Australia's incoming prime minister seen moving cautiously on climate policy

Australia’s incoming prime minister Malcolm Turnbull may seek to reposition greater action to fight climate change as an economic booster, analysts and academics said on Tuesday, but will move slowly to avoid losing the support of his colleagues.

Turnbull is set to become Australia’s fourth prime minister in two years when he is sworn in later on Tuesday after securing the leadership of the Liberal Party, the senior partner in the ruling conservative coalition, in a vote on Monday.

Australia is one of the largest carbon emitters on a per capita basis due to its reliance on coal-fired power plants. Turnbull reaffirmed shortly after ousting former leader Tony Abbott his commitment to continuing the government’s carbon emission targets and climate change policy.

However, analysts and academics said they expect him to make some amendments, albeit slowly and in a manner more acceptable to his coalition colleagues

“I have no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull will be wanting to move the party in a different direction on climate change but he will also be remembering with some tenderness that this was the issue that saw him ousted as opposition leader,” said Sarah Maddison, associate professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

Abbott toppled Turnbull in a party-room coup in late 2009, when the coalition was in opposition, primarily amid discontent over Turnbull’s support for an emissions trading scheme.

I have no doubt that Malcolm Turnbull will be wanting to move the party in a different direction on climate change but he will also be remembering with some tenderness that this was the issue that saw him ousted as opposition leader.

Sarah Maddison, associate professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne

“I imagine that he will attempt to sell changes in government policy on economic terms rather than environmental terms,” Maddison said.

Turnbull has made improving Australia’s faltering economy the focus of his leadership. Analysts expect him to sell a more aggressive climate change policy as a tool in managing the end of Australia’s once-in-a-century mining boom.

Turnbull may have better success in bringing often sceptical Liberal colleagues with him by dressing climate change policies as a tool to offset a slowing Australian economy, analysts said.

He would likely attempt to tie climate change policies to Australia’s future economic security, analysts said, particularly as a tool to address an unemployment rate that is lingering near a 13-year high amid a mining slowdown.

Turnbull adopting stronger climate change policies would bring the coalition more in step with public opinion.

“The world has changed,” said John Connor, chief executive officer of the Climate Institute, which advocates for action on global warming. “Now in mid-2015, Australians very much support stronger climate action and overwhelmingly support investment in renewal energy.”

A Climate Institute poll last month showed 63 per cent of Australians believed that the Abbott-led government was not doing enough to tackle climate change.

In August, Australia pledged to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, a commitment that did little to stem criticism of Abbott’s strong support for coal and for scrapping an ambitious carbon tax and emissions trading plan last year.

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