Opposition’s climate confusion a lesson in policy fumble

The state opposition’s freshly appointed climate spokesman James Newbury made a significant ideological and policy declaration to The Age this week: “We are not the party of 2018.”

Newbury was specifically referring to the opposition’s ill-fated state election campaign.

Environment and climate change spokesman James Newbury.Credit:Joe Armao

Back then the Coalition was staunchly opposed to Labor’s legislated target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero in net terms by 2050. It was also promising to rip up Victoria’s renewable energy target and possibly build a new coal or gas-fired power plant.

The Coalition had, according to Environment Victoria at the time, gone the “full Trump” on climate and energy policy.

It was true that in 2016 the Coalition was undeniably opposed to Victoria’s 2016 Climate Change Bill, which legislated the net zero by 2050 target.

It’s in the Hansard. Opposition environment spokesman Brad Battin told Parliament on December 8, 2016, that the government’s legislation was nothing more than “a piece of paper that does nothing”. “That is why the Liberal-Nationals will be opposing this bill”, he said.

Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.Credit:Luis Ascui

You might think Newbury’s declaration made good political sense, particularly with the Victorian opposition’s colleagues in the federal government now backing a net zero by 2050 target.

Ask any pollster and they’ll tell you most voters want more action to tackle climate change, not a suite of policies that voters in the middle might see as environmentally regressive.

It’s a safe bet that only a small minority of Victorian voters would think tearing up the state’s renewable energy target, or opposing a net zero target, is a good idea, let alone possibly stepping in to build a new power plant.

As Newbury put it: “Being ambitious about the environment is being ambitious about the state’s future.”

Most voters want more action to tackle climate change.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

This is true. The funny thing was, The Age’s front page story – detailing this significant policy and ideological shift – was greeted with a curious mixture of confusion and obfuscation by senior members of the opposition.

Newbury, who had been given the climate change portfolio just two weeks earlier, was nowhere to be seen.

But over on ABC radio shadow treasurer David Davis appeared to be caught off guard when asked by 774 presenter Ali Moore about the apparent policy shift.

According to Davis, the Coalition had never opposed a net-zero emissions target (as noted, the Hansard from December 8, 2016 says otherwise).

Shadow treasurer David Davis.Credit:Eddie Jim

In fact, Davis claimed the opposition had either supported or not actively opposed “every” government bill that included climate targets. Yet Moore said she could find no reference to a Liberal policy supporting a net zero target and the Andrews government cited five renewable energy-related bills it insisted the opposition voted against.

“So Victorian Liberal Party policy is to support net zero emissions by 2050?” Moore asked.

“That’s my understanding,” Davis replied.

You might think a senior member of shadow cabinet would have a clearer sense of the Liberal policy position than an “understanding”.

During a press conference later that day, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy did little to clarify the situation. He suggested the Coalition’s policy position had been to support a net zero emissions target for some time.

“We’ve been saying this commentary for some time, I’ve been saying this commentary for some time,” Mr Guy said. “I have said this on a number of radio interviews myself, so you know, I’m a bit perplexed. I think I said it once on Joy FM.”

This isn’t to say someone in the Liberal Party, somewhere, hasn’t referred to it at some point. But it hasn’t exactly been shouted from the rooftops.

So why wouldn’t Guy and his senior team own the policy by backing it in? And why the obfuscation, coyness and confusion? And why would there not be a clearer media strategy to promote the policy?

Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Justin McManus

Clearly, some sort of internal step had been missed in formulating the new policy position. The most likely explanation is that it was never formally debated in shadow cabinet. Hence, Guy and Davis were reluctant to embrace Newbury’s comments in The Age too enthusiastically, risking angering some Liberal and National MPs who remain opposed to greater action on climate change.

Nevertheless, according to Guy, he’ll have more to say on the policy in coming months.

“This is an issue that we’re going to confront,” he said. “We’re going to confront it sensibly, we’re going to confront it with industry, and we’re going to have a lot more to say on this topic over the next six to eight months.”

The best that can be said is that the Liberal policy shift is a sensible step forward, more attuned to what most Victorians want.

At worst it represents a case study in how not to announce what appears to be a major policy realignment. Guy might as well “confront” the issue now, rather than in September and November this year. Because if this keeps up, voters will have well and truly stopped listening.

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