Greg Hunt is the master of polluting the debate

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When Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler scoffed at Environment Minister Greg Hunt during a National Press Club debate this month, he was scoffing for us all. It was a scoff that expressed an unspeakable frustration: how can the Environment Minister say what he does with a straight face?

Greg Hunt's verbal emissions pollute climate discussion. Cartoon by Greg FoysterHunt said that the Australian renewable energy target was 'misrepresented'. Butler scoffed, then retorted, 'Yes, by you.' It was a public airing of the exasperation many people have felt watching Hunt twist the facts about climate policy over the last few years.

Of course, all politicians and political parties select the statistics and 'frame' that best suits their position. That's part of the sophistry of political debate. But even among the slippery-tongued ranks of federal parliamentarians, Hunt is in a league of his own.

For three years, the Environment Minister has defended the merits of a 'direct action' climate policy that is allowing Australia's climate pollution to increase for the first time in a decade. A champion debater, Hunt provided the verbal smokescreen for the Abbott government's ideological denial of global warming, a role continued under Malcolm Turnbull.

Hunt's usual tactic is to find the rare statistic that presents his policy in a favourable light, and spread it far and wide. When people use his stat, they accept his framing of the issue.

It wouldn't work if climate change were still seen as a moral issue. But our language on global warming is now largely technocratic. Most people don't understand what all this talk of emissions reduction percentage targets actually means, so they can't spot the spin when it's presented to them.

Let's take a look at some examples. Last year, spruiking the target Australia took to the Paris climate conference, Hunt told Lateline 'that is a 52 per cent reduction on per capita emissions, one of the highest in the world'. This is now part of official Liberal Party script — Coalition MP Steve Ciobo spread it again on ABC's Q&A this week.

What this fails to acknowledge is that Australia is already one of the highest per capita emitters in the world. We can claim a big percentage drop because we're starting from such an extraordinarily high baseline. The 2016 Climate Change Performance Index rated Australia 59th out of the world's 61 biggest carbon polluting countries. Only Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia are ranked below us.

 

"With no new money in the most recent federal budget for the Emissions Reduction Fund, the Coalition literally doesn't have a credible plan to cut carbon pollution, but Hunt keeps dodging this question."

 

Imagine you have an absolute clunker of a car — the most polluting on the road. You reduce its tailpipe emissions by half, but even then it's still the most polluting. You can claim to have made an effort, for sure, but that effort needs to be seen in context. Hunt is hiding that context, misrepresenting the Coalition's clunker of a climate policy as something much better than it really is.

Here's another one. Hunt has compared the cost of his direct action Emissions Reduction Fund with the previous Labor government's 'carbon tax'. 'The first Emissions Reduction Fund auction was a spectacular success — 47 million tonnes, $13.95 per tonne of abatement and approximately 1 per cent of the more than $1300 per tonne cost of abatement under Labor's failed scheme,' he said in Question Time.

First, there are questions over whether the Emissions Reduction Fund has paid for genuine emissions reductions at all. Ian MacGill from the University of NSW Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets told ABC's Fact Check 'there's no way of being sure that genuinely 47 million tonnes less went to the atmosphere than otherwise would have happened'. A recent analysis by Australian National University found the government's direct action program has major flaws and likely overstates how much emissions are being reduced.

Second, the two aren't comparable. The Emissions Reduction Fund is money the government spends to reduce emissions, but the carbon price was money the government raised, and then returned as compensation. 'The $1300 a tonne is nonsense because it didn't cost anyone that amount of money; the money was redistributed throughout the economy,' Roger Dargaville, deputy director of the University of Melbourne's Melbourne Energy Institute, told ABC Fact Check, which found Hunt's claim 'untenable'.

There are many other examples. Hunt misrepresented David Attenborough's documentary on the Great Barrier Reef and is relying on an accounting trick to claim Australia will meet its Kyoto emissions reduction targets. With no new money in the most recent federal budget for the Emissions Reduction Fund, the Coalition literally doesn't have a credible plan to cut carbon pollution, but Hunt keeps dodging this question. Instead, he's resuscitating Tony Abbott's carbon tax lines.

The frustrating thing is that proving Hunt wrong on the above is almost counterproductive. One of the main reasons for stalled action on climate change is the issue has become overly abstract. The focus on the means to cut carbon pollution (percentage targets) rather than the benefits (avoiding heatwaves and bushfires, a more stable climate), makes it appear as if the only thing at stake is a numeral. On top of that, in Australia climate change is often presented as a political contest with two warring sides, when it's actually a scientifically established phenomenon in the real world.

Debating technicalities with the Environment Minister just reinforces these ways of viewing climate change. The more political debate there is about percentage targets, the less people see the issue as relevant to their daily lives.

And so anyone who is concerned about climate change and has some policy understanding is left with a dilemma. You can refute the Environment Minister's misrepresentations, but risk alienating the public with technocratic language. Or you can talk about what's at stake, such as the bleaching and dying Great Barrier Reef, and leave Hunt's furphies unanswered. Or you can try to do both, and run out of time to say it all.

What to do? No wonder some people have been left literally speechless. Maybe the only option is to tell the public that the Environment Minister's statements aren't to be trusted. But I suspect they know that already.

 


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears

Cartoon by Greg Foyster

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, solar panels, carbon tax, bill shorten, malcolm turnbull

 

 

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Existing comments

I watched the Butler-Hunt debate and I was none the wiser afterwards. The statistics just flew over the top of me and I have a Mathematics degree. What I do know is that if I wish to visit Kiribati, I will need to take a pair of gumboots with me and do so soon rather than later.
John Morgan | 03 June 2016


Good try, Greg! but your conclusion that the public probably already know that the Environment Minister's statements are not to be trusted. Wrong. At least not among the senior citizens I associate with on a daily basis. For most of them Greg Hunt has the perfect appearance and style to sell anything. He is smooth skinned. He speaks gently. He's such a nice young man. Take the Treasurer Scott Morrison by contrast.. He is rough and tough. He roars and fulminates. He is such a rude man. And everything he says is measured against the constraints of their weekly budget.. But Mr Hunt is so reassuring. He is making sure our Australian beaches are not washed away by those terrible tsunamis or our bay side living contaminated by noisy dirty flying foxes. The Australian public? Their most sensitive nerve is the hip pocket nerve, followed closely by their comfort and Greg Hunt makes them feel comfortable.
Uncle Pat | 03 June 2016


There has always been, and presumably always will be, two opposing groups, the ‘Haves and the ‘Have-nots’; each trying to promote their own interests. The ‘Haves’ possess the resources, usually both physical and mental to ensure their pre-eminence, and to placate the ‘Have-nots’ With ‘bread and circuses.’ This results in growing inequality, which the ‘Haves’ see as entitlements, and the ‘Have-nots’ resent as injustice- dismissed as ‘envy’. Little is heard lately of ‘Noblesse oblige’, or ‘from those who have been given much, much is expected’. It seems we need a middle party to act as a ‘candle-stick maker’ to preserve a balance, and it could be emerging, world wide.
Robert Liddy | 03 June 2016


"What to do?" Apart from voting Greens, I think we do what we can - which means being aware of how we can use less: riding a bike rather than driving (where it's tolerable), not flying off on holidays each year, only using air-conditioning when really necessary, switching to 'green power' etc. All those little things add up and help move us into the right frame of mind.
Russell | 03 June 2016


Too often the minister is represented as a bit of a fool in the "progressive" media. This is a dangerous folly. The minister knows so very well what he is doing, and has not changed his way of presenting facts for a very long time. To confuse, obfuscate, and baffle those who care, but have limited resources to counter his utterances is his single aim. It provides time for his support base, and this is all that he requires. He, and many in this administration, are obscurantists of the first order. The fact that the opposition, and Australia's MSM have failed to counter his points of argument is an interesting and severe indictment on Australia's media, political class.
Deena Bennett | 03 June 2016


First, let's look at some facts. The Liberals have a Renewable Energy Target of 20% by 2030, compared with Labor's Target of 50% and the Greens Target of 90% by 2030. Now we know that 35% of the Great Barrier Reef is dead, that Pacific Islanders like the Carteret Islanders are having to relocate as their islands go under, that record breaking temperatures are now regularly recorded, and that megafires in Canada have also happened. Australians all need to see through the Liberals political spin, take climate mitigation themselves and vote for political parties and independents who are serious about passing on a healthy planet to their descendants.
Grant Allen | 03 June 2016


You are absolutely right! Spot on Greg Foyster. I have been so frustrated watching that boyish smiling face telling people that black was white. Even the most polished liars - the people working for the tobbacco companies in the 1960's and 1970's could not be so disarmlingly genuine. What Greg Hunt is doing is evil - it goes against all principles of intergenerational equity.
Kakadu | 03 June 2016


Thanks all for the comments. Uncle Pat, you might be right - it's perhaps just the more informed members of the public who suspect he's not to be trusted. He does seem very reasonable, and style trumps substance on television
Greg Foyster | 03 June 2016


Maybe quote Hunt's original thesis which appently favoured carbon pricing.Then he did a180degrees,;and get us some facts .I find that the best form of attack.
Susie Berger | 04 June 2016


10 yrs ago my scientist son explained simply 'global warming' (accurate term) generates more extreme weather events, more frequently. He said to observe it happening. After 10 years I've seen insurance companies (our money) and governments (our money) pay out for increasing death and destruction because of extreme weather events. Knowing this, citizens need to call Hunt out for LYING and failing to act in the best interests of all Australians - take him to court as happened in the Netherlands.
Stephen Segrave | 06 June 2016


I totally agree with Uncle Pat. Meanwhile we are seeing more extreme weather events such as the latest East Coast Low which has caused such misery . The weather stats are unrelenting with a new record Autumn temperature in Australia and record heat in the Indian sub continent and SE Asia. I just wonder how many more extreme weather events are going to happen before Hunt and the Government get the message! Sadly we are all going to pay for this in increased Insurance premiums and other taxes and charges.
Gavin | 08 June 2016


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