Howard defends climate policy amid concern

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  • John Howard
    Australian politician, 25th Prime Minister of Australia

Concerns the government was not treating climate change seriously enough were raised two decades ago in former prime minister John Howard's cabinet.

The environment department and then-environment minister Robert Hill pushed the government to give more weight to climate change and the environment, saying the government's response was "not proportionate" considering the potential impacts on energy policy.

Declassified cabinet minutes from March 19, 2001 - made public on Saturday - show concerns from Mr Hill's environment department that rapid and significant emissions growth from energy market reforms had been overlooked by the government.

Energy prices at the time were under pressure from increasing international oil prices.

States and territories were also worried Australia's energy reserves, particularly natural gas, were not being developed at an appropriate rate and there were concerns about energy efficiency.

International talks on climate action had also stalled that year after then-US president George Bush opposed the Kyoto Protocol in March and left cabinet facing with an uncertain environment policy from its greatest ally.

Mr Howard wrote to Mr Bush on April 11, 2001, indicating that US leadership was essential if climate change action was to be successful and that commitments from major emitters should include emissions trading.

Cabinet was warned on June 4, 2001, that a review of US climate policy by then-vice president and former head of the country's oil services company Halliburton, Dick Cheney, could lack credibility.

There were additional concerns that a ministerial visit to Washington to get back on the same page as the US would attract media attention and depict Australia as supporting the US in delaying action on climate change.

Cabinet was also warned climate change and measures to address it could have implications for rural and regional Australia.

Historian Christine Wallace says the cabinet minutes relating to climate discussions reveal the Howard government had a more nuanced view on climate change than any government since.

Mr Howard said opinions in his cabinet at the time ranged from "those who were gathering concerns about the long-term consequences, those who have either thought it was all malarky and all those who to various degrees felt we shouldn't sacrifice our industries".

The deliberations within the 2001 cabinet appear to draw some parallels with the coalition government two decades on, with Dr Wallace saying the rhetoric used by current Prime Minister Scott Morrison with "little substantive policy" mirrors that of Mr Minchin.

Although she notes that moderate Liberal party members like NSW Treasurer Matt Kean can "take heart and draw strength" from the fact the views of ministers pushing for more action were not "summarily dismissed".

Mr Howard told reporters at a briefing to release the cabinet papers it remained beyond him why the Greens didn't vote with the Rudd Labor government to legislate an emissions trading scheme, a development which could have "altered the course of the whole (climate) debate".

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