Can Hunt slip his Coalition chains?

By charting a canny path through the Coalition party room, Greg Hunt could yet deliver on his obvious passion for environmental issues, including climate change.

Moving over to the government benches can change the way a politician looks at things.

Suddenly it’s not so much about beating the other party to get into government so much as beating off your colleagues to get the things done that are important to you, leaving a legacy and gaining a favourable public profile that will further your career.

The other thing is that suddenly you’re expected to have answers – it’s not enough to highlight problems.

That’s what confronts both Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane. 

A few weeks ago Hunt was delivering a speech warning about the perils of a price on carbon because other countries would steal our jobs who were less concerned about constraining emissions. As an example he highlighted how China’s coal consumption was to grow from 1.4 billion tonnes in 2002 to 4 billion by 2015.

But a few days ago Tom Arup, of Fairfax Media, reported that:

Environment Minister Greg Hunt would not comment on the IPCC report until it is released. But he was confident the world would deal with climate change.

''The reason I am most confident is because the Chinese and the Americans who are the central part of any agreement both have a very strong view,'' he said. ''The most heartening development in the past two years has been China's growing commitment to action from its paramount leadership."

You don’t choose to write an honours thesis about the virtues of taxes on pollution and then seek out ministerial responsibility for environmental matters if you couldn’t care less about it. 

Hunt has been talking all manner of rubbish since Abbott took on the Liberal leadership, in order to get elected. But now he has the prize opportunity to do something.

Except, there’s one thing standing in his way – his colleagues.

Some time ago there was another incredibly ambitious environment minister that many laughed off, who faced similar difficulties to Hunt. It was Ian Campbell.

Campbell did some dumb things, and he had a horrible habit of speaking first and thinking second. He was a minister confronted with a great big problem in carbon emissions and little authority to do anything about it. But he did have the authority to talk publicly about climate change science.

And he talked big.  

By acknowledging what a big problem climate change was and acknowledging the need for radical emission cuts to address it, he subtly acted to make it harder for the Howard government to maintain its 'do nothing' policy stance.

It was policy by jawboning his colleagues via the media. 

While Campbell had few policy achievements, his strong public stance on climate science helped pave the way for the Liberals to agree to an ETS and an enlarged Renewable Energy Target under Malcolm Turnbull.   

Now it's Hunt’s turn. While it served his interests in the past to talk down the efforts of countries like the US and China, now that he holds the levers honesty is a better policy. In the end, neither country has a national ETS in place (even though they do have regional schemes) so he can, reasonably safely, use these countries as examples to help him push the need for Australia to take strong action on emissions.  

That’s probably also why Hunt won’t be pushing for the Climate Change Authority to down tools until he has managed to repeal the carbon price legislative package. Hunt told ABC's Lateline: “In this case [the Climate Change Authority], we have to do it legislatively, so they continue to do their work until the repeal process has been completed.”

This is quite unlike what has occurred with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. 

With Labor and the Greens saying they’ll resist repeal, this means the Climate Change Authority will be around until at least June 30 next year. This will allow them to complete their caps and targets review. This review will set out the considerable action other countries, notably China and the US, are doing to constrain emissions. It is also quite likely that, in light of this action internationally, they’ll recommend Australia should go beyond its 5 per cent emissions reduction target.

This report will be backed by considerable analysis and evidence. While many in the Coalition will dismiss it as leftist claptrap by Clive Hamilton, those towards the centre of the political spectrum will probably find the work well reasoned. This will aid Hunt in pushing for measures to strengthen or supplement his inadequate Direct Action Emissions Reduction Fund.

Hunt’s position is not completely powerless, indeed it is vastly better than that of Campbell or even Turnbull when he was environment minister. Hunt has an explicit commitment to ratify the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which will formalise the 5 per cent emission reduction target. In addition, he has at least the bare bones of a scheme and funding to continue a market in emission reductions. Furthermore, he has a vastly more significant Renewable Energy Target he can defend; very useful infrastructure in the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting System; and, with Macfarlane’s support, the potentially very powerful Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards Act. 

Hunt could yet be remembered for more than just the axing of climate programs and people – if he plays his cards right.