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Turnbull Needs To Be The Turning Point For Climate Policy

15/09/2015 10:30 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Large cracks in rock hard earth of water hole during dry season drought.

The election of Malcolm Turnbull as our 29th Prime Minister may prove to be a turning point in the way we as Australians perceive our national identity. From the coal economy to the new economy, we can finally lay to rest the Tony Abbott led mantra that coal is the backbone of our nation.

While in structural decline for some years, the coal economy has clearly been the beneficiary of a culture war waged by an unrelenting Abbott Government whose leader drank the kool-aid (or should we say coal aid) some time ago.

The coal economy has been giving way to the new economy both in substance and perception. But now it has lost its most forceful advocate. While it is unlikely that climate change policy under the Turnbull/Bishop team will change substantially in the near term, we should expect our dialogue at least to change. And this matters.

The restoration of tri-party acceptance of the science of climate change will give the renewable energy industry just the boost it needs having suffered one of its worst financial years on record in 2014/15. The mining industry's war of attrition took its toll as a result of its capacity to garner the strong support of Prime Minister Abbott and his allies. But to a financially struggling fossil fuel sector, the loss of their cheerleader-in-chief could be a mortal blow.

None of this should lead us to getting carried away.

It is, of course, easy to hope that the election of a Prime Minister who accepts the science of climate change may be a watershed moment for climate policy. While it may be, in the long term, the reality during the remainder of this term of Government is that we are unlikely to see much substantive policy change. In his last role as party leader, Malcolm Turnbull supported an emissions trading scheme that was too weak and too poorly put together to make any real difference. And this time around he is loathe to respond quickly to what insiders perceive as his Achilles heel.

Ultimately, having a Prime Minister who accepts the need to act will help shift the political landscape over the medium term. The moment support among the Australian population for strong action on climate change fell away was the moment it lost tri-partisan support. New voices from within the Liberals (and indeed the Nationals) will emerge over the next few years thanks to the space created by the removal of a climate skeptic Prime Minister. These new voices will drive new policy and ultimately show that those who support Government-led action on climate change are on the right side of history.

While our political parties catch up, the good news is that the Australian public are ready to move from the coal economy to the new economy.

A recent public opinion poll by Future Super found that the coal industry's net approval rating was minus 18, only rivalled by the unpopularity of Tony Abbott himself (who was at minus 24 in last week's Essential poll). The renewable energy industry's net approval rating in comparison is currently sitting at positive 77 percent.

Tackling climate change and building our new economy will take ingenuity and innovation. It will take a Government who is prepared to dismantle subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and instead use the might and power of Government to help build the industries and the businesses of the future. No longer can we be happy sending our greatest renewable energy scientists and engineers to China and Europe. Instead, we must incentivise them to be part of the clean energy revolution at home.

In his opening press conference Malcolm Turnbull labelled the disruption caused be technology as an opportunity. This kind of rhetoric matters. It sends a signal to those of us who are building the new economy that we have a Prime Minister who has at least taken the time to come to grips with the direction of our nation.

His words must be followed up by substantive policy change. Instead of campaigning to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, let's unleash their capacity by giving them certainty. Instead of subsidising the fossil fuel industry to the tune of over $6 billion a year, let's invest in an education sector that can train the engineers and scientists who will power our knowledge economy.

Malcolm Turnbull cannot afford to let the right flank of his party hold him back as the coal economy gives way to the new economy. The public have spoken and financial markets have spoken. Now all we need is our political class to get on board. Here's hoping that today marks a new dawn for how our political representatives respond to the urgent need to address the greatest moral challenge of our time.

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To sign a petition calling for Malcolm Turnbull to act on climate change visit here.

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