The Coalition’s refusal to engage on climate legislation abandons the sensible centre of Australian politics | Trent Zimmerman

When your party is on the losing side of an election, why double down on policies that helped facilitate that defeat?

As the 47th parliament has come together for its first sitting week, debate has started on the Albanese government’s plan to legislate both the bipartisan 2050 net zero emissions climate target and its own 43% target for 2030.

Much public comment has centred on negotiations between the government and the Greens to secure the bill’s passage through the Senate. The Coalition declared early its opposition to supporting legislated targets – in principle and at the 2030 level proposed by the government. By self-deselection it has effectively excluded itself from negotiations with the government and the possibility of making this a bipartisan bill.

This has ironically strengthened the hand of the Greens, whose political approach and radical targets are an anathema to Liberal and Labor – the centre of Australian politics.

The extreme weather events of the European summer are yet another reminder of why Australia must be a part of global efforts to reduce emissions. Australia cannot change the course of the climate crisis on its own, but we can be an effective part of what must be the international transition to a low-carbon economy.

It’s also a missed opportunity for the Coalition to indicate clearly to voters, particularly former Liberal supporters in many electorates who left us on 21 May, that it has heard their calls for more action on climate. A call that was one of the primary reasons so many seats we regarded as Liberal heartland were lost.

That’s why the Coalition should rethink its approach. Even if it means the Liberal party parting ways with the Nationals on individual votes for this legislation.

The government has itself conceded that the fate of this legislation will not affect it implementing either the 2030 or 2050 benchmarks, or its ability to make the international commitments it already has through our Paris agreement national determined contributions.

What enacting these targets does do, however, is provide an important dose of certainty to our emissions reduction pathway. With Coalition support it would go further and provide the bipartisanship on Australia’s climate objectives that has eluded national politics for so long.

When private sector investment will continue to be so crucial to our path to net zero, that signal of certainty goes beyond mere symbolism. It’s no surprise that every major national business organisation, including some in the resources sector, have supported legislated targets.

Legislating targets is not an alien concept for Liberals. At the same time as this legislation was being introduced, the Victorian state Liberals and Nationals were legislating a 50% 2030 target.

In my first term in parliament, I strongly supported the national energy guarantee developed by Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg. At its core was legislation that would have locked in our Paris agreement targets of 26 to 28% by 2030. This was endorsed by the Coalition cabinet and the overwhelming majority of the Coalition party room at the time.

Some in the Coalition will argue that a 43% reduction by 2030 is too ambitious. The reality is that the pace of change and the transition to a low emissions economy is advancing at a rate that can give us some confidence. It is a target 8% higher than the Morrison government’s forecast of a 35% reduction being achievable. It is also lower than state governments’ targets of 50% – including the Perrottet Coalition government in New South Wales.

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Mandates for policies pursued by political parties and candidates during election campaigns are perplexing concepts in our democratic system. They are often claimed by political victors as the moral authority justifying a particular course of legislative or policy action. And they beg the question of where defeated parties stand in relation to their own commitments and the actions they subsequently take in parliament.

Voters make their decision on a whole shopping basket of issues and values. Rarely will a single issue drive the votes of the majority, although many voters will identify a particular policy or set of policies that determined their vote.

To some degree there is an understood if not frequently articulated hierarchy of mandates. It is hard to argue that an election promise dealing with the structure of the prickly pear eradication authority, if there were such a beast, carries the same weight as a policy central to the political narrative of an election campaign, such as a new tax policy, major changes to health policy or, in this case, climate policy.

We know that in so many previous Liberal electorates, the climate crisis rated as the first or second most important issue to voters. This was a deciding factor – not some trifling side issue.

When a party is on the losing side of an election, it would be unorthodox to double down on policies that helped facilitate defeat. Moreover, thinking ahead, where will the Coalition want to be at the next election – would it seriously consider promising to roll back a 43% target, particularly if good progress continues? I suspect not.

Now is the right time for the Coalition to show it has learned one of the most important lessons of the May election.

Coalition support for these targets doesn’t mean abrogating its right to question or oppose individual climate measures adopted by Labor. That’s the function of healthy parliamentary debate and a strong opposition. What a major step forwarded it would be if the bipartisan consensus on net zero emissions by 2050 achieved in the last parliament were matched by agreement on our medium term goals as well.

• Trent Zimmerman is the former federal member for North Sydney


Trent Zimmerman

The GuardianTramp

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