Sunday, May 8, 2022

Ballarat, Australia — In the lead-up to the upcoming Australian federal election, four candidates for the Division of Ballarat met last Sunday at the Ballarat Tech School in a climate-centred forum organised by local group Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions (BREAZE).

In attendance were sitting Labor member Catherine King, Greens candidate and former mayor John Barnes, Australian Federation Party candidate Kerryn Sedgman, and independent candidate Alex Graham. Local Liberal and Liberal Democrats candidates gave apologies in place of attendance.

The event was preceded by a climate action rally outside the Ballarat Civics Hall and the Ballarat Town Hall, which featured speeches from both representatives of BREAZE, the Ballarat branch of Extinction Rebellion, Environment Victoria, the Public Transport Users Association, and the Ballarat Trades Hall.

The forum began with each candidate being given three minutes to summarise their policies on climate before questions were taken from members of the public. John Barnes, the Greens candidate, began by claiming “the Greens have the most ambitious program of any of the parties on addressing climate change”, and said if the Greens were in the balance of power in the coming election, they would work to push Labor towards the “reforming zeal of past generations”, invoking former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Barnes stated the Greens have a target of 75% emissions reduction by 2030, by which time they would also end the mining, burning, and export of coal in Australia.

Independent candidate Alex Graham began his speech by saying he was “passionate about our environment” and claimed to have “absolutely, without question, the best policy”, explaining the focus of his candidacy was to introduce a referendum that would allow the Australian government to “write its own money supply into existence”. Graham said this policy would deliver “money beyond the pale to totally restore our environment”.

Incumbent MP Catherine King said that in her twenty years as an MP, the Australian Parliament had been unable to deal with the climate issue. She referenced previous attempts by the last Labor government to legislate policies to tackle climate change, such as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), but stated these efforts were “completely and utterly dismantled” after the 2013 election.

King referred to the Powering Australia policy announced in December 2021 by Labor energy and climate spokesperson Chris Bowen, stating the policy had been supported by the Business Council of Australia (BCA), National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and “some” environmental groups. King stated the policy included a commitment to 43% emissions reduction by 2030, net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and it would overall “grow jobs, increase renewable energy, and bring emissions down”.

Kerryn Sedgman of the Australian Federation Party promised to centre the opinions of views of the community, and read from the Federation policy on climate directly, saying “carbon is not the enemy. Toxic pesticides are the true enemy.” Sedgman claimed pesticides were the primary source of nitrous oxide (N?O) released, and that N?O was “300 times worse than carbon”.

After the candidates concluded with their opening summaries, members of the public were open to ask questions. The first question asked candidates what their first two priorities were for climate action. Barnes said the Greens’ top priority was “prompt action”, and they would also focus on transforming the nation’s economy to “a new way — a new sustainable way — of making our living in the world”. Graham stated if Australia had a limitless supply of money, there would not be a climate change issue and Australia would become a model for the world. He said his two priorities would be creating more money and introducing newer technologies.

King said her first priority would be getting more renewables into the grid and generally increasing the amount of renewables, and also added a third priority, saying that as Minister for Transport and Infrastructure in a Labor government, she would add a climate section to the department and work to create a network of electric vehicle charging stations. Sedgman stated “there’s more than two top priorities”, but remarked that soil regeneration was a key part of carbon sequestration, and called for a more immediate approach to deal with climate through education and community hubs.

The event was then disturbed slightly by a person asking about a supposed “ninety-year suppression order suppressing the names of twenty-eight VIP alleged paedophiles”, who was asked to leave by organisers for disrupting the event. King labeled the belief a “QAnon conspiracy theory”.

After this, the topic shifted to the proposed Western Victorian Transmission Network, a proposed overhead transmission line from Bulgana to Sydenham. Graham said his proposed referendum, if successful, could lead to the federal government subsidising a plan to put the transmission line underground beneath the Western Highway, emphasising we shouldn’t “let money interfere with saving this planet”. King noted the location of a proposed transfer station was “really problematic”, but stated the issue lay more with the regulatory process, and Labor would work with state and territory governments to reform this process.

Sedgman admitted she was not fully aware of some of the background King had bought up, and she would like to speak to those affected personally. Barnes said the consultation of AusNet, who propose building the transmission line, had not been good, and hopes an extended time granted for the environmental impact statement will allow all people affected to be properly heard. Barnes also stated AusNet had claimed diverting the line underground would cost thirteen times more than the overhead alternative, while a Shire of Moorabool study showed it would only cost five times more.

One questioner asked about what the candidates would do to investigate the possibility of direct air capture. Barnes remarked “the best way to sequester carbon is not to release it in the first place”, and said the mechanical removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was “probably a pipe dream”. Graham quipped he was “prepared to ask my friend if he could do it, and I’m sure he could.” King argued the technology was “a fair way off yet”, but noted A$3 billion was reserved in Labor’s Powering Australia plan for new technologies to reduce emissions. Sedgman stressed the importance of reducing the “extraordinary rate” at which deforestation occurs.

Candidates were then asked if they would commit to no new coal and gas infrastructure. King confirmed a moratorium on new coal and gas was not part of Labor policy, but they were not interested in investing taxpayer funds towards them, contrasting it with what she said was the current government’s approach to projects such as the Collinsville Power Station. Graham said, as someone who had previously worked in the industry, he would “close down every coal-fired power station as soon as it was possible” and disallow the construction of new coal-fired power stations. Graham also pledged to close down coal mines and ban fracking.

Barnes stated the Greens take the advice of the International Energy Agency seriously, and would not allow any new coal, gas, or oil projects, as well as closing down coal-fired power stations by 2030, to be replaced by renewable energy. Barnes emphasised the need to lower emissions before 1.5 °C of global warming was reached.

One questioner asked candidates what they would do in the event of two scenarios after the coming election — one being that Labor had a clear majority, the other that the Greens held the balance of power. King stated the “beauty of power in Australia” was it didn’t require any legislation. However, she said Labor would still attempt to legislate targets of 43% emissions reduction and net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Barnes reiterated the Greens in the balance of power would push Labor to be more ambitious, and that while compromise would be needed in a hung parliament, the Greens would “play hardball” on addressing the climate.

Candidates were then asked about a proposal from Beyond Zero Emissions to turn northern Australia into the “battery of Asia”. Barnes stated Australia could become a “energy superpower”, and good government policy could have the market “with us” on this issue. King declared over 600,000 jobs could be realised under Labor’s Powering Australia plan, and concurred in saying Australia should be a renewable energy superpower and exporting technology to the world. She highlighted the need for a government that “believes in climate change, believes that we have to do something about it”, and restated that Labor’s plan was endorsed by the BCA and NFF.

The final question asked how those in coal communities such as the Hunter Valley could be helped to deal with the potential loss of jobs with a transition to renewable energy. Graham responded by calling for a “basic, living universal wage to all people”, while Sedgman asked who was eligible to have these jobs in the first place “due to the current mandate conditions”. King said the demand for fossil fuels was running out, with trading partners setting targets of net zero emissions by 2050. She underlined the “really good jobs in renewables”, and emphasised the need to start now in training people for new, good-paying renewable jobs, as otherwise these workers wouldn’t get jobs again.

Barnes stated the Greens had announced A$19 billion over ten years with the aim of transitioning communities affected by a move away from fossil fuels, they would aim for renewables running the power system by 2030, and they would run retraining programs and maintain existing incomes for “up to a decade” if workers cannot find “equally lucrative” jobs. Barnes emphasised the need to not vilify those working in mining communities, and a plan must be in place for these communities to maintain their dignity.

The forum concluded with representatives from Environment Victoria in the local area invited to present copies of an open letter calling for “faster and fairer climate action”, and which was signed by 125 people. Among other things, the letter called for a replacement of “coal, oil and gas with clean energy”, “a national plan to slash climate pollution this decade with strong targets that, at a minimum, match our trading partners”, and an accelerated rollout of renewable energy projects with the aim of creating “a healthy, prosperous economy while ceasing new energy generating projects from fossil fuel sources”.

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