Coalition should have heeded calls from Pacific to raise climate targets, Simon Birmingham says

Liberal senator says Australia’s approach to emissions debate had not been ‘ideal’ for Pacific relations

Senior Coalition frontbencher Simon Birmingham has said the former Morrison government was wrong to resist increasing Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target.

Speaking in Palau, Birmingham said it was “critical for us to listen carefully and attentively to our Pacific partners” and “act in concert with them”. The way Australia conducted its climate debate had not been “ideal for all of our relations”, he said.

“Frankly, when you’re clearly on track to exceed targets, it makes sense to raise and to elevate those targets – and that probably should have occurred at an earlier stage,” Birmingham told reporters on the third leg of a bipartisan trip to the Pacific.

The former Morrison government resisted domestic and international calls to strengthen the Abbott government-era target of a 26% to 28% cut in emissions by 2030, after the Nationals threatened to veto more ambitious action.

Climate policy has remained a source of contention within the Coalition since its election loss in May. The opposition voted against the Albanese government’s bill to enshrine in law a new target of a 43% cut in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, had rebuffed a push by moderate members of his shadow cabinet, including Birmingham, who counselled against blanket opposition to the climate legislation.

On Thursday, Birmingham said Australia had record levels of investment in renewable energy, but the way the domestic political debate was conducted “hasn’t enabled us to convey that message as clearly as would have been ideal for all of our relations”.

Birmingham said it was important to ensure “that the voices that we hear from the Pacific are heard, and that we say the same things at home as we say here” – building on comments he made earlier to Guardian Australia.

“When you lose elections, it’s important to listen, to understand the reasons why you lost,” the opposition’s Senate leader said.

“And, so of course, that’s about listening to the Australian electorate. But as shadow foreign minister it’s also about listening to all of our partners who we value in the region and globally to understand how we can most effectively shape policy to work with them as even deeper, stronger partners in the future.”

Palau was the final stop for a bipartisan delegation led by the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, after visits to Vanuatu and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The president of Palau, Surangel Whipps, on Thursday repeated his previous appeals for stronger global action.

“When it comes to climate change … you might as well bomb us because it’s constant, whether it’s typhoons, drought, the heat and sea level rise,” Whipps said.

Wong said that was an important message for the world to hear. She said it was unfortunate that for more than a decade “my country was involved in a domestic political debate about climate along political partisan lines”.

Simon Birmingham and Penny Wong in Vanuatu during the bipartisan visit.
Simon Birmingham and Penny Wong in Vanuatu during the bipartisan visit. Photograph: SARAH/Office of Senator the Hon Penny Wong

But Wong said Australia was now undergoing a “necessary” and “overdue” transformation of its emissions-intensive economy, which she described as “a big job for us”.

She asked for understanding from Pacific countries that “we’re pushing the rudder” and it will “take a while for the boat to turn”.

“We accept we have to do more and I’ve been honest about that,” Wong said.

Dutton has continued to campaign against elements of Labor’s climate policies, accusing the government of “wanting to close down every source of energy except renewable”.

The opposition leader also opened the first question time after the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt asking Anthony Albanese why “the government has just signed up to funding a $2tn loss and damage climate fund” to provide assistance to developing countries. He asked: “Doesn’t charity begin at home?”

The prime minister denounced the question and told parliament Dutton had once stood under a microphone “making jokes about Pacific islands drowning”.

Albanese said a serious climate policy was “the price of entry” into productive international relationships in 2022.


Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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