Joel Fitzgibbon blasted by Mark Butler for backing gas-led Covid recovery plan

Katharine Murphy Political editor
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Labor’s climate and energy spokesman Mark Butler has blasted his frontbench colleague Joel Fitzgibbon for endorsing the taxpayer underwriting of new gas infrastructure, championed by one of Scott Morrison’s most influential business advisers, before seeing the specifics.

Fitzgibbon, the shadow resources minister, declared on Wednesday that Nev Power, the chair of Scott Morrison’s Covid advisory commission, was on the right path lobbying the government to support a gas-led recovery from the economic shock created by the pandemic.

Related: Australia's Covid commission downplays 'green recovery' and confirms gas push

“It would be a simple thing for government to do to underwrite some of these long-term gas contracts so that we can get on to the build, get on to delivering gas not only to households, but importantly, to our manufacturing sector,” Fitzgibbon said.

“Our manufacturing sector will remain in decline if we don’t get affordable gas to market and if we can do so, then we can rejuvenate our manufacturing industry and create jobs.”

But Butler told Guardian Australia it would be ludicrous for Labor to sign up to an unseen proposition.

“Why would we give support to a secret report the government refuses to show the Australian people – and whose central recommendation appears to be a taxpayer-funded gas pipeline from Western Australia – a project the government itself said just two years ago doesn’t stack up,” the Labor MP said. “This would be the longest white elephant in Australian history.”

Butler also insisted the recovery after the pandemic needed to set Australia on the path to low emissions.

He said measures “must be focused on bringing forward investment in new renewable energy projects and building on Australia’s huge potential as a clean energy manufacturer”. This would “create tens of thousands of new jobs, stimulate regional economies, deliver cheaper power prices, and help to tackle climate change”.

Butler noted that Australia’s major business organisations, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and others, had called for Australia’s economic recovery plan to be consistent with the Paris goal of net zero emissions by mid-century – a view that was held in the banking and finance sectors.

The clash follows an appearance by Power before the Senate committee examining the government’s management of Covid-19 on Tuesday. The former Fortescue executive confirmed the Covid commission had asked the government to underwrite new investment in gas pipelines as part of recommendations from a manufacturing taskforce report which considered policy interventions to increase the supply of gas for heavy manufacturing.

Related: Covid-19 commission should focus on carbon-neutral manufacturing projects, not just gas – ACTU

A draft of the report was leaked to Guardian Australia in May, but the final document has not been released. Power told senators if the government implemented the recommendations, it would play a role in boosting the attractiveness of new infrastructure to pipe gas around the country by guaranteeing off-take agreements, or “future-proofing” infrastructure.

Power confirmed he had been approached by business leaders wanting the government to use the recovery from the pandemic to lock in low-emissions energy, but said his organisation was not recommending “a green recovery per se”.

When pressed on whether renewables should be more central to the energy plan, Power said the commission had not “looked at energy in that context” – even though the manufacturing taskforce has evidently made specific recommendations about government underwriting of pipelines to improve the viability of gas to power heavy industry.

Related: Australian scientists feel strain during pandemic amid job cuts and pay freezes

Scott Morrison has signalled the government will have more to say on promoting a gas-led recovery in the coming weeks. Officials from Morrison’s department told Tuesday’s hearing they had prepared advice for the prime minister on the manufacturing taskforce report.

Butler and Fitzgibbon have been publicly at odds since the election about elements of Labor’s climate and energy policy for the next federal election. While Fitzgibbon’s front-running of the debate has some support internally, it has also caused irritation for colleagues who think Labor needs to stay the course on climate change while still representing the interests of blue-collar workers in traditional industries.

Fitzgibbon, who suffered a significant swing against him in his previously safe coalmining seat in the Hunter Valley in the 2019 election, has argued Labor should offer “a political and policy settlement” on climate policy by adopting the same medium-term emissions reduction target as the Coalition.

The Morrison government’s 2030 target is a 26%-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030. Labor at the last election proposed an emissions reduction target of 45%. Butler has rejected the Fitzgibbon pitch.

Labor has committed to a net zero emissions reduction target by 2050. Anthony Albanese has also committed Labor to setting a new medium-term emissions reduction target consistent with scientific advice before the next federal election.