Which of these climate policy-wrecking companies are you connected to?  Fill out this quick survey so together we can target them with a huge wave of customer dissatisfaction

At his press conference on 25 February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose his words most carefully.

Peppered through his announcement were key sound bites, on repeat: “reckless target”, “tremendous cost,” “damaging jobs,” “damaging the economy,” “taking a sledgehammer to the economy,” a “wrecking-ball through the economy.

Meeting our climate commitments without wrecking the economy”, read the title of his press release that day.  

The repetition of these sounds bites is no coincidence. 

They are part of a long-term strategic campaign designed to stoke anxiety over the economics of climate action – and steer Australia’s policy response in favour of continuing to burn coal.

Morrison's announcement (of the Coalition’s twelfth climate policy position under its third leader since 2013) shows the Prime Minister knows he is unelectable without a “fair dinkum”-sounding climate policy. He rebranded an old Tony Abbott policy as a “Climate Solutions Package." As usual, he was careful to emphasise his commitment to the economy, lest anyone question his true motives.

In reality, of course, the cost of burning coal – to Australians and all inhabitants of our planet – is unimaginable.

Burning coal is literally putting all of civilisation at risk. We are already experiencing record-breaking extreme weather and the world’s climate scientists have warned humanity has 12 years to make radical transformations to how we generate electricity.

Who is behind the Prime Minister’s “economy wrecking” talking points?

There are, of course, the usual suspects. Gina Rinehart. The Minerals Council of Australia. The Institute of Public Affairs. Big, well-known coal oligarchs and lobby groups who frequently court controversy and bask in attention. They've been frequent visitors to Canberra for decades now, sweet talking our elected representatives and funding elaborate advertising campaigns so they can keep making money burning coal while wrecking our climate.  

In the lead up to the 2010 federal election, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), a peak lobby-group for the mining sector, spent $17.2 million campaigning against the Minerals Resource Rent Tax – known more commonly as ‘the mining tax’. Gina Rinehart funded and attended a public rally against the same policy, calling on politicians to “axe the tax”.

In 2014, Peabody Energy used the G20 meeting in Brisbane to lobby government leaders to embrace coal as a solution to global “energy poverty” – a central phrase used in subsequent global marketing campaigns to rebrand coal.

The biggest political expenditure during the 2016 federal election was $3.6 million made by ACA Low Emissions Technologies Ltd, which manages a fund established by members of the Australian coal industry. It’s largest single outlay was an ad campaign called “Coal – It’s an Amazing Thing”.

In 2017, the MCA sought to suppress the voice of environmental charities – lobbying the government to ban them from using more than 10% of their expenditure on advocacy.

These overt campaigns against climate policy in Australia have been hugely damaging. Despite experiencing increasingly severe climate impacts – devastating bushfires, reef bleaching, floods and droughts that break all records – Australia’s climate pollution is continuing to get worse.

Quietly steering Australia's climate policy inaction

Equally concerning, however, is the quiet manipulation of Australia’s climate policy by lesser-known lobby groups, often gaining influence through more subtle means.

Increasingly, these groups are tangibly shaping the content and narrative of our political discourse on climate action and perceptions of what is a legitimate policy response.

Chief among this quiet constituency, and the group responsible for the Prime Minister’s recent framing of his national climate policy, is the Business Council of Australia (BCA).

The BCA are not typically associated with the more vocal members of Australia’s fossil fuel lobby. Nonetheless they have become a powerful voice on the issue of climate change. This is clearly evidenced by the rapid proliferation of the term “economy wrecking” in the context of Australia’s climate and energy debate.

The BCA is actually just the CEOs of some well-known companies. Fill out this quick survey so together we can target them with a huge wave of customer dissatisfaction

That tweet

The proliferation of this key soundbite all started with a tweet.

On June 26 2018 the Business Council of Australia (BCA) tweeted: “The emissions target of 26% is appropriate and achievable. 45% is an economy wrecking target.”

They tweeted this statement in the midst of intense national debate over the federal government’s new energy policy, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

In the tweet, the BCA offered support for the Coalition’s 26 per cent emissions reduction in the electricity sector, while admonishing the more ambitious economy-wide target proposed by the opposition.

In the weeks and months that followed, “economy wrecking” quickly became part of the government’s lexicon on energy and climate.

In August, less than two months later, then Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg restated the BCA’s dismissal of a more ambitious target on the floor of the Federal Parliament. Now the Federal Treasurer, he has since repeatedly reiterated the position.

In multiple statements during September and November, the new Federal Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, suggested a NEG with a 45% emission reduction target would be an “economic wrecking ball”.

In December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited the BCA and its “economy wrecking” language when defending the government’s eventual scrapping of the NEG, whilst Environment Minister, Melissa Price, read the BCA’s original tweet verbatim in parliament.

As recently as 8 February 2019, Angus Taylor and Melissa Price again cited the BCA’s position in a joint media release concerning Australia’s Paris Agreement targets.

Now, almost eight months after the initial tweet, the “economy wrecking” talking point has permeated the national climate and energy policy debate.

It has been held up by senior government ministers as an authority on the business community’s sentiment towards climate action and used to stoke anxiety over the purported economic impacts of a transition to cleaner energy. And it has of course most recently contributed to the framing the Coalition's entire national climate policy for the next federal election.

Who is the BCA?

The BCA is predominantly the CEOs of the largest corporations in Australia, although the group often purports to represent the views of the Australian business community at large. Representing such a constituency yields substantial power and influence over political leaders eager to demonstrate they have the support of the business community.

The BCA’s advocacy on climate and energy policy has increased with the growing presence of climate change as a key political issue in Australia. Historically, the BCA has recognised climate change as a key threat to Australia and Australian businesses. However, the group’s policy ambition has often fallen short of the level actually required to address such a material threat to Australia’s prosperity.

The BCA’s track record on climate change

The BCA was formed in 1983 as a multi-industry association representing the voices of the Australian business community. In the four decades since, it has grown to become Australia’s preeminent business lobby group. 

Historically, the group focused on traditional areas of corporate policy such as company tax reform, workplace regulation and trade. In its early years, the BCA’s contribution to the Australian climate debate was limited. 

The BCA neither supported or rejected the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. In defence of its neutrality, the group cited a lack of definitive information about the protocol’s impacts for business and divergent views among its membership.

It did however affirm that member companies were united in their view that climate change was a key issue for the Australian corporate sector. In 2007, the BCA offered support for carbon pricing through an emissions trading scheme (ETS) settling on it as their preferred climate policy.

Over the past decade, the BCA has periodically focused more attention on climate and energy issues, as the debate over the Australian government’s policy response has intensified.

During this time, the BCA’s own positions on various elements of climate and energy policy have evolved significantly.

In 2008, the newly elected Rudd Government released the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) Green Paper. The paper outlined the government’s initial plan to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions, proposing as the centrepiece, a national cap-and-trade ETS.

At the time, the BCA were strong and influential supporters of a cap-and trade ETS policy, arguing that an ETS was the most cost-effective way to reduce Australia’s emissions. However, when the Green Paper was released, the group’s commentary resisted strongly the government’s own ETS proposal outlined within. Its response to the Green Paper referenced “destructive consequences” of the proposed ETS. It suggested that it could “destroy business” while forcing others to “fundamentally review their operations.”

Such alarmist language and pessimistic forecasts ultimately contributed to a narrative that would come to define the ETS policy debate in Australia – that a strong carbon pricing regime was incompatible with a strong economy.

In 2011, after the election of the Gillard government, the BCA once again flagged its support for an ETS mechanism. Yet, when presented with another specific government policy in the form of the Clean Energy Future package (CEFP), it once again resisted the reforms. In its submission to a Joint Select Committee Inquiry into the CEFP, the BCA suggested the package presented “considerable risks to Australia’s long term”. It went on to question the mandate of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and forecast that the electricity sector could require as much as $10 to $12 billion in assistance because of the CEFP.

By 2014, BCA chief executive, Jennifer Westacott was publicly calling for a repeal of the carbon price, welcoming its eventual repeal later that year stating that it had placed “a serious drag on the economy”. In the same year, Westacott also called for an assessment of the economic costs of the Renewable Energy Target and progressing the removal of state-based energy efficiency schemes.

Since the repeal of the carbon tax, the BCA has applied similar pressure on other aspects of critical climate reforms.

Alongside the MCA, they have lobbied the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to include coal as one of its funding priorities. They have called for the inclusion of Carbon Capture and Storage technology within the investment mandate of the CEFC and suggested it may be used to sustain the role of coal in Australia’s future energy mix.

The BCA currently supports the Coalition government’s 26 per cent emission reduction target for the electricity sector, while describing a 45 per cent target as “economy wrecking”. Modelling by the Energy Security Board has forecasted the sector will achieve a 24 per cent reduction on 2005 levels by 2021-22 alone. This reduction is largely the result of successful clean energy policies that were resisted by the BCA.

The breakdown of NEG negotiations at the end of 2018 and the ascension of climate change as a key electoral issue in recent state elections, by-elections and the upcoming 2019 federal election has provided a fresh inflection point in the BCA’s engagement in the national climate and energy conservation.

In June 2018, Jennifer Westacott reportedly told a special meeting of the LNP’s backbench committee on energy and the environment that the BCA would oppose the ALP’s 45 per cent emission reduction target, declare it “economy wrecking” and run a public campaign against it. In July 2018, current BCA president Grant King, wrote an op-ed calling for the continued expansion of Australian coal and gas exports. In August 2018 Jennifer Westacott suggested increasing renewable energy penetration constituted a “reliability risk” over the grid. Two days later she warned that a more ambitious emissions target in the NEG would lead to “deindustrialisation”. In January of this year, in a video distributed across the BCA’s social media channels, she stated that "[o]nly business can get lower energy prices by investing in coal fired power stations..."

Over the last decade the BCA’s rhetoric on climate has shifted dramatically.

The group, once an important and powerful supporter of a price on carbon and a national ETS, is now a significant roadblock to more ambitious climate and emissions reduction policy. Although the BCA has consistently recognised climate change as a real and material risk, the group has largely failed to advocate for policy that would protect Australian consumers and businesses.

Divergent talking points: BCA versus member companies

The BCA is made up of CEOs from over 100 companies, each with individual brands and public profiles. When it comes to the issue of climate change, many BCA member companies have official positions on climate change and Australia’s policy response that are in direct contradiction to the positions held by the BCA.

Commonwealth Bank’s climate policy position statement includes a commitment to ensure lending policies support a responsible transition to a zero net emissions economy by 2050. The bank has also committed to power its direct operations with 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Coca Cola Amatil have a series of 2020 environmental commitments that include reducing the carbon footprint of the 'drink in your hand' by 25 per cent and using 60 per cent renewable or low-carbon energy in their operations. They also recently reached a deal in collaboration with Telstra, ANZ and the University of Melbourne to pre-purchase energy generated from the Murra Warra wind farm, near Horsham in Victoria. The project is slated to be the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere and reduce carbon emissions by around 900,000 tonnes per annum.

Medibank committed to carbon neutrality from its direct emission by the end of 2018 and has commenced a transition to a low-carbon investment portfolio. Announcing the companies’ new policies in 2017, Medibank Chair Elizabeth Alexander said that “[Medibank] understand that the health of the environment has an impact on the health of the community.”

Google reached 100% renewable energy for its global operations in 2017. It is a member of the American Council on Renewable Energy, the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, and a founding member of the U.S. Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance. In its 2016 Environmental Report, Google stated that “[i]n addition to direct engagement and advocacy, we push for clean energy policies through industry partnerships and by participating in trade associations, standing alongside many of the world’s most influential companies in working to tackle climate change”.

Siemens is targeting zero net emissions across production facilities and buildings worldwide by 2030. It has also committed by 2020 to invest €100 million in energy efficiency projects and source 70% of its electricity consumption from renewable energy.

Telstra has promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by 2020 and identified, as a strategic priority, the need to manage climate change risks and build climate resilience across its network. The company’s position statement on climate change states that “[w]e believe that business has an important role to play in addressing global warming. We need to work in partnership with governments and the wider community to minimise the environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change”.

All of this positive action is overshadowed by their continued membership in an organisation that has consistently resisted a coordinated legislative response to the same problem.

This is not a new or isolated trend.

High profile members have a track record of diverging from the BCA’s official position on climate policy.

For example, in 2011, while the BCA was expressing fears over the impact of the CEFP and a national price on carbon pollution, major member companies offered public support for the same reforms. In its submission to the Joint Select Committee Inquiry into Australia’s Clean Energy Future, the BCA stated that “[it] believes that the clean energy future package as currently designed presents considerable risks to Australia’s long term.” However, in their own submission to the same inquiry AGL stated that it “supports the Government’s intent to legislate for a carbon price” while suggesting the CEFP was “the preferred approach to delivering reductions in emissions at lowest cost.”

Similarly, Westpac’s own submission affirmed that “[o]verall, Westpac supports the carbon pricing framework as detailed within the Clean Energy legislative package. While NAB CEO Cameron Clyne stated “If you’re asking for an economic assessment of the two, the carbon price followed by an ETS is economically superior to a direct action policy.”

These examples reveal a level policy ambition on the part of many major Australian companies that far exceeds, and in many cases, directly contradicts positions advanced by the BCA.

Convoluted gaslighting

The result is a convoluted kind of gaslighting, which has seen some of Australia’s most recognisable brands extend olive branches of climate action to their own customers, employees and shareholders while simultaneously funding some of the most powerful rhetoric seeking to diminish a national legislative response.

It is a phenomenon that has pervaded corporate Australia’s response to climate change over the last decade and succeeded in further muddying the national debate.

Actions and statements on climate change made by member companies through their individual brands cannot be separated from the contradictory positions the BCA holds and has promoted on the very same issue.

Australian businesses cannot send mixed messages to markets and consumers on climate change. Increasingly, all stakeholders are calling on companies to recognise their contribution to global climate change and address exposures to material climate risks threatening their business. This must include an assessment of third-party relationships and associations.

It is irreconcilable for a company, serious about addressing climate change, to lend its resources or brand to any special interest group or industry associations that advocates for contradictory climate policies.

It is up to customers, employees and shareholders to hold the BCA member companies to account. To demand that a company’s individual response to the threat of climate cannot be separated from the positions advocated by lobby groups of which they remain a member.

Fergus Kinnaird

Economic Analyst at Australian Conservation Foundation