Greg Hunt and the sheikh back-scratching theory

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

It would have made a great April Fools joke — if it wasn’t only February. On Wednesday, we woke to the news that Greg Hunt, environment minister in the most anti-environment government in Australian history, had been awarded ‘World’s Best Minister’ at an international summit in Dubai.

This was the environment minister in charge when the federal government scrapped the carbon price, abolished the independent Climate Commission, attempted to remove parts of Tasmania’s wild forests from World Heritage listing, conducted a never-ending review of the Renewable Energy Target that decimated clean energy investment, slashed jobs in the Environment Department and CSIRO, and approved the massive Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin.

Under Hunt’s now lauded environmental leadership, Australia’s emissions actually rose from 2014-2015, and are on track to continue rising until 2030. Confidence evaporated in the clean energy industry, prompting a two-year investment drought and leading to the loss of 2500 clean energy jobs between 2013 and 2014.

Most recently we dived ten places in Yale University’s Environment Performance Index, which Hunt himself once called ‘the most credible, scientifically based’ analysis of its kind.

Not exactly the hallmarks of the world’s best.

So what on earth is this award, and why was it given to an environment minister who hasn’t improved his country’s environment? Here’s an idea — it had nothing to do with Hunt’s track record back home. In the grubby way of politics everywhere, the award is a favour returned. It’s a thank you from an oil-rich nation for making it look good in the past. Let’s call it the Sheikh Back-Scratching Theory.

Some context. The Best Minister in the World Award is a new initiative of the World Government Summit, a yearly forum hosted in oil-rich United Arab Emirates. The criteria are ‘Innovation & Leadership’, ‘Quality & Impact’, ‘Replication’ and ‘Reputation’.

The Summit’s website says the candidates and judges were chosen by media company Thomson Reuters, and in a radio interview Hunt said Reuters initiated the award. But Reuters has denied this, and quickly distanced itself from the process.

The biography of Hunt on the award’s website isn’t much help. Riddled with typos, it lists ‘achievements’ that only sound impressive if you don’t know the background.

It mentions Hunt’s Emissions Reduction Fund but not the successful carbon price that was repealed to make way for it. It spruiks the Renewable Energy Target, which the Abbott government undermined, then cut, while Hunt was environment minister. It refers to ‘the opening of a major large scale solar project’ when investment in clean energy all but froze under Hunt’s watch.

Worst of all, it mentions Hunt’s favourite piece of propaganda — that the 2030 emissions reduction target Australia took to the Paris climate change conference is one of the best in the world because it is ‘the equivalent of reducing emissions per capital by up to 52 per cent’.

This is grossly misleading. The reason Australia can claim to reduce its emissions by such an extraordinary percentage is we’re starting from such a high baseline. Responding to this claim for ABC Fact Check, CSIRO ecologist Pep Canadell said Australia’s per capita emissions are the highest in the G20, and will still be the highest in 2030, even with this seemingly impressive percentage drop.

The only credible clue as to why Hunt may have got the gong is in his acceptance speech. ‘In November last year,’ he said, ‘the UAE hosted the Montreal Protocol discussion aimed at both protecting our ozone layer and reducing greenhouse emissions. Australia was delighted to support the UAE in producing a breakthrough Dubai Roadmap to phase down HFCs and to save the world an astonishing 90 billion tonnes of emissions to 2050.’

The Montreal Protocol refers to a global agreement, set up 30 years ago, to limit chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) gases found in fridges and aerosol cans that destroy the ozone layer. The problem has been that one of their replacements, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), turned out to be potent greenhouse gases.

As The Age reported in November, Hunt apparently ‘led’ this breakthrough on phasing down HFCs, and received praise for it in the weeks before the UN climate conference in Paris.

So Hunt helps the United Arab Emirates achieve kudos on the world stage for a breakthrough on the Montreal Protocol. The event is hosted in Dubai. Then, three months later, he receives an award — an inaugural award, with an opaque judging process — for being the best minister in the world.

The event is hosted by the UAE in Dubai, and the award handed over by ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum himself.

Coincidence? Hmmm. Even if the award wasn’t a ‘favour’, Hunt’s deal-brokering in Dubai surely played a role. (Either that, or the Gulf state wants to reward him for spruiking Direct Action as an alternative to carbon pricing, which could affect oil profits.) He has precious little else to recommend him.

Soon more information will emerge about why he really got this award. My money’s on the Sheikh Back-Scratching Theory. Far-fetched though it may be, it’s still more likely than him winning it on merit.