Mark Dreyfus - a tough act to follow

The promotion of Mark Dreyfus to Attorney General leaves a large gap in the climate change portfolio where he served as a very prominent and effective parliamentary secretary to Combet. His replacement Yvette D'Ath has a big task ahead of her leading up to the September federal election.

The appointment of Queenslander, Yvette D’Ath as the new Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has landed her in a hot seat at a critical time facing conflicting priorities. It makes her the key player supporting Greg Combet in his role as Minister in the 2013 battle over climate change and the carbon price.

The promotion of her predecessor, Mark Dreyfus as the new Attorney General will leave big shoes to fill. Mr Dreyfus, formerly a Melbourne QC, has been responsible for overseeing a lot of Australia’s legal negotiations at the UN – including the Durban and Doha summits - and has been a key advocate for the Government in the public debate.

His robust style will be missed. Mark Dreyfus has worked hard selling the Government’s clean energy futures package around the country, using his skills as a legal advocate to argue the case against climate sceptics and sell his messages to the general public. In recent times he has put a lot of effort into the carbon farming initiative and working to win over rural communities.

As recently as Wednesday he used the opportunity of the PM setting the election date to focus pressure on Tony Abbott to reveal more details of the Coalition’s Direct Action Climate policy. His release quotes Malcolm Turnbull describing Direct Action as a "con" and a "figleaf to cover a determination to do nothing."

Yvette D’Ath, is 40 and has been an MP for 5 years. She represents the northern Brisbane seat of Petrie (including her home town of Redcliffe) which she holds by a 2.5% margin after withstanding a swing in 2010.

Her seat was very vulnerable on 2012 polling with Labor support at record lows. However, recent polling suggests Labor’s underlying vote in Queensland is recovering as a reaction to the travails of Campbell Newman – particularly the recent big public sector job cuts.

Ms D’Ath left school at 15, but in her twenties returned to part-time study. She was motivated to study law after working at the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission as a typist and went on to graduate in law at QUT and ANU. She later worked as an Industrial Advocate at the Australian Workers Union from 1994 until 2007.

Ms D’Ath has been a member of various Parliamentary Committees including a two year stint on the House Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts (2008-2009). She has been an active speaker in Parliamentary debates making a dozen contributions on climate change in the last year.

In her first speech to Parliament in February 2008 she highlighted climate change as:

“...the global problem that is impacting locally. The environment and climate change are very much on the minds of the people in my community. Having an electorate with such beauty brings with it a responsibility to ensure the ecosystem around the bay and in the bay is protected.”

She went on to highlight the importance of schools education on climate change:

“We need to ensure not only that children understand the issue’s importance but that they get to contribute to the future of the community and country in which they will be growing up and raising their families”.

Apart from these general comments, she has said little on issues of detail to suggest she brings any different perspective to the Government’s overall position on climate change and energy efficiency.

The challenge for Ms D’Ath will be to use her legal ability to pick through the numerous issues arising from the implementation of the carbon price legislative package, and to effectively manage stakeholders. The Government needs her to drive this part of the process hard to achieve some kind of positive momentum leading into the September election.

Minister Combet will need her to put equal energy into the grass roots marketing effort and travelling the country to the inevitable string of local campaign events that will focus on climate change issues – given the central divide between the parties and the very different energy policies that will flow from the election outcome.

The election year environment will make it hard to get the ear of Ministers, and lobbyists will be working overtime to try to influence the shape of future policies of both parties.

Parliamentary Secretaries will therefore come under a lot of pressure in this period.  The fact Ms D’Ath also has to defend her marginal seat will mean she faces a very hectic nine months as a result of her promotion.

Andrew Herington is a Melbourne freelance writer and a former ministerial adviser in the previous Victorian Labor State Government 

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