Peter Dutton rejects push by moderate Liberals to change position on climate legislation

by Sarah Martin
Opposition leader tells shadow cabinet voting against bill does not mean it opposes targets, while Greens yet to reach consensus

Peter Dutton has rebuffed moderates wanting a change to the opposition’s plan to vote against Labor’s climate change legislation at a meeting of shadow cabinet on Monday night.

Guardian Australia understands that the former finance minister and now shadow foreign affairs minister, Simon Birmingham, advocated an alternative approach to voting against the government’s legislation, suggesting the opposition should either vote for the bill or not oppose it.

This would allow the legislation to pass through the House of Representatives on the voices, without the need for a division.

Sources said Birmingham advocated that the opposition put forward a further amendment that would require publication of energy price projections and energy security alongside reporting of how Australia was tracking to meet its emissions targets.

This would keep parliament informed of the impact the emissions reduction target was having across the economy.

Dutton’s rejection of the moderates comes as the Greens are yet to land a final position on Labor’s climate bill. The Greens party room met in Canberra on Tuesday morning and will meet again in the evening to try to reach consensus.

The deputy leader of the Liberals, Sussan Ley, backed Dutton’s position, but on Monday night repeated a view she has expressed publicly that there would be an opportunity over this parliamentary term for the Coalition to develop a new climate policy to put to voters at the next federal election.

Guardian Australia understands while Ley favours opposing Labor’s legislation now, she told colleagues on Monday night the Coalition should not get bogged down blasting Labor’s policy while considering what the future policy stance should be.

In a subsequent party room meeting on Tuesday, moderates James Stevens, Andrew Bragg and Bridget Archer spoke on the need for the opposition to increase its ambition on its medium term targets, with concerns raised that voting against Labor’s bill would give the impression that the Liberals and Nationals did not support action on climate change.

Archer is understood to have spoken most strongly against the position presented to MPs by the shadow climate change minister, Ted O’Brien, after previously telling Guardian Australia she was prepared to cross the floor to support Labor’s bill.

She told her colleagues that voting against the legislation would appear to her constituents that she was voting against action on climate change.

Stevens is understood to have expressed the view that he was prepared to support the position based on the proviso that a more ambitious medium-term target was taken to the next election, and expressed the importance of the Coalition remaining united on the issue.

Stevens came close to losing his suburban Adelaide-based seat of Sturt at the May election, suffering a 7% swing against him, which was mostly gained by the Greens.

Bragg reminded MPs that the federal director, Andrew Hirst, had indicated that the party’s position on climate change had been a factor in losing metropolitan seats to teal independents, Labor and the Greens, and more ambition was needed.

Dutton has given MPs an undertaking that the opposition will take time to develop new and “credible” medium-term emissions reduction targets, that will also consider how nuclear energy could be included into the mix.

He assured MPs that he understood there was a broad range of views within the party room, and opposing the legislation did not mean it opposed targets.

Sources said there was a “respectful” discussion about the opposition’s position at Monday’s shadow cabinet meeting, with most members speaking on the legislation, and overwhelming support for Dutton’s already stated view to oppose legislating the 43% emissions reduction target, if not the target itself.

There was a general consensus that the opposition would reserve its position on a new medium-term target until closer to the next election, in the same way that Labor had done in opposition.

Labor has the numbers to pass the legislation in the lower house, although it may accept amendments moved during the chamber debate. But the government will need the support of the Greens and one other crossbencher in the Senate to pass the legislation.

Some Liberals believe Dutton has refused to pass the target legislation in order to force Labor into a position of having to do a deal with the Greens to pass the legislation.

The Greens have been concerned that Labor’s 43% emissions reduction target isn’t ambitious enough, and the party has been lobbying for a moratorium on oil and gas developments. Labor has made it clear it will not support a moratorium, but it has left open the prospect of elevating the importance of climate change in future environmental assessments.

In an effort to respond to specific concerns from the Greens and the crossbench, the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, has made it clear the 43% is a floor not a ceiling, and he has been more explicit about the role the Climate Change Authority will play in advising the government and how he will respond to that advice.

The Greens are yet to consider the threshold question about whether or not the bill should pass or be rejected. There has been a diversity of views expressed about the specific propositions the Greens party room has considered to strengthen the bill.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, was given additional propositions by the party room to put to Bowen on Tuesday morning. If the Greens fail to reach consensus at Tuesday night’s meeting, the party rules allow for issues to be put to a vote. The majority position will then determine the landing point the party reaches.