Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

A divided government firmly on the back foot ahead of a major climate conference, its green credentials shaky, and riven with bubbling tensions between those who want serious climate action and those resistant to it. Sound familiar? But the government I’m describing is not today’s version, but Bob Hawke’s federal government way back in October 1990.

October 11, 2015, marks a quarter-century to the day since the then environment minister, Ros Kelly, brought a proposed carbon emissions target to cabinet. At the time, Jon Bon Jovi was number one in Australia with “Blaze of Glory”, and some of the lyrics are apposite:

You ask about my conscience; And I offer you my soul; You ask if I’ll grow to be a wise man; Well I ask if I’ll grow old.

Of course, Australia is not the only nation to have dragged its feet on climate policy in the decades since the issue became a major concern, but its ups and downs have been perhaps steeper than most.


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Climate change emerged on the world’s political agenda in 1988, following a three-year build-up from a scientific meeting in Villach, Austria. Australian politicians had already been bluntly warned about its impacts by CSIRO, at a 1986 briefing of the Australian Environment Council. In 1987 the Commission for the Future and CSIRO launched The Greenhouse Project, which briefed the business community, and held a scientific conference later that year.

In June 1988 Australian scientists were among those who attended an international summit in Toronto on the security implications of global warming. (It was shortly before this conference that NASA’s James Hansen gave his famous testimony to a US Senate hearing.) From it emerged the proposal that stgeloped countries should commit to stabilising their emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, and reduce them by 20% by 2005. This, rightly or wrongly, became a litmus test for politicians’ sincerity on the climate issue.

Back home, Australia was going through one of its periods of favouring green policies. Labor’s “small-g green” approach was widely credited with helping Hawke to squeak home in the 1987 federal election, although the real wake-up call that voters cared about the environment came in May 1989, when the Tasmanian Greens polled 15% in the state election.

Despite this, when Labor’s Graham Richardson tried the following month to get cabinet to accept the Toronto target, his attempt was crushed by the treasurer, Paul Keating. The Liberals ended up fighting the March 1990 election with a stronger climate target than Labor (as hard as that might be to believe today).

Aiming for the target

Big green groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace were reluctant to engage with Hawke’s Ecologically Sustainable Development policy program, fearing a stitch-up that would destroy their credibility. They held out for a statement about definitive greenhouse gas targets.

This game of chicken, combined with the impending Second World Climate Conference in Geneva in November 1990 (seen at the time as the starting gun for negotiations for a climate treaty at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit), would have been a significant consideration for Ros Kelly when she became environment minister in April 1990.

Her initial cabinet proposal seems to have been for a commitment without caveats, but this was unacceptable to resources-minded ministers. As treasurer, Keating was reportedly instrumental in modifying the text to demand that:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This seemed, in the short term, to satisfy both the green groups and the coal lobby – the ACF, Greenpeace and the Australian Coal Association all endorsed the new policy. Kelly flew to Geneva and was still in charge of her portfolio by the time of the Rio conference. There, the Toronto target was tweaked to call for stabilisation of emissions at 1990 levels (rather than 1988) by 2000.

But business knows better than to rest on its laurels. The Business Council of Australia got together with a raft of resource industry peak bodies, mining firms and consultants to produce a May 1991 report on Australia’s “realistic” energy prospects. This, to no one’s surprise, declared that the target was “totally unachievable”.

Switching to gas for electricity might find half the cuts, but as the Australian Financial Review reported at the time, in an obliging article about the “unrealistic” scope of the proposed cuts, Australia’s energy use would be pushed still higher by its rapid population growth and economic reliance on the resources sector.

Nine months later, during the heated negotiations of the Rio summit, many of the same organisations behind the May 1991 Energy Prospects report funded another report that further outlined what it saw as the unacceptable economic damage that climate action would wreak. This primary and effective tactic hasn’t really changed since.

Will history repeat itself?

This is largely forgotten history (and for a fuller summary, read Maria Taylor’s recent book on the subject). Crucially, the Liberals are not the “bad guys” of the story. Labor was in power until March 1996, and by then emissions and coal exports were climbing inexorably and the coal lobby had consolidated its power. John Howard was merely more honest about it all.

Australia’s vexed history also shows that setting a climate target is only the beginning of the effort required. Targets are clearly needed – how else will we know if we are “on target”? But they can also allow politicians to say, “Look, we are aware of the problem, we’ve set challenging goals. Yes, progress isn’t quite as quick as we’d like, but we all need to be patient…”

Then, a few years later, once everyone has forgotten, a new target is set. And the wheel goes around again, while the carbon dioxide accumulates in our atmosphere.

Despite recent government attempts to deride and smear environmental activists, more and more people are realising that our leaders, of whatever political hue, have failed to show leadership on this issue. In the run-up to this year’s Paris climate summit and beyond, citizens of Australia have to decide how to create sustained political and social pressure so that history doesn’t repeat itself yet again, whether as tragedy or farce.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation.