The battle for climate change policies will dominate the 2021 federal election. Australians will be asked to choose who they want to give the future of the planet.
The National Archives of Australia released the 2001 cabinet papers on Saturday. They reveal that climate change and energy policy have been a part of cabinet discussions and international relations over decades.
Former prime minister John Howard, whose cabinet held “serious” concerns about climate change, maintains that his government’s policies were “sensible”.
“I am still a bit of an agnostic when it comes to climate change, and I think the balance has always been difficult,” Mr Howard said.
“I thought what we did was sensible at the time. A lot has changed since then.”
Historian Christine Wallace said the Howard government had a “far more nuanced view” on climate change and its significance than any Coalition government since.
“We can see (in 2001) a Coalition cabinet not yet captured by resource sector interests, expressly constraining its resources minister from the untrammelled promotion of those interests,” Dr Wallace said.
“This is of immense contemporary significance. It shows that the federal Liberal Party historically has harboured some environmentally concerned members, and that their views were not summarily dismissed.”
The Coalition was split in 2021 over the agreement it would make to the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. Moderate Liberals wanted more drastic action than the 2030 projections presented at Paris 2015, while Nationals MPs wanted greater protections for rural and regional Australia.
Cabinet documents from 2001 show that the Howard government was able work together.
Howard spoke out about the difficulty Scott Morrison had in getting support from Nationals to present a plan. He said that the collaboration with his Coalition was one of his greatest successes.
“I remember having a discussion with (former prime minister Malcolm) Turnbull when he was the leader of the opposition. I said to him your first responsibility is to hold the Coalition together,” Mr Howard said.
“In my government there was a range of opinions – some had concerns of the long-term consequences, there were those who thought it was all malarkey, and those in various degrees who felt we shouldn’t sacrifice our industries.”
On a global scale, Australia’s position on climate change threatened relations with the United States after the Howard government considered suspending engagements with the US over former president George Bush’s reluctance to act on the Kyoto Agreement.
Bush announced that the US would not implement 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This Protocol was intended to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and combat global warming, within a matter of hours of taking office in 2001. Bush was concerned about the impact on the US economy of the deal.
Cabinet papers reveal ministers were asked to consider “whether it’s in Australia’s interests to engage with the United States in the near future”.
Earlier in the year, Mr Howard had written to Mr Bush to outline Australia’s approach and to tell Mr Bush that his country’s leadership was essential if the world was going to combat climate change.
A cabinet memorandum from June 4 notes: “The letter suggested that an effective global framework to address climate change needed to include commitments from all major emitters; unrestricted market-based mechanisms, including emissions trading, an approach to carbon sinks that captures both economic and environmental opportunities, and a facilitative, rather than punitive, compliance system”.
Twenty years on, the roles seem to have reversed, with President Joe Biden’s administration, as well as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other prominent world leaders, repeatedly calling on Mr Morrison to take stronger action on climate change.