Top Australian former officials blast country’s ‘failure’ on climate change

By on 20/05/2020
Australia's late 2019/early 2020 bushfires were among the the worst in history. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons).

Former Australian civil service leaders have condemned successive governments’ failure to tackle climate change, with former Australian Public Service chief Martin Parkinson calling their efforts “incoherent” and ex-Treasury secretary Ken Henry saying: “We have failed, no doubt about that.”

Former chief scientist Professor Penny Sackett, who served as the government’s chief scientist from 2008 to 2011, said that observing governments’ inaction had been like “watching a train wreck in slow motion”.

The former civil servants were speaking on Climate Wars, an episode of ABC TV’s current affairs programme Four Corners which aired on 18 May. It was recorded after the fires that ravaged the country in late 2019 and early 2020. One of the worst bushfires in history, it destroyed 72,000 square miles of the country and nearly 3,000 homes, killing 34 people and an estimated one billion animals.

Martin Parkinson, who retired from his role as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2019, said: “What climate policy? I mean, it’s basically a mess. It’s incoherent and has been for a decade.” Speaking of the bushfires, he added: “No politician… has any grounds for saying, ‘Oh well, we didn’t see it coming’. It’s been coming. We’ve been told. And yet somehow, for some reason, our political class is incapable of grappling with this.”   

Sackett was equally scathing. “Year after year goes by without any strong action and no apparent commitment and determination on the part of governments,” she said. “It’s beyond disheartening; it’s depressing.”

She added that she feels her stint as chief scientist was a failure because serious action on climate change was “the greatest thing that could have come out of that time, and did not.” Politicians didn’t want to her the arguments, she suggested: “The response felt disdainful. It was almost a sense of: ‘Who are you to come and talk to us about these things?’ In my naivety, I didn’t realise that climate change was a no-go zone.”

The topic is so divisive in Australia – primarily because of the country’s sizeable oil and gas industry – that it has played a part in the downfall of several prime ministers.

“More to do with personal ambition”

Ken Henry, who was Treasury secretary for a decade from 2001, believes that self-interested politicians have undermined any attempt to tackle the threat. “I think [it is] more to do with personal ambition, and some of the individuals involved taking the opportunity of an ideological chasm to advance their own personal interests,” he said. “We have failed, no doubt about that. We’ve all failed, I think. I look back on it now and I still feel gutted. All these years later… I feel angry about what Australia has lost.”

Henry was part of a group of senior public servants who from the late 1980s argued that forging a coherent climate policy was a key economic challenge, ABC reported. After years of talking about ways to put a price on carbon, Henry presented a plan for an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to then prime minister John Howard in 2004. Both Howard and political rival Kevin Rudd went into the 2007 election promising to introduce ETS. Rudd’s Australian Labor Party won the election, but new priorities following the 2008 global financial crisis scuppered the plan.

Later, efforts by former PM Julia Gillard to introduce a new carbon pricing mechanism were repealed after Tony Abbot took office in 2013. Parkinson described it as a “grim day for Australia”.

On the programme, Parkinson was also very critical of the Green Party’s 2009 decision to vote against a plan to introduce the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The scheme recommended cuts in emissions of between 5% and 15% – a percentage the Greens deemed too low. “For a party that is validly committed to acting on climate change, to actually tear down what was put in front of them, I think is unconscionable,” Parkinson, who was secretary of the Climate Change Department at the time, said. “They are not prepared to compromise in any way. They’ve got this purist view of the world and they are totally and utterly naive about what’s required to get us from where we are today to what is needed.”

Technology: the way forward

The core of the current government’s climate policy is the Climate Solutions Fund, which allows high-emitting businesses to bid for government assistance to reduce their emissions.  

Energy minister Angus Taylor said on Climate Wars that the answer to reducing emissions is new technology. “Ultimately reductions in emissions will happen when technologies that work, that are at parity with their higher-emitting alternatives, where rational people choose them because they’re good choices, that’s how we’ll bring down emissions globally,” he said.

Ian Chubb, Sackett’s successor who was chief scientist of Australia until 2016, agreed that technology is part of the solution but argued that the government should first commit to zero net emissions by 2050. PM Scott Morrison has said the government will not mandate a specific target and that technology will tackle the problem without the need for taxes.

However, in Parkinson’s view, technology alone isn’t enough. “The carbon price isn’t about taxing people. The carbon price is actually about creating the right sort of incentives to develop the technology and then use it,” he said.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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