Peter Strong: Net zero attracts net stupidity and net self-righteousness

Barnaby Joyce net zero emissions

Nationals' leader Barnaby Joyce. Source: AAP/Mick Tsikas.

We currently see history repeating itself in the federal government. The same small group of climate deniers who killed off the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) in Malcolm Turnbull’s years are now holding Australia back from confronting what the great majority of people in Australia, and across the planet, see as the biggest existential threat we have confronted: climate change.

The NEG was welcomed by nearly all industry and community groups. This included COSBOA, the Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber and many others. The unions also welcomed the proposal. Many groups wanted more done but were just pleased that something would finally happen, allowing business and society to plan and act with more assurance about the future. 

But a handful of people in the government decided they knew better than the great majority of Australians — and they set about to destroy the government unless the NEG was removed. Ultimately, this group won out while society and democracy lost.

Now we again see them at their destructive and self-righteous best as they try to stop Australia joining the rest of the planet in confronting this challenge with targets on net-zero emissions.

There is no need to go into the facts around climate change — the facts are there for anyone who has an objective bone in their body. Like all sectors of society, there are some in the small business community who deny climate change and get annoyed with me for promoting action, but they are very much in the minority.

What I have observed is that many of those who deny climate science also appear to be those who deny COVID-19 is real and/or that vaccines are necessary. These minority groups are entitled to their opinion. That is a working democracy. What they are not entitled to do is to prevent action that is consistent with the wishes of the great majority of Australians. That is a failed democracy.

And so we come to the role of our elected politicians in general and the Nationals in particular. Does Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce support such a destruction of democracy where the wishes of the minority take precedence over the wishes of the vast majority? Joyce may deny he supports them, but he is one of those that killed off the NEG and has consistently pushed against the tide of the majority opinion of Australians on climate change and derided the scientific evidence of same. 

Agree first, then decide on industry support

That is not to say that there aren’t valid economic and employment issues for regional Australian communities that currently rely heavily on coal mining and associated activities. But surely the first step is to agree on the need for action — as is now being asked — and then set about how to support these communities in a smooth and fair transformation to alternative industries.

Closing coal mines and power stations overnight or without proper planning and process is not possible and would be socially and economically irresponsible. There will also continue to be a demand for good quality Australian coal in the near to medium term but we, just as the coal industry is doing, must explore how best to achieve net-zero emissions in line with the aspirations of the vast majority of Australians.

Just like our big electricity companies, our coal enterprises must seek to progressively and responsibly reduce investment in high emissions activities and increase investment in net-zero emissions activities — that is, after all, what the investors in these companies are now expecting.

In the past, Australia has responded well to changes in industry (for example, in textiles, clothing and footwear manufacturing, car manufacturing, dairy farming and steel production) due to initiatives by various governments. This was particularly the case with the tariff removal and reduction initiatives of the Fraser and Hawke governments. The regional NSW economies of Wollongong and Newcastle, for example, were particularly affected by the downsizing of steel production in their economies but have successfully reduced their reliance on this industry over many years as a result of positive and well targeted government support.

The point is that change sought by the majority of Australians should be supported by government — not opposed by it.

Based on past actions, such assistance could include:

  • Assistance to companies going through change — whether that be growth, downsizing or closure;
  • Working with affected workers and their families on managing information, communications and priorities;
  • Working with the largest companies to identify communities where change is occurring and developing joint responses as part of the general adjustment package;
  • Support for local small and medium businesses experiencing change;
  • Retraining programs for those to be retrenched or wishing to change jobs;
  • Funding for Local Economic Development (LED) activities and community support including: recognition of new business opportunities; import replacement and export development; skills analysis and relocation support; and other activities included in a strategic plan.

There is an opportunity — and a need — to develop similar responses to the current situation. Action could include:

  • Developing a tripartite Coal Industry Restructuring Authority or a similar organisation. This would also encompass energy, but politically and socially coal is seen as the issue. Perhaps it could be called the Energy and Coal Industries Restructuring Authority;
  • Develop pilot activities with selected communities;
  • Develop short term and long term plans for the industry based on information from those affected and on micro and macro economic analyses; and
  • Funding to be in partnership with energy and mining companies.

There are more actions that can be undertaken but we must first confront and defeat the few — the very loud and belligerent few — who care nought about the future and only about themselves and their beliefs. 

We should listen to those affected or potentially affected: the workers and their families, the small business owners in those communities and industries, and to the leaders of the communities — not to climate deniers and the noisy minority.

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