Steggall seeks to wipe the Parliamentary floor with people power on her Climate Change Act

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Independent Member for Parliament, Zali Steggall has today formally unveiled plans to table a Climate Change Act in Parliament, backed by what she describes as essentially “a plebiscite” — a people’s vote — to bolster moderate Liberal Party members to cross the floor in a conscience vote in favour of legislating net-zero emissions for Australia by 2050.

A conscience vote is defined in Australian Parliament as “a rare vote”, in which members are “not obliged by the parties to follow a party line, but vote according to their own moral, political, religious, or social beliefs.”

Steggall this morning told ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly that what made the call for a conscience appropriate in this case is that the path proposed by the bill represents, “A matter of principle.”

She said, “This bill is not prescriptive, it’s not about saying what exact prescribed method of carbon emissions reduction should be introduced, but it is locking in a long-term goal… I would say the only way we can move forward is with bipartisanship or with a conscience vote.”

Bipartisan agreement has been demonstrated to be a pipe dream in Australia since the National Energy Guarantee and its architect, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were scuttled in 2018, although Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles said on the weekend the Labor Party would not rule out in-principle support of new coal-fired power in Australia if “the market” deemed such a development worthwhile.

Steggall, on the other hand, unequivocally ruled out new coal-fired generation under her plan to decarbonise by 2050. “No,” she told Kelly this morning, “We absolutely need to evolve away from coal and we need to reduce our domestic emissions, so that means we can’t be opening new coal-fired power … We know coal-fired assets will be stranded assets, so to suggest that there will be a new coal-fired power plant is ridiculous.”

Instead she called for the reallocation of the $4 million committed for a feasibility study into the new fossil-fuel-powered plant for Central Queensland, to fund feasibility studies and transition plans for currently coal-dependent communities in the region.

A framework for response and adaptation

Steggall’s Climate Change Act is about planning and accountability. It calls for a Climate Change Commission of experts, to oversee five-yearly emission-reduction budgets on the road to net-zero by 2050.

The budgets will be set by the government and the government will create policy to achieve those budgets.

“It allows for very frequent accountability and proper checking on how we’re doing,” said Steggall, and if the government were to “slip behind” it meeting its carbon-reduction budgets, she says, “we have elections every three years and a five-year carbon-budget period means there is very quick accountability.”

The legislation and the proposed Commission are based on the UK Climate Change Act and its mechanisms which have been in place since 2008.

In 2018, the UK’s Committee on Committee on Climate Change celebrated 10 years of enabling, “a clear direction of travel [on the road to net zero], while allowing for flexibility and innovation”. 

Its website says, The Act as helped to maintain a remarkable cross-party consensus, with five carbon budgets being approved by Parliament. These budgets create a smooth and practical pathway towards the UK’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 100% compared to 1990 levels.”

As Steggall told Radio National listeners and other media at a subsequent press conference this morning, “There is absolutely nothing outlandish about this position, this bill — it’s a sensible path forward.”

She says her initial intention before introducing her private member’s bill to Parliament on March 23, is to discuss the bill with the Government and the Opposition, and that her “absolute hope is for bipartisan support”. 

She can already count on the support of Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie, who represents the South Australian electorate of Mayo. Sharkie has said that a conscience vote gives the opportunity “for modern Liberals to stand and take some action”. Fellow independent Helen Haines is also onboard, describing the bill as, “an opportunity for rural and regional Australia”.

That said, doubts have been raised over the likelihood of the major parties supporting the tabling of the bill into Parliament, but Steggall says, “I won’t be giving up on this. We know we are in for some dire climate impacts. We’re experiencing this summer and I know the focus is on the bushfires, but you have to remember the extended drought periods, you have terrible air pollution…”

She lauds business and state governments for stepping up to the plate, for setting their own targets, and is calling on Australians to show their support for the Climate Change Act by adding their names to a petition in favour of the bill at ClimateActNow.com.au.

Votes will be marshalled into their electorates, with the aim of providing MPs who personally agree and have in some cases been elected on a platform of greater action on climate change, with evidence of the swell of support among their constituents.

Asked by Fran Kelly whether she was “planning a grassroots campaign, a social media campaign to basically bully some moderate Liberals into supporting” the bill, Steggall laughed and said, “No, no, it’s actually to make them feel brave, to speak up and be true to their platform. They take to the election a position of being progressive and being willing to act on climate change. All we’re saying is ‘Be true to your electorate and stand up for it now.’” 

Courage and the centre right

The call for courage echoes the sentiments expressed at the Coalition for Conservation and Smart Energy Council event last Wednesday, at which Malcolm Turnbull said,   “People like Dave Sharma and Tim Wilson who made it very clear they supported action on climate change, this will be a challenge for them, but that’s their responsibility as MPs. It’s certainly very important that this issue gets debated and dealt with.”

Angus Taylor, Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, was quoted in Nine newspapers as having announced that the Government will take a 2050 emissions reduction target to the UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow in November — but gave no details of the extent of the government’s commitment.

Previously Scott Morrison had said he would not set specific long-term emissions targets if he couldn’t tell Australians “what it would cost them”.

Steggall this morning urged the PM to, in essence, bring it on, make the commitment now so that, “we can give business and the private sector that long-term commitment and policy stability that they’re calling out for”.

Transparency and the costs: pivoting vs plunging on

Steggall is also calling for a reckoning not just of the costs of emissions reduction but a calculation of what it will cost the country not to act so that Australians have a clear comparison. Her proposal is for an equivalent of the UKs 2006 review carried out by economist Nicolas Stern, which concluded among other things that early action on climate change outweighs the future costs of inaction and provides opportunities for growth.

She said this morning that her question to Morrison would be: “What is the cost of climate impacts to Australia? We are seeing huge amounts wiped off at the moment in terms of our tourism, in terms of the economy when it comes to the bushfires … we have businesses shut because of air pollution, we have drought ravaging rural Australia …”

In short, Australia has an opportunity at this moment to calculate the costs of the first wave of climate-change-related devastation, and to pivot or plunge on.