On Turnbull, climate, energy and cities, and the winds of change

So Greg Hunt will likely keep his job as environment minister. That’s the thinking of a number of observers, from the ones who prefer not to be named to people like John Connor, who heads the Climate Institute, and is acting on rational analysis.

At least in the early days, Turnbull will be “watched like a hawk” to make sure he will not make any policy changes, Connor says.

“I think he will minimise disruption and fears among players by not bringing in someone else. And for better or worse Hunt is certainly across the issues and I’d expect him to continue.”

So what’s the mood in the sustainability and cities patch on Day 3 of The Coup that has installed Malcolm Turnbull as PM and ousted Tony Abbott?

Early in the week, cautious optimism ruled.

As the days and hours wore on there was a noticeable uptick in positivity.

The lean was starting to go the optimists’ way.

The consensus was that Turnbull is on the record as centrist and small l liberal. He was chosen to replace Abbott because he had tapped the zeitgeist of the people – on climate, on same-sex marriage, on any number of issues. (For vote winning popularity it’s hard to beat the picture of a slightly smirky Turnbull sitting on a train to Newcastle in the same week that Speaker of the House Bronwyn Bishop was excoriated for taking a helicopter to Geelong, at taxpayers’ expense.)

And he tapped the zeitgeist precisely because he represents different values to the old Precambrian order of the Abbott rabble. Things can’t help but change. And logic can’t help but rise, eventually.

Turnbull is on the record in these pages as supporting – strongly – a cities agenda, public transport, density with good infrastructure and linking these issues to equity. It was a theme picked up by Chris Johnson from the Urban Taskforce, landing in the dailies.

So confidence is growing that change will come, and it could well be faster than the cautious side thinks.

Connor says the time is ripe.

“We’re breaking out of the 2020 ghetto,” he told us on Thursday.

“We’re saying it’s time to take a fresh look at a whole bunch of things – community attitudes are changing and wanting climate action (shown by the Climate Institute’s mid year survey) and there’s growing support for climate action.”

A recent climate and energy round table strongly showed a desire between industry and business to “climb out of the trenches” into which everyone descended when Turnbull lost the leadership six years ago.

Common ground is being struck all over the place, he said. There’s a fresh look at global investment trends; the signs are all pointing the same way.

“We’ve got more investment in clean energy worldwide now than fossil fuels.”

Bite back

So where does this danger of bite-back for Turnbull come from? Where exactly are the Dogs of War against climate kennelled?

Connor says it’s “the remnants of people looking through a cultural and ideological prism”.

There’s also a physical impediment (read economic) in energy.

“We do have really big logjams in our system. And while there’s a thrilling drop in the cost of alternative energy we have a system clogged up by ageing and inefficient power plant which still remain cash positive.

So Connor says the vice is being tightened by ideological as well as technological factors. “There’s a fusion with some of the old culture wars still hanging around and causing problems. Too many people stuck in the red meat days of the scare campaigns.”

On the mooted ditching of the remaining members of the Climate Change Authority, Connor says there’s a good argument for bringing on fresh blood from both sides to bridge the divide.

A process akin to the Reserve Bank would be ideal, he says.

We need a fresh look at the community attitudes, global investment trends and a recognition that Australian business, even the energy sector, wants change.

But Connor says it will be a slow recovery.

“I’m not expecting it to be overnight.”

Urban Taskforce

Chris Johnson who heads up the NSW Urban Taskforce agrees that Turnbull will have to first show he’s going to pat the beasts and keep them calm.

“He is a Liberal Party man and he needs to demonstrate that before he shows his personal preferences, and I think that’s highly appropriate,” Johnson said.

On the cities agenda and transport, Turnbull might have faster prospects for change Johnson said, but it won’t be overnight.

“I think it’s unlikely he will want to suddenly change dramatically,” he says, but all the same Turnbull has the opportunity to “start building up the agendas he thinks are important in terms of urban cities and in terms of environmental issues that relate to that”.

(Why Abbott was so anti-cities was a mystery to many people. Except perhaps that his attitudes fell along ideological lines, as did so much else.)

“It’s a tightrope that needs to be walked between the extreme right of the party and a more centrist attitude.”

On the other hand Johnson agrees political reality will play out. “He’s been put there to capture the centre vote and therefore his policies and not just he person needs to represent what the electorate expects.”

Johnson doubts there will be an early election.

Moving on cities as opposed to climate though is a safe bet since 80 per cent of us live in there. On related issues such as public transport and roads, Johnson thinks Turnbull will be a pluralist.

Hard to go wrong on these issues really.

UDIA

The Urban Development Institute of Australia’s NSW CEO Stephen Albin, who’s been concentrating his efforts on the technology and delivery side of the urban agenda, was also upbeat about the potential of the new administration.

He says the big tension in the urban story is between the states and the Feds and in this schema Turnbull will come out with more expansionist tendencies.

It’s not something the states will necessarily rail against. There are two things the states want, according to Albin, more leadership and more money. If Turnbull can deliver they will be happy. (On leadership, that’s always been a no-brainer, on money, a rise in the GST might do the trick.)

Albin reckons there are tectonic shifts afoot. He points to Turnbull’s language on disruption and technology to say Turnbull understands this very well indeed and that it’s very much connected to a new energy paradigm.

“Urban development is not about setting up a new Albury-Wodonga.”  Not any more.  It’s about liveable cities, he says.

“He’s shown very strong commitment and strong understanding that the changes taking place at the moment and the way they impact on the cities will be the biggest challenge of the next 10 years.”

So much of what Turnbull will be able to achieve will depend on who he puts into his cabinet, Albin says.

And on that, there would be broad agreement.

Greenwash or clean green?

Here’s more evidence of change and positivity, but note with caution.

On Thursday a collective statement from the big end of town jumped into the hype with a statement to urge climate action and an “effective outcome” from the Paris talks in December.

It was signed by AGL, BHP Billiton, GE, Mirvac, Santos, Unilever, Wesfarmers and Westpac Group .

Now this is interesting. Santos? BHP Billiton?

Hmmm.

So where’s the elephant in the room right now? The one with the big long trunk and the memory to match?

Here’s where: see this story on our pages on the results of a test on performance on climate. Guess who one of the poorest scorers were?

Australia’s own BHP Billiton.

On a scale of A to F it flunked with a D, with a “negative” for engagement with climate regulation and climate policy obstruction. Along with other poor performers much of the activity was through trade associations. So your front end says nice greenie things, and the back end does the dirty work. 

It’s a reason to be hyper vigilant about the influence of trade associations on our precious sustainability and green standards. It’s what Ché Wall, co-founder of  the Green Building Council of Australia, was concerned about with the change in membership rules for his former organisation.

The InfluenceMap said a key finding was “a disturbing lack of transparency” around corporate relationships with trade associations.

Okay, things might be changing. We reckon they are. The marketing departments of these companies are always first with the latest and they’ve sniffed the Change in the Air and can see an opportunity for leadership and branding.

Great. Let’s run with that.