Originally published in The Canberra Times on April 3, 2021

It’s incredible what can happen in a year. This time last year Australia was heading into lockdowns and recession. The Treasurer was still sipping on his “Back in Black” mug and clinging to the idea that any stimulus spending would be small, targeted and temporary, and hundreds of thousands of Australians were still recovering from the bushfires.

Since then, the Morrison government has increased the national debt, which is now closing in on a trillion dollars and rightly so. Doubling JobSeeker payments lifted hundreds of thousands of Australians out of poverty, and JobKeeper kept millions of Australians employed. Now hundreds of thousands of Australians are recovering from severe floods.

The Morrison government may be about to make the same mistake as the UK government following the Global Financial Crisis. By drastically cutting public spending on JobKeeper and JobSeeker, it will make Australia’s economic recovery much slower and crueller than it needs to be.

Treasury has estimated ending JobKeeper will cost up to 150,000 Australians their job – they call it a “bump” in unemployment, but that’s about the same population as Cairns, two to three times the size of the entire coal-mining industry, and a huge number for a government that claims to care about “jobs, jobs, jobs”. Australia Institute modelling shows that cutting JobSeeker will push a further 155,000 people into poverty, including 20,000 children. This deliberate choice by the government will mean there will be over 1,000,000 more people living in poverty compared to March 2020, and 580,000 more people in poverty compared to before the global pandemic.

It’s depressing to watch a federal government deliberately make the decision to push 20,000 children into poverty, and to force their parents to look for jobs that don’t exist. It’s obscene to put people into poverty while gifting wealthy Australians permanent income tax cuts worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

But common sense and decency have not been a feature of federal politics lately.

Then there’s our other existential crisis: climate change. Just before the pandemic hit our shores we had the Black Summer bushfires, which brought sections of the Australian economy to a halt just as effectively as the coronavirus.

You might recall that at one point the whole of the South Coast, from Batemans Bay to the Victorian border, was declared a “tourist leave zone” as 110 fires burned across NSW. Canberra effectively shut down as thick smoke blanketed the city, which had the worst air quality in the world for several days. Canberrans were already quite familiar with N95 masks by the time COVID-19 hit. And let’s not forget the floods earlier this month, likely to have been made worse by rising emissions.

Mining and burning gas and coal is supercharging climate impacts like extreme weather events. But while a vaccine rollout is under way (if way behind schedule) to address the health crisis, current federal and state government policy settings will the make the climate crisis worse, not better.

The Australia Institute has suggested one way to help fix the problem: with a moratorium on approvals for new coal mines. The NSW government has a net-zero emissions by 2050 target and has announced massive investments in renewable energy in regional Australia – but at the same time it is approving new coal mines. That’s like trying to prevent lung cancer by eating healthier while becoming a pack-a-day smoker.

New research from the Australia Institute also shows that in the Upper Hunter Valley, proposed new coal projects would have a combined output of 98 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year, equivalent to 10 new Adani-sized mines (under Adani’s current proposal).

There is no clean energy transition under way while new coal mines are being approved by the state government. That’s why the Australia Institute is proposing a moratorium on approvals for new coal mines. Just stop building new coal mines.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who owns farmland in the Upper Hunter, backed the moratorium, describing the situation as “out of control”.

“There needs to be, as the Australia Institute recommend, a comprehensive regional plan, I think, and a moratorium. I think what’s happened is that projects have been approved one at a time without really regard to the cumulative impact … [or] the need to ensure that we maintain a healthy environment and protect the health of our people,” Mr Turnbull told Fran Kelly on Radio National.

“We’ve got to plan that resource management so that we don’t devastate our landscape needlessly.”

The former prime minister also talked about the devastating health impacts of coal mining, like increased asthma rates and poor air quality. Until we stop building new coal mines, this devastation will only get worse.

Just this week the Australian Academy of Science warned that net-zero emissions by 2050 is an “absolute minimum” target to aim for if Australia is to “avoid potentially insurmountable challenges to its cities, ecosystems, industries and food and health systems”.

It warned of catastrophic fire seasons every other year and extreme heatwaves that would come around seven times a year; impacts the community is already experiencing, according to the Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2020 report.

Mining and burning gas and coal is fuelling these devastating climate impacts, but the gas and coal industry carry no responsibility and face no financial penalty. The massive financial burden of cleaning up after bushfires and floods and storms and recovery after heatwaves is either born by those on the front line – either directly or through insurance – or by taxpayers, through government spending programs.

The second part to this fix is how to address the cost of climate impacts: with a national climate compensation fund. The fund would be paid for through a levy of $1 per tonne of carbon dioxide for all coal, gas and oil exported from Australia, and would raise around $1.3 billion per year at the current prices and levels of production. As the scale of disaster increases, so could the levy. This properly places some of the financial burden onto those responsible for the problem, and because it’s only on exports, it would have no impact on Australian consumers.

This time last year, I would have laughed if you told me Malcolm Turnbull would back a moratorium on new coal mines. It’s incredible what can happen in a year.

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