Greg Hunt and the Sheikh Back-Scratching Theory


It would have made a great April Fools joke — if it wasn't only February. On Wednesday, we woke to the news that Greg Hunt, environment minister in the most anti-environment government in Australian history, had been awarded 'World's Best Minister' at an international summit in Dubai.

Greg Hunt receives awardThis was the environment minister in charge when the federal government scrapped the carbon price, abolished the independent Climate Commission, attempted to remove parts of Tasmania's wild forests from World Heritage listing, conducted a never-ending review of the Renewable Energy Target that decimated clean energy investment, slashed jobs in the Environment Department and CSIRO, and approved the massive Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin.

Under Hunt's now lauded environmental leadership, Australia's emissions actually rose from 2014-2015, and are on track to continue rising until 2030. Confidence evaporated in the clean energy industry, prompting a two-year investment drought and leading to the loss of 2500 clean energy jobs between 2013 and 2014.

Most recently we dived ten places in Yale University's Environment Performance Index, which Hunt himself once called 'the most credible, scientifically based' analysis of its kind.

Not exactly the hallmarks of the world's best.

So what on earth is this award, and why was it given to an environment minister who hasn't improved his country's environment? Here's an idea — it had nothing to do with Hunt's track record back home. In the grubby way of politics everywhere, the award is a favour returned. It's a thank you from an oil-rich nation for making it look good in the past. Let's call it the Sheikh Back-Scratching Theory.

Some context. The Best Minister in the World Award is a new initiative of the World Government Summit, a yearly forum hosted in oil-rich United Arab Emirates. The criteria are 'Innovation & Leadership', 'Quality & Impact', 'Replication' and 'Reputation'.

The Summit's website says the candidates and judges were chosen by media company Thomson Reuters, and in a radio interview Hunt said Reuters initiated the award. But Reuters has denied this, and quickly distanced itself from the process.

The biography of Hunt on the award's website isn't much help. Riddled with typos, it lists 'achievements' that only sound impressive if you don't know the background.

It mentions Hunt's Emissions Reduction Fund but not the successful carbon price that was repealed to make way for it. It spruiks the Renewable Energy Target, which the Abbott government undermined, then cut, while Hunt was environment minister. It refers to 'the opening of a major large scale solar project' when investment in clean energy all but froze under Hunt's watch.

Worst of all, it mentions Hunt's favourite piece of propaganda — that the 2030 emissions reduction target Australia took to the Paris climate change conference is one of the best in the world because it is 'the equivalent of reducing emissions per capital by up to 52 per cent'.

This is grossly misleading. The reason Australia can claim to reduce its emissions by such an extraordinary percentage is we're starting from such a high baseline. Responding to this claim for ABC Fact Check, CSIRO ecologist Pep Canadell said Australia's per capita emissions are the highest in the G20, and will still be the highest in 2030, even with this seemingly impressive percentage drop. 

The only credible clue as to why Hunt may have got the gong is in his acceptance speech. 'In November last year,' he said, 'the UAE hosted the Montreal Protocol discussion aimed at both protecting our ozone layer and reducing greenhouse emissions. Australia was delighted to support the UAE in producing a breakthrough Dubai Roadmap to phase down HFCs and to save the world an astonishing 90 billion tonnes of emissions to 2050.'

The Montreal Protocol refers to a global agreement, set up 30 years ago, to limit chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) gases found in fridges and aerosol cans that destroy the ozone layer. The problem has been that one of their replacements, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), turned out to be potent greenhouse gases.

As The Age reported in November, Hunt apparently 'led' this breakthrough on phasing down HFCs, and received praise for it in the weeks before the UN climate conference in Paris.

So Hunt helps the United Arab Emirates achieve kudos on the world stage for a breakthrough on the Montreal Protocol. The event is hosted in Dubai. Then, three months later, he receives an award — an inaugural award, with an opaque judging process — for being the best minister in the world.

The event is hosted by the UAE in Dubai, and the award handed over by ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum himself.

Coincidence? Hmmm. Even if the award wasn't a 'favour', Hunt's deal-brokering in Dubai surely played a role. (Either that, or the Gulf state wants to reward him for spruiking Direct Action as an alternative to carbon pricing, which could affect oil profits.) He has precious little else to recommend him.

Soon more information will emerge about why he really got this award. My money's on the Sheikh Back-Scratching Theory. Far-fetched though it may be, it's still more likely than him winning it on merit.


Greg Foyster headshot

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

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, renewable energy, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum



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Kill me now......
Peter Goers | 15 February 2016

Thanks Greg. I cringe every time I hear or see Mr Hunt in the media. He really has been a dreadful environment minister (among some pretty bad ones in previous regimes) in a government whose record in this area was and is abysmal. Our history in almost every ecological area is appalling, except perhaps in clean energy, which the Abbott/Hunt axis set out to destroy. I cant see Turnbull doing any better.
Paul Collins | 15 February 2016

How is it we end up with these self-important, visionless people in our parliament? If we're getting the MPs we deserve, it makes me feel we're a nation of dills.
Rob Brennan | 15 February 2016

Rob Brennan, You got it in one!
john frawley | 15 February 2016

Thank you for exposing what's behind this farcical award. It made me cringe and now it seems like a cynical joke.
Myrna | 15 February 2016

Rob Brennan asks the rhetorical question: "How is it we end up with these self-important visionless people in our parliament?" I give this non-rhetorical reply. It's because one must feel self-important enough to put oneself forward as a candidate in a particular electorate. To make sure of getting elected one must have a vision that will appeal to a majority of voters in that electorate. That vision can be as limited as a local swimming pool or a kindergarten. When these ego-driven people, if elected, assemble in Canberra and can form a government carrots are dangled before them to entice them to act in a certain way. At the same time a person called the Party Whip does just that. He whips them into line to make sure they deserve their carrots. I agree we do deserve better that's the system that has evolved over the last two and a bit centuries to decide who gets what, when, where and how. Why? should be in there somewhere but I think the system leaves that to shadowy figures called 'spin-doctors'.
Uncle Pat | 15 February 2016

In fairness to the timing of the announcement, it was Ash Wednesday here, so it was Pancake Tuesday in many parts of the world. Other names for Pancake Tuesday include Carnival, Mayhem Day and other names like that.
Jim Jones | 15 February 2016

As with other famous/infamous politicians, we/some seem obsessed with the exclusive high schools their parents decided to send them to - not something you hear about as much in US or UK politics. So maybe it says something about Australia's obsessions with boys' clubs, and the fact Aussie men take a bit longer to grow up. How many female politicians get mentioned in reference to the exclusive education they received when they were teenagers? (By the way, Greg Hunt does have a very neat hair cut and also appears impeccably dressed and well spoken! Surely that's all that matters?)
AURELIUS | 15 February 2016

Congratulations to Mr Hunt on getting this very nice certificate, by far his greatest achievement in public life. I'm not sure exactly what he did to deserve it but I reckon one day his name will be up there with the Gold Logie and Master Chef winners. Is there a list of runners up so we can see the field Greg had to knock out to win?
Brett | 15 February 2016

My stomach churns when I read anything written by Greg Hunt. The quicker he is discarded by the current Prime Minister, the better. I agree 100% with the comments of Paul Collins and Bob Brennan. Hunt must go, and go soon.
Paula Kelly | 15 February 2016

Greg you lost me at "the most anti-environment government in Australian history". I thought this was a serious on-line journal.
Martin Loney | 15 February 2016

I wish this article was built on fact versus a posture of plausibility, or not. Government is not a good allocator of resources. What the amount of money Australian Universities are spending on climate change research. Should we be duplicating our efforts with government run institutions ? The article would have been much more helpful if it discussed the current spilt of emissions in the country and why individually we are so high.
Luke | 15 February 2016

Maybe Uncle Pat, but I suspect that we get the candidates that we do because they satisfy increasingly narrow preselection processes and are then voted into office by people who vote for the party, rather than the person, and in the Senate, vote 1 above the line. How else could we ever get people like Bronnie and Cory on one side, or Stephen Conroy and Jacinta Allan on the other? It's time we put the major parties last in the Reps and voted below the line, for people rather than parties, in the Senate.
Ginger Meggs | 16 February 2016

Hi Luke, To answer your question, one important reason our emissions are so high per capita is Australia's reliance on aging coal fired power stations to generate electricity. Aside from a few Gulf states, most other developed nations have a more diverse energy mix.
Greg Foyster | 17 February 2016

Thanks, Ginger Meggs! I was simply, very simply, trying to answer Rob Brennan's rhetorical question. No, that is not entirely accurate. I was trying to alert him to the fact that the problem is with the way aspiring politicians have to behave. Your additional points re- the pre-selection and voting process I accept. Indirectly I was trying to allay Rob's feeling that 'we're a nation of dills'. Anyone reading Eureka Street would see that there are many non-dills in Australia. In fact the political articles in ES are uniformly of the highest standard and the submitted comments likewise, for the most part, measure up to that standard very closely indeed.
Uncle Pat | 17 February 2016

It's time Australians woke up and demanded a restructure of our entire political system. We need qualified, independent specialists in control of all critical matters; environment; infrastructure; Education; Health; Sale of valuable property to other countries etc. Too late once the Country and Planet are ruined!! The retirement benefits of politicians won't save them from the destruction they have caused, and it won't be redeemable in our life time - IF EVER????? So sick of all Australian politicians.
Trish Barr | 19 February 2016


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