Short-term politics over a sustainable future | Australian Greens

Short-term politics over a sustainable future

Australia’s current performance on climate change is considered among the worst in the world. So how exactly did we get here? 

By Josephine Goldman
Friday, April 20, 2018

Over the past thirty years, Australian Governments have consistently placed economic and political interests above that of environmental and climate concerns.

Australia’s record on global environmental issues has been characterised by successive Australian governments prioritising their short-term political goals – that is, staying in power by maximising immediate economic prosperity – at the expense of long-term human security.

Time and time again, components of Australian foreign and domestic policy have impeded effective climate policy formation and implementation.

That’s resulted in Australia’s current performance on climate change being considered among the worst in the world.

So how did we get here?

‘No regrets’: A mantra of economic and political precaution

The ‘no regrets’ approach to climate policy-making institutionalises weak policies that aim to limit emissions without imposing economic cost. ‘No regrets’ first became prominent when the Keating Labor government replaced the Hawke Labor government in 1991, and has since marked Australian climate discourse.

Keating’s 1992 release of the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, which relied on voluntary emissions reductions only when economically feasible, was the first implementation of this strategy. Later, at the first Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1995, the government emphasised the economic cost of meeting emissions targets rather than the environmental imperative of strong targets.1

The refusal of the Howard Coalition government to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to avoid binding Emissions Reduction Targets (ERTs) epitomises ‘no regrets’. The 2007 ratification of the Kyoto Protocol under Rudd’s Labor government did not represent any significant deviation from this strategy, as the 1997 ERTs no longer represented departure from business as usual.2 The Direct Action Policy (DAP) of Abbott’s Coalition government, continued under Turnbull, can be seen as an extension of this policy: stagnation now replaced by explicitly anti-environmental policy.3

Economic security dominates dialogue surrounding Australian climate policy, regardless of the government’s party or position on the environment.4 The privileging of a “conservative economistic discourse” under Howard, with GDP growth and budget surpluses serving as “ersatz indicators of national wellbeing,” meant that investment in emissions reduction was sacrificed for growth.5 Rudd reinforced neoliberal framing of climate change as an economic issue by commissioning economist Ross Garnaut to examine the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy.6

The repercussions of the ‘no regrets’ strategy extend into the deliberate choice of unambitious policy to avoid political fallout. Australia’s leaders have repeatedly avoided strong climate policy to make themselves smaller political targets, as exemplified by Rudd’s actions on climate change. While Rudd’s election was touted the “world’s first climate election”7 and his ratification of Kyoto considered a milestone, his championing of climate action was the safest political move at the time. Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) failed to pass through the Senate twice in 2009, and each iteration was weakened by concessions to the fossil fuel industry. Fearing loss of government, Rudd made the decision to delay the implementation of the CPRS, compromising environmental proactivity in an attempt to retain power.

Political compromise to retain power is also evident in the Gillard Labor government. Gillard was forced to be strong on climate action because her conditional preference deal with the Australian Greens supplanted the “immovable object of economic and political self-interest, and the power of the carbon lobby,” prising open a “window of opportunity to act”8 Gillard’s 2011 implementation of the Clean Energy Package (CEP) was a breakthrough, whereby political compromise to maintain power resulted in the peak of Australia’s climate performance, at 40th of the 61 countries responsible for 90 percent of CO2 emissions. Yet, as climate policy infrastructure is rarely built on opportunism, this strong performance did not endure.

The imperative of retaining power over personal commitments to climate policy or considerations of human security dominates the Turnbull Coalition government. While as opposition leader Turnbull was outspoken about the importance of climate action, even crossing the floor to support Rudd’s CPRS, Turnbull no longer expresses environmental convictions. The power of political ambition to suppress climate action is evident in Turnbull’s support for Abbott’s DAP, despite its complete inefficacy to halt carbon emissions or meet Australia’s very conservative Kyoto target.

Australia’s ‘unique’ economic circumstances: the influence of the fossil fuel industry

The prioritisation of economic interests above long-term sustainability is primarily due to Australia’s abundance of fossil fuels, and the corresponding leverage of the fossil fuel industry over the political agenda. Howard positioned this resource wealth as Australia’s “unique” economic circumstances when negotiating for the “Australia clause” at the 1997 Kyoto COP.9 Howard’s election meant “ever more explicit support for fossil fuel energy use and exports”,6 as made clear in the presence of climate sceptics in Howard’s government, including Minister for Energy Warwick Parer and Commonwealth Chief Scientist Dr Robin Batterham.6

The importance of fossil fuel interests was also explicit in Abbott’s government. Like Howard, Abbott filled his cabinet with climate sceptics and deniers, including Nationals member George Christenson and Industry Minister Ian McFarlane, rendering the Abbott government “in thrall to the coal mining industry”.10 Industry affiliations heavily influenced Abbott’s anti-environmental actions, including dismantling of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation the Climate Change authority.11 Under Abbott, Gillard’s Clean Energy Package (CEP) was immediately replaced with the ineffective DAP, which reverses the UNFCCC’s “polluter pays” principle to instate taxpayer-funded rewards for emissions reduction.8 Abbott’s poor record on environmental issues reinforces the precedence given to short-term economic interests due to fossil fuel power.

Interests of the Australian public: critical or dismissible?

The prioritisation of economic and political factors in environmental policy-making is particularly evident when contrasted with the opinions of the Australian public. While public opinion does affect rhetoric, it seems not to affect policy. Hawke’s government could be seen as an outlier, with “relatively strong … public attention” coinciding with enthusiastic responses to climate change, including the Toronto Target and “Ecologically Sustainable Development”.1

However, Hawke’s personal commitment to environmental action and the fossil fuel lobby’s delayed mobilisation were more important factors than public support. Public opinion on climate action did not change significantly between the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, yet climate proactivity suffered.1According to UNSW’s Dr Joan Staples, Keating was “unsympathetic and actively antagonistic” towards the environment, and allowed the fossil fuel lobby to benefit from “favour, inside knowledge [and] connections”.12

The Rudd and Gillard governments suggest that public opinion has very limited influence on policy. Rudd was elected on a wave of popular support for climate action, with climate change ranked as Australia’s most important foreign policy goal in 2007, according to a Lowy Institute poll from the same year. Rudd’s pro-environmental rhetoric reflected public support for climate action, with Rudd declaring himself “determined to make Australia part of the global climate change solution”.

Yet, Rudd’s CPRS twice failed to pass through Senate. Indeed, Rudd made the greatest effort to pass the CPRS in 2009, when Australian prioritisation of climate action had declined to rank seventh of ten foreign policy goals, emphasising the lack of correlation between public opinion and policy.

The impotence of public opinion can also be seen under Gillard. Gillard replaced Rudd largely due to party leader approval ratings. Yet, as Abbott’s “vitriolic” campaign against carbon pricing eroded public confidence, Gillard’s desire to retain power led to cautious policy-making.11 In 2011, when the CEP passed, public opinion hit almost its lowest point with only 46 percent of Australians stating that “tackling climate change” was “very important.” According to the Lowy Institute, that’s a decline of seven points since 2010, and 29 points since 2007. Thus, it is Gillard’s obligation to the Greens – rather than public support – that caused Gillard to implement the strongest climate policy on Australia’s record: the CEP.

International environmental norms: Australia against the world

The UNFCCC operates as the global framework for managing climate change. However, due to the precedence of domestic politics, the environmental norms it enforces have rarely swayed Australian policy-makers. Initially considered a “leader”,1 Australia was the eighth UN member to ratify the UNFCCC in 1992, leading the international community with its “innovative” response to the 1987 Brundtlandt report.10 Under Keating, enthusiasm was trumped by concern for economic security, and “environmental ambivalence”1 developed into obstructionism under Howard and Abbott. Thirty years of climate policy stagnation has resulted in Australia being ranked 57/61 of the countries responsible for 90 percent of global CO2 emissions. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australia does not have a “strong record of meeting [its] commitments” despite what Australia’s 2015 INDC submission to the UNFCCC suggests.

Extending his realist preference for bilateralism into climate negotiation, Howard proudly crafted an image of “Australia standing strong against a multilateral regime in defence of the national interest”.13 Howard’s Australia consistently played the role10 of “veto state” at UN forums, embracing the position of “international pariah”13 in order to ensure “the security of the Australian nation and the jobs and standard of living of the Australian people”, according to DFAT.

Abbott imitated Howard in his disrespect for international climate norms and fora. For the first time since 1997, no Australian delegation was sent to the 2013 UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Warsaw. Further, as host of the 2014 G20 Conference, Australia refused to list climate change on the agenda and Abbott declared that he would not support the Green Climate Fund (GCF) because he needed to “stand up for coal". While Australia did bow to international pressure to pledge $200 million to the GCF in December 2014, this contribution is below two percent of global pledges from the developed world. Australia’s position on climate change reflects a refusal to acknowledge international concerns of real environmental harm.

While environmentalists hoped that Turnbull’s replacement of Abbott as prime minister would mean stronger climate policy, Turnbull is bound by a desire to retain prime ministership. To ensure his leadership of the Coalition, Turnbull has chosen to adhere to Abbott’s climate policies, and declared ERTs of 26-28 percent at the 2015 Paris Conference of Parties, “at or near the bottom of the group of countries [Australia] generally compares [itself] with” according to the Climate Change Authority.1 Turnbull has ignored international pressure to create strong climate policy in order to ensure the future his own government, continuing the prioritisation of politics above environmental interests.

A disappointing conclusion

Short-term economic and political interests have consistently impeded Australia’s approach to climate change. Refusal to respect multilateral negotiations has resulted in a national climate policy divorced from science and global efforts.11 Moreover, the influence of the fossil fuel industry – far more persuasive than Australian public opinion – has led to sabotage of the renewable energy industry and support for the fossil fuel industry. Finally, the strategy of 'no regrets' has served to encourage political precaution and systematically prioritise short-term economic growth over proactive environmental policy. This has culminated in what the Australian called the “bizarre and productivity destroying” DAP.

Examining Australia’s environmental record makes clear that the prioritising of economic and political considerations over environmental norms and human security results in policy that impedes global sustainability. In order to contribute responsibly to the international climate change response, decision-makers would do well to consider the opinions of the Australian people and the longer-term ramifications of a weak climate policy.

Josephine Goldman is in her third year of a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) degree at the University of Sydney. She is majoring in French, and Government and International Relations.


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