us all along that this was because we had a lot of coal”.

Reading these documents is a bit like yelling at a person in a horror movie not to open the door behind which the killer lurks. You know it is futile, but you just can’t help yourself. The December 1994 cabinet minutes contain sentences like this:

Greenhouse is expected to generate future commercial opportunities for Australia with increased export of renewable energy technology e.g. photovoltaic, wind and mini-hydro technology, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region [to] support renewables.

The ConversationAt yet, several governments later, we’re stuck having the same debates while standing by and letting other countries embrace those exact opportunities.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Cabinet papers 1994-95: The Keating government begins to craft its legacy



File 20171218 17889 1mh1c3o.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Paul Keating drove a policy agenda that had been rallied after the 1993 victory.
AAP/NAA

Nicholas Brown, Australian National University

If Labor was surprised by its re-election in March 1993 – the “sweetest victory of them all”, as Paul Keating claimed – there was, for months before the 1996 election was called, much less confidence in government ranks that it could hang on.

They were right. A 6.17% first-preference swing against Labor in 1996 confirmed the momentum John Howard’s Coalition leadership had built over the previous year. The political mood was shifting decisively.

Howard pitched to the values of the “battlers”, affirming “the Australia I believe in”. In contrast, Don Watson, Keating’s speechwriter, recalls that the “big picture” reforms of Keating’s prime ministership “never found a place for the people” in testing those values.

Political scientists Paul Strangio, Paul t’Hart and James Walter add that, after 1993, Keating became ever-more dominant in “a small clique of very senior colleagues”. He drove a policy agenda that had been rallied after the 1993 victory.

There were big ambitions, like Working Nation, and big symbols, like the republic. These initiatives were part of a push through 1994 and 1995, as revealed in the cabinet papers released today by the National Archives of Australia, to ensure a legacy for the program Labor had crafted since 1983.


Further reading: Cabinet papers 1994-95: How the republic was doomed without a directly elected president

Further reading: Keating’s Working Nation plan for jobs was hijacked by bureaucracy: cabinet papers 1994-95


In that process, the term “benchmarking” figured repeatedly in the cabinet submissions ministers debated. It was time to take stock of what had been achieved, in terms of reform, expectations of it, and principles that could not be undone by their successors.

Changing attitudes to social policy

The measures of such impact included a vital element of attitudinal change.

In social policy, ministers were assured that the past ten years marked a decisive shift for people with disabilities from a welfare approach to a “human-rights-based focus”, measured in labour market access. Cabinet called for regular reports to track how effectively this support continued to move from the margins of specialised programs to mainstream provision.

Other measures included a standard pension rate of 25% of male total average weekly earnings, a target of 100 residential care places per 1,000 population aged over 70 by 2001, and a child support system that fostered “a change in the community ethos” with regard to the obligations of separated parents.

In May 1994, cabinet endorsed tackling the more “legally complex or controversial issues” identified in the 1992 Half Way to Equal report on women’s rights. Among them was a commitment to target potential pregnancy “as a ground of prohibited discrimination”.

As Labor’s 1994 national conference adopted a commitment to a 35% quota of safe seats for women candidates by 2002, these issues achieved a clearer place in public debate.

Reforms in public and community housing were aimed at increasing the co-ordination of federal and state governments in delivering stock to meet diverse needs. The beneficiaries of such attention, it was argued, would include people with psychological illness. The minister concerned, Brian Howe, pushed for the principle that rent in such housing should not exceed 30% of income.

Progress on Indigenous Australians

For Indigenous Australians, ministers agreed that “priority be given to social benchmarks” for housing and also health and community support, employment and education. Together they would hold agencies accountable for the delivery of services, rather than simply describing the conditions to those receiving them.

The Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag were granted ‘Flag of Australia’ status in 1995.
AAP/NAA

The minister, Robert Tickner, urged that consultation with Indigenous clients must take into account that their “reluctance … to provide information” reflected “a more complex, historical issue”. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission’s work as a national representative body was seen as integral to overcoming this challenge.

The new National Native Title Tribunal brought sharp focus to these concerns. Keating urged that this body must have sufficient authority to counter the “implacable” opposition of interests and governments such as that in Western Australia.

Cabinet also moved to establish an Indigenous land acquisition program. The May 1995 launch of a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, followed by the official gazettal of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, further consolidated a network of recognition it would not be easy to unravel.


Further reading: Cabinet papers 1992-93: Keating government fights for Indigenous rights on multiple fronts


Labour market reform

Indigenous affairs had some of the elements of “compassion” and “justice” Keating spoke of returning to politics. This pushed the boundaries of prevailing values.

Yet, with promising economic forecasts in early 1994, ministers were also keen to ensure there was no backsliding in the stricter discipline of microeconomic reform.

Having recently bedded-down principles of enterprise bargaining, cabinet was advised in March 1994 that the still-fragile foundations of a “productivity culture” were too vulnerable to “unrealistic” expectations developing in workplaces across Australia to risk any further iterations of the Prices and Incomes Accord.

A cabinet submission claimed that “it may be necessary to push the limits of what is acceptable” to the unions, and instead “establish benchmark criteria to assist employers in responding to claims”.


Further reading: Cabinet papers 1992-93: the rise and fall of enterprise bargaining agreements


While sticking to this message, ministers still worried that the people seemed not to be travelling with them. In mid-1994 they decided to appoint an independent consultant to probe the question of why reported poverty levels had not declined, “despite all the measures taken over the last decade”.

Cabinet’s Social Policy Committee regarded the evidence informing such analysis as a “statistical artefact”. The Department of Social Security ventured that the long-term impact of labour market deregulation might help explain such sentiments. Finance countered that an already overgenerous social welfare system acted as “a disincentive to efforts to improve private incomes”.

As economic signals wavered through 1994 and 1995 – despite Keating’s assurance with the 1995 budget that “this is as good as it gets” – the challenge of inclusion grew.

There were some benchmarks, clearly, that were up for debate within a cabinet still pushing Australian economic as well as social transformation.

Climate change becomes a more pressing concern

There were also some benchmarks that were troubling on a larger scale.

Over 1994 and 1995, the government was briefed on the extent to which global commitments were already proving insufficient to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations:

… at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.

And even within the concessions Australia had won in those formula as an “emissions-intensive economy”, it was “only likely to achieve 46–53%” of its target by 2000.

Enhanced support for “greenhouse science” was identified as one option Australia might pursue in preserving its international reputation on these issues. More was required if we were to hold our standing in relation to vulnerable island states of the South Pacific. And more was required at home.

Major decisions were being taken that were “contrary to the terms of the 1992 National Greenhouse Response Strategy”. As ministers were told, Western Australia’s new Collie Power Station would “provide electricity at a higher cost than gas-powered alternatives”. The “extension of the electricity grid to outback areas of NSW ignored the potential for lower cost solar energy”.

Decisions to defer minimum energy standards for appliances showed “little more than lip service” to the fundamental issues of climate change. What was the point of such benchmarks if nothing was done to observe them?

If the 1996 vote reflected an electorate wearied of “big picture” reform, it was clear that the Keating government itself was seeking indicators that could affirm and entrench its achievements. Not all were easily found.

The ConversationBut, in retrospect, several do still stand up as enduring principles, and/or as markers around which a good deal of political conflict was to come.

Nicholas Brown, Professor in History, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: 08 April 1985


India Sues Union Carbide

On this day in 1985, India filed a suit against Union Carbide for the Bhopal Disaster that killed some 2000 plus people and injured 550 000 more. The suit was settled in 1989 for 470 million dollars US – the Indian government had sought 3.3 million dollars US.

For more, visit:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster


Today in History: 28 March 1959


China Dissolves the Government of Tibet

On this day in 1959, the Government of Tibet was dissolved by the occupying Chinese. To this day, the government in exile resides in Dharamsala, India.

ABOVE: Tibet – History of A Tragedy

For more, visit:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Tibet


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