The recent history of Australia's climate change wars

Australia's politicians haven't only just started fighting over climate change - here's how the issue has previously dominated parliament.

Climate change has dominated Australian politics for more than a decade.

Climate change has dominated Australian politics for more than a decade. Source: AAP

As Australia continues to grapple with a horror bushfire season, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure to commit to further action on climate change.

Protests against him have raged in the country's smoky cities and he has attracted blistering criticism from across the nation and around the world.

A protest in Sydney in November.
Source: AAP

It was in this context that Mr Morrison opened the door to "evolving" the government's climate change policies last week.

"The cabinet and the government will continue to evolve our policies to meet our targets and to beat them," he told the ABC.

It's the latest development in the years-long political conflict around Australia's climate change policies, which has claimed the scalps of several leaders and shows no sign of being resolved soon.

But how did we get here?

Kyoto opposition 

At the turn of the millennium, then-prime minister John Howard made it clear Australia would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty in which countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A protest at John Howard's Sydney office in 2006.
Source: AAP

But as parts of the nation were gripped by drought in the early 2000s, climate change became a front-and-centre issue for many Australians.

So much so that the conservative Mr Howard went to the 2007 election with an emissions trading scheme and committed to increasing spending on measures to tackle climate change by $627 million.

"Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decision Australia will take in the next decade," Mr Howard said at the time.

Protesters wearing shirts that read "don't walk away from Kyoto" follow then-PM John Howard.
Source: AAP

Siobhan McDonnell, a lecturer in climate change and disasters the Australian National University, said Mr Howard "shifted substantially" on the issue towards the end of his prime ministership. 

"He shifted in part, I think, in response to the climate science ... He was prepared to tackle these issues," Dr McDonnell told SBS News.

"Climate change hadn't become the issue so deeply entrenched in the right [side of politics] at the time, that it later was to become."

'The great moral challenge'

But after 11 years in office, Mr Howard lost the 2007 election to Kevin Rudd. 

Unlike his predecessor, the Labor leader sought to be a global warrior for the climate cause, describing it as "the great moral challenge of our generation".

The first official act of Mr Rudd's government was signing the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Labor then got down to business and tried to craft and pass an emissions trading scheme, called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

And that's where things got complicated.

Rudd, Turnbull out

In late 2009, Labor sought common ground with the opposition to get their emissions trading scheme through parliament.

Then-Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull endorsed the plan, but some in his party promptly turned against him.

The anti-CPRS Tony Abbott beat Mr Turnbull in a leadership contest by a single vote, and the Liberals suddenly became far less receptive to bipartisan climate action.

In a scathing opinion article days after, the defeated Mr Turnbull called Mr Abbott's new climate stance "bullshit".

Mr Turnbull slammed Mr Abbott in the Fairfax newspapers.

Meanwhile, the Greens opposed Mr Rudd's plan for not going far enough to curb emissions. 

Any hope of passing the CPRS seemed to disappear by 2010 so it was shelved by Labor until at least 2013.

Kevin Rudd  after the leadership spill in 2010.
Source: AAP

But Mr Rudd's popularity consequently plummeted and within weeks, he was removed as leader by his party, with Julia Gillard becoming the prime minister.

The carbon tax

In the lead up to the 2010 election, Ms Gillard pledged a "citizens assembly" to resolve the issue of climate change, which she later conceded was "probably very naive".

And, in a statement that would come back to haunt her, she promised there would be "no carbon tax under a government I lead".

The 2010 election between Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott resulted in Australia's first hung parliament since 1940, meaning that each leader had to negotiate with crossbenchers to win power.

Julia Gillard in Parliament House in 2013.
Source: AAP

Ms Gillard got the support of Bob Brown's Greens along with other key crossbenchers and retained her prime ministership.

She went on to announce her plans for a carbon pricing scheme, dubbed by critics as the "carbon tax", which passed in 2011.

Ms Gillard called it "a win for Australia's children".

"It's a win for those who will seek their fortunes and make their way by having jobs in our clean energy sector. It's a win for those who want our environment to be a cleaner environment and to see less carbon pollution," she said at the time.

Ms Gillard also set up the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, two government entities to boost clean energy.

Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie told SBS News the establishment of these entities was a "high point" in how the nation tackles climate change.

"Both bodies have quietly made a huge difference to financing innovation and new technology," she said.

Axing the tax

Mr Abbott railed against Ms Gillard's climate policies and his commitment to "axing the tax" defined his time as opposition leader.

The climate debate over these years reached new levels of vitriol. 

In a move that resulted in heavy criticism, Mr Abbott attended an anti-carbon tax protest at Parliament House and spoke in front of signs which read "ditch the witch" and "Ju-liar... Bob Browns bitch [sic]".

Tony Abbott speaking at the anti-carbon tax rally in 2011.
Source: AAP

Mr Abbott won the 2013 election and the carbon tax was repealed soon after.

Then-Greens leader Christine Milne called the repeal a "tragic day".

The new PM instead opted for a scheme called Direct Action, which paid businesses and communities to reduce their emissions.

Under Mr Abbott, Australia signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015 and agreed to reduce carbon emissions by at least 26 per cent by 2030.

The NEG and Turnbull's demise

With Mr Abbott's poll numbers stubbornly low, Mr Turnbull successfully challenged him for the leadership and became prime minister in 2015.

In a move he hoped would end the climate wars, the then-PM proposed the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), an integration of climate and energy policy.

But once again, many Liberals rebelled against Mr Turnbull and soon, both the NEG and Mr Turnbull's prime ministership were history.

Enter Mr Morrison.

Scott Morrison brings a lump of coal into Parliament House.
Source: AAP

ANU's Dr McDonnell said, "Turnbull attempted to fight the fight internally ... He lost the leadership as a result and the politics became entrenched at that point".

"It became the defining issue for the [Liberal] leadership, it was like, you can only hold the leadership if you're not prepared to take any meaningful steps in relation to climate change," she said.

"Australia's emissions definitely reduced substantially under the Labor government and since we've had a Coalition government they have increased substantially. That is just the factual story."

'A massive wake-up call'

As the 2010s came to a close, the climate change warnings of experts and studies became increasingly dire around the world.

Pedestrians walk towards Darling Harbour as smoke haze blankets Sydney.
Source: AAP

In Australia, a crescendo was reached at the end of 2019.

A horror bushfire season, which was predicted by economist Ross Garnaut back in the Rudd years, swept the nation.

So far, at least 31 people have been killed and more than 2,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed.

A koala is rescued from the fires on Kangaroo Island.
Source: AAP

Cities have been choked with bushfire haze and images of the more than one billion injured or killed wildlife have shaken Australians.

The Climate Council's Ms McKenzie said, "the bushfire and smoke crisis should be a massive wake-up call to the Morrison government".

"This is exactly what scientists have been warning them about for decades. The government has no credible policies to tackle fossil fuel pollution which is driving climate change," she said.

"The crisis should prompt a wholesale rethink of Australia's approach the climate change." 

From Hawaii to an 'evolving' stance

In December, Mr Morrison took a Hawaiian vacation in the middle of the bushfire crisis.

He faced severe criticism and later apologised.

Australian tourists snapped this picture with Scott Morrison in Hawaii.
Source: Twitter: @Ben_Downie

From there, things did not get much better.

Mr Morrison was heckled during a visit to the bushfire-hit town of Cobargo, which a fellow Liberal said he "probably deserved".

And self-proclaimed climate sceptic Liberal MP Craig Kelly went on UK television and disputed the link between climate change and Australia's fires.

In the fallout, protests against Mr Morrison have been held in capital cities and show no sign of stopping.

His approval rating plunged in a recent Newspoll and the Coalition is now trailing Labor for the first time since last year's federal election.

A protester holding a photograph of property destroyed by bushfire is arrested outside of Kirribilli House.
Source: AAP

To ease the tensions, Mr Morrison admitted last week, "there are things I could have handled on the ground much better".

He also responded by announcing there would be a royal commission into the disaster and saying climate policies could, yet again, change.

"We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it," he told the ABC.

ANU's Dr McDonnell said it could be a pivotal moment.

"There is a shift, but for me, the question is will it be enough? ... Australia is just so vulnerable to climate change."

Published 23 January 2020 at 6:59pm
By Nick Baker