Q+A: Matt Canavan grilled on climate change and family links to coal industry

Elias Visontay

The Nationals senator Matt Canavan has been grilled over his criticism of action against climate change during an episode of Q+A where he was also asked to clarify his family’s links to the coal industry. 

In an episode that also featured opposition agriculture and resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon defending his call for Labor to adopt the government’s target of reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2030, and independent MP Zali Steggall attacking Fitzgibbon for his views on gas extraction, Canavan was pushed by host Hamish Macdonald about his “interests” in the coal industry.

Canavan’s vocal support of the coal industry has included calls for new coal-fired power stations, despite his moderate government colleagues opposing the idea. But the senator pointed out he had disclosed his brother’s senior position in the coal industry during his maiden speech to the Senate. 

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“I hardly started talking about the coal industry yesterday ... I have been elected on that platform, to develop our country and keep our jobs here. I think the best way of doing that is making sure we do not deny ourselves the cheapest form of power and energy,” Canavan said. 

“The Australian people have never voted for net zero emissions ... We seem to try and get bullied into these positions that the Australian people didn’t vote for.”

When asked why the government was able to accept experts’ views when forming its coronavirus response but not when its climate change response, Canavan likened conflicting views of the impact of climate change to epidemiologists who differed on how drastic they thought lockdowns should be. 

“There are very, very different scientific views being put on this issue. So it’s not quite right to say that we just accepted the science,” he said, noting some experts have said governments are too strict, while others have said governments, like in Sweden, are too relaxed about lockdowns. 

“These are very hard questions ... And it’s the same thing with climate change science. 

“If you read the latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, the level of uncertainty around temperature increases from a doubling of carbon emissions has increased in the last 10 years. Increased. There’s no consensus on exactly what that figure will be,” Canavan said. 

Canavan also criticised the Paris climate agreement – something he has called for Australia to abandon – arguing the agreement is “transferring industrial wealth from the west and from Australia to China, a country that’s bullying and threatening us”.

Fitzgibbon argued “the market will never” build a new coal-fired power station in Australia, and defended his position for Labor adopting the government’s climate targets, “if we can get there [26%-28% emissions reduction by 2030] without causing people economic harm, then surely then we’ve got a stronger platform from which to sell a more meaningful policy”.

He also reiterated his support for coalmining – a significant employer in his electorate of Hunter – and said his backing of zero net emissions and support for the industry were not mutually exclusive. 

In calling for greater gas extraction to fill any shortfalls in energy production left by reductions in coal-fired power, Fitzgibbon said, “our manufacturing plants will not compete either domestically or internationally if we don’t get more gas out of the ground”.

“Domestic prices will go up if we do not get more gas out of the ground. And I get angry when I see state governments putting bans or moratoriums on gas in their own states, and then importing it from other states, and allowing others to take any environmental risks that might be involved,” he said. 

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Steggall called Fitzgibbon’s argument “completely inconsistent”.

“You’ve just indicated that you’re committed to net zero. We cannot be increasing gas out of the ground ... gas is as high in terms of emissions as coal,” she said. 

Fitzgibbon responded: “Do you really think, Zali, really, that we’re going to have enough renewables in the system to replace that baseload power and battery storage? No.”

Steggall replied: “Absolutely.” 

Zoe Whitton, Citi ESG analyst and Investor Group on Climate Change, also criticised increased gas extraction, saying “investors are very uncertain and hesitant about it”.

Macdonald asked Steggall if she was “picking and choosing” when to use experts’ opinions, after she cited chief scientist Alan Finkel’s work when making a point earlier in the program, but later rejected his views on gas being a transition fuel in 30 years.

Steggall denied she was picking and choosing when to rely on experts’ arguments, and said she disagreed with Finkel on gas because his view was at odds with the Australian Energy Market Operator’s integrated system plan.