Why Wentworth Was A Message To The Government On Climate Change

If there’s one specific message that’s been sent, loud and clear, to the Morrison Government through the disastrous Wentworth by-election, it is 'do more on climate change'.

Indeed, if the government wants to win back Wentworth at any point in the not too distant future, the first thing it must do is understand just how angry voters are about the party’s slavish devotion to coal.

Exit polling commissioned by the Australia Institute during the Wentworth by-election found that climate change and replacing coal with renewable energy was the single biggest issue motivating voters in Wentworth.

More than 77 percent of voters said climate change influenced their vote. Almost half (47 percent) said it had a lot of influence, and almost a third (33 percent) named it as the most important issue in deciding who to vote for. Climate change was the number one issue for Dr Kerryn Phelps’ voters as well, with 42 percent naming climate change as the biggest motivation in their decision to vote for her.

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Now, in the days following the historic Wentworth swing, just as many within the Coalition are pleading for unity, a new internal conflict regarding who is to blame for the spectacular Wentworth collapse is threatening to spill out into open warfare.

To their credit, some government members are taking a long, level-headed look at the data and recognising that their party’s position on climate change is causing significant damage. Others, in looking for a more politically expedient scapegoat, are attempting to lay the blame for the loss at the feet of former Prime Minister and member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull.

Is Malcolm Turnbull a scapegoat for the Liberal's loss? (Image: AAP)

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Those same people are attempting to play down the potential impact of climate policy on any future election, saying the resounding repudiation of the government’s addiction to coal is somehow conveniently contained within the borders of the eastern suburbs of Sydney.

It took less than a day after the closing of the polls for the Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to pin his colours to the mast. The Government is “not going to move from the [climate] policies that we have,” he declared early on Sunday morning, showing an extraordinary failure to learn from the Wentworth disaster.

If the Government does want to have even the slightest chance of turning its fortunes around before the next federal election, due in the first half of next year, it needs to sit up and listen.

Climate change is a priority for most Aussies, not just those in Wentworth, and according to The Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2018 survey, 73 percent of Australians are concerned about the issue and 67 percent want to end coal-fired power within the next 20 years.

To help the Morrison Government, here are just some of the actions that it could take to prove to Australian voters that it's finally taking climate change seriously.

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Firstly, the government has to admit that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are increasing (and have been for the last three years) and that the country is not on track to meet its 2030 reduction target. To that end, it would help if it addressed emissions in the largest polluting sector, electricity, through an emissions intensity scheme or National Energy Guarantee with a high-ambition target.

Pollution from a coal-fired power station in Victoria fills the air. (Image: Getty)

It also wouldn’t hurt to remove all taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel companies and commit to rejecting any calls for public funding to build or refurbish coal-fired power stations.

As an interim measure, replenishing the Emissions Reduction Fund, which has only $250 million left from its original $2.54 billion of funding, would also be wise and, while it's at it, it should legislate ambitious vehicle emission standards and incentives to drive the uptake of electric vehicles.

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More money should be given to the agencies like ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to encourage the development and deployment of storage and demand response technology.

The government should support domestic manufacture of renewable hardware like wind turbine blades, which are expensive to ship from overseas. (Image: Getty)

The government should also upgrade transmission lines in the National Energy Market to accommodate the new renewable generation coming online and support the local manufacture of renewable hardware, especially of large components like wind turbine blades that are expensive to ship to Australia.

And that’s just what needs to be done domestically.

Internationally, the government should reject any possibility of Australia leaving the Paris Agreement and commit to replenishing the Green Climate Fund as a sign of good faith to Pacific Island nations that shows Australia understands the existential threat posed to them by climate change.

These suggestions are by no means exhaustive and there is much more that could and should be done. What I’ve outlined above would simply be a good start in stemming the haemorrhaging of votes from the Liberal Party, thanks to its position on climate change.

If the government instead decides to go the other way and ignores its Wentworth warning on global warming, it will only have itself to blame when it get burned by voters at the next federal election.