Butler enters the climate cauldron

Given incoming climate change minister Mark Butler is a relative unknown on the issues of climate change and the environment, it is a risky appointment.

Kevin Rudd this morning announced Mark Butler will replace Greg Combet as climate change minister. Butler will also take on the environment portfolio, with Tony Burke moved to immigration.

Butler is almost a complete unknown on the issue of climate change and environmental issues more generally.

Since 2010 he has had his hands full as the minister for mental health and aging. He also took on additional responsibility in 2011 for housing and homelessness. While there is little similarity with climate change, no one could dispute the immense challenges involved in his prior portfolio.  Mental health in particular has been greatly neglected in the past and has received vastly greater emphasis in recent years, with bipartisan support. 

However he’ll find the bipartisanship of his prior portfolio will be nowhere to be found in his new portfolio. This will require a major step-up in his ability to publicly prosecute the government’s case on carbon pricing and sell its achievements.

He faces an incredibly steep learning curve. Looking through his background and prior statements there is little to suggest he has been a close follower of climate change and environmental issues.  

Butler’s maiden speech focuses largely on economic issues such as Australia’s trade deficit, lack of investment in infrastructure, and a concern for the level of the minimum wage.

Climate change and the environment do not come up even once.

One wonders whether given the extremely hot political nature of the portfolio, Rudd and Labor would have been better served going to someone with experience in the area like Penny Wong, Bob Carr or Anthony Albanese. No doubt all were too important in their current roles, and climate change would have stretched them too thin.

Really the best possible outcome would have been for Combet to stay on in his existing role. The government will sorely miss his mastery of the detail within climate change considering the little time left until the election.

Combet never particularly set the environmental movement alight with his enthusiasm for climate change, but that’s a good thing. Given the Coalition’s scare campaign surrounding carbon pricing, Labor needed a person with a close eye to concerns of industry and social welfare groups rather than environmentalists.

Yet it seems the heavy burden of implementing and defending the government’s climate change policies took its toll on Combet. In a statement put out on Saturday announcing his decision to retire from politics at the next election, Combet said:

“My reasons are personal and are not attributable to the change in the leadership of the Labor Party this week, although this has provided a catalyst for my decision.

“This year is my 30th year of full-time activism in the labour movement. Prior to entering Parliament in 2007 I worked in demanding roles in the trade union movement for many years. It is simply time for me to step back from a frontline role and pursue a change in my working and personal life.

“I wish to be more available to my family and friends, look after my health, and focus more on my personal life.”

In my limited interaction with Combet’s office over the years, I have been incredibly impressed with their mastery of the detail, down to even the financial viability of individual facilities. 

This is a very tricky area of policy requiring both excellent economic and commercial analysis combined with tough negotiation skills. Combet has had to fend off an absolute onslaught of corporate lobbying backed by a politically ruthless opposition fired by ideological fervour. It can’t have been an easy job. 

Mark Butler has been dropped into a cauldron.

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