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Moderate Liberals push back against party move to oppose safeguard mechanism reform

Moderate Liberals push back against party move to oppose safeguard mechanism reform

Liberal moderates Paul Fletcher and Simon Birmingham pushed back against a decision to oppose the Albanese government’s planned overhaul of the safeguard mechanism during shadow cabinet deliberations over the past fortnight.

Labor is pursuing reforms to the safeguard mechanism, introduced first by Tony Abbott, to help drive down pollution from Australia’s heavy emitters in a trajectory consistent with the government’s national climate targets for 2030 and 2050.

After a majority in shadow cabinet favoured opposing the Albanese government’s new legislation facilitating below-baseline crediting in the safeguard mechanism, the Coalition party room rubber stamped the decision on Tuesday morning.

But Guardian Australian understands two shadow frontbenchers, Birmingham and Fletcher, expressed concern about the consequences of opposing Labor’s overhaul during the opposition’s internal deliberations last week and this week.

Sources say Birmingham, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, prefaced his objections to the majority inclination by noting his position “may not be popular” with Liberal and National party colleagues resolved to vote down the crediting reform.

The expression of fresh internal reservations about Peter Dutton’s political strategy on climate change follows a separate climate policy intervention in shadow cabinet last August, where Birmingham urged colleagues to heed the message of last year’s election.

In the lead up to the shadow cabinet and party room decision on the crediting legislation, the Coalition has faced public pressure from business groups to make looming reforms to the safeguard mechanism a bipartisan exercise.

Business groups have expressed concern that the Coalition’s failure to give the safeguard overhaul bipartisan support means a perpetuation of the decade-long climate wars, and opens the way for the Greens to demand changes to the government’s proposal as it makes its way through the parliament.

Greens leader Adam Bandt has already accused Labor of “gaslighting” and “greenwashing” for allowing new coal and gas mines to offset their emissions as part of the safeguard mechanism reboot.

The Ai Group has characterised the government’s legislation as essential policy infrastructure, and the chief executive of the organisation, Innes Willox, has argued “it is strongly in everyone’s interest to pass it.”

In urging the Coalition to come to the table, Willox said last month the government crediting amendment bill would provide the legal clarity necessary for business investment, and he noted safeguard crediting had been proposed by the Morrison government before it lost the May election.

“Getting industry emissions down in line with Australia’s 2030 emissions target, and to net zero by 2050, will require transformational investments by industry,” Willox said. “While climate policy will keep evolving, fundamentals like clear property rights in carbon units have to be clear or investments simply will not take place at the pace, scale and cost-effectiveness that we all want to see.”

Willox said he understood the Greens wanted to see the safeguard reboot deliver concrete emissions reductions in some of Australia’s most heavily polluting businesses, and said “safeguard mechanism credits are central to delivering that.”

The minister for climate change and energy Chris Bowen has blasted the Coalition’s stance on safeguard crediting as “rank hypocrisy” given the Morrison government had proposed below-baseline crediting before it lost the election last May.

Bowen noted that reform was a recommendation of an expert panel appointed by the Morrison government.

The safeguard mechanism was introduced by the Coalition under Abbott, but the regulation has failed to stop industrial emissions rising.

Changes proposed by Labor would set new emissions intensity limits for the country’s 215 biggest emitting facilities and reduce them by 4.9% a year for most companies. Polluters would also have unlimited access to carbon credits, which allow them to pay for cuts elsewhere.

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