Declassified documents reveal the Coalition has been wrestling with climate change policy for more than two decades, including perceptions it is a global “free rider”.
Shortly after Malcolm Turnbull lost his prime ministership in August — in part due to a divisive energy policy debate — he claimed a “significant percentage” of his colleagues did not believe climate change was real.
Cabinet documents from 1996-97 show the Howard government was warned it was isolated on climate change, prompting consideration of new policies and a media campaign to improve its reputation.
Environment minister Robert Hill told cabinet that Australia’s ability to influence global events would be constrained unless an effective domestic response to global warming was developed.
At the time, Australia was one of few nations to campaign against legally binding, uniform emission reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol.
Australian negotiators would eventually convince other nations, but cabinet papers show their advocacy would expose a divergence with other nations.
After negotiations in Geneva, senator Hill told cabinet that meetings were “difficult” and that Australia found few like-minded allies.
“Australia was singled out for criticism from environmental NGOs and some national delegations, notably through an ill-considered attack from the UK environment minister,” Senator Hill said in a submission.
“Overall, there was a general perception of Australia being isolated.”
‘We need to make a fair contribution’
Cabinet papers show the Howard government was aware its own response to climate change may be limiting its influence abroad.
“In the lead-up to Kyoto, ministers will need to consider the role of strengthened adoption of domestic policies and a focused media strategy in countering international perceptions that Australia is ‘free riding’ and taking no action domestically,” he said.
“We will need to clearly demonstrate that we are making a fair contribution to the global effort,” senator Hill said.
The “free rider” warning prompted the government to consider new policies, including an emissions trading scheme that would not be announced for another decade.
When uniform targets were eventually dropped, cabinet praised the prime minister’s negotiating strategy.
“The prime minister’s advocacy to key world leaders of Australia’s case on climate change has been influential.
“International advocacy by the prime minister and the government of Australia’s case on climate change, arguing for realism and equity through differentiated targets, has had considerable impact.
“Australia is in a special position,” Mr Howard said.
“We are a developed country that is a major exporter of energy and there are not too many other countries like that.”