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Who Are We Safeguarding?

March 27, 2023

By Amy Blain

The last day of 2019 started in pitch-blackness. It was 7 am on a mid-summer morning and the sky was jet black. Fires had travelled fast overnight, leaping 120km and had reached us at our holiday retreat, a gorgeous homestay in beautiful Bermagui.

The fires were close enough that ash was falling from the blackened sky. It felt post-apocalyptic. The filtration plant was fire damaged, the water contaminated, the power and communication signals lost.

The supermarket was out of bottled water. A pregnant woman in the RSL from Cobargo, voice filled with emotion, spoke of her partner left fighting to save their home whilst she fled in terror with her toddler.

There is nothing like the powerlessness of a parent looking into their child’s hopeful eyes and not being able to reassure them that they are safe.

Our hearts broke when our six-year-old said, “This is the worst day of my life and that all she wanted for 2020 was for there to be no more fires.

We all huddled in the bed together in our clothes, ready to evacuate. No-one slept, everyone was anxious.

New Year’s Day 2020: We drove home to Canberra on a busy road back through a smoke-filled coastline. There was nowhere without smoke in a 300km stretch. Tensions were high in Tathra, where fires had only recently struck and caused devastation. A town still reeling and recovering, and now expected to be resilient for the next fires. Cooma was choking on smoke; so thick it was an impenetrable fog.

Snowy Mountains Highway shrouded in smoke during the 2019/2020 Black Summer Bush fires
Snowy Mountain Highway near Cooma on the 1st of January 2020. Photo credit: Joachim Zens/

Canberra started 2020 with the worst air quality in the world. The air we breathed was hazardous, well above dangerous levels. Our six-year-old had to get ash out of her eye and we cleaned the ash from our newborn’s ears. Our eldest’s bedroom was smoky. We were quarantined in the house.

The ACT declared a state of alert. Australia was a country on its knees. If it wasn’t burning, it was smoke-filled.

Then there were the floods. People in Lismore and NSW hit with ever increasing water levels, each one rising higher than the last, until in 2022 taking refuge on your home’s roof was the norm.

Resilience planning now looks like placing road signs on tall poles so that rescue boats can navigate besieged towns. Rain brings anxiety.

The Science tells us that there can be no more fossil fuel projects, no more coal, gas or oil. The International Energy Agency tells us that we do not need any more coal, gas or oil to meet our domestic energy needs.

When the government claims to be “following the science”, it can’t be true.

When the government says we need more coal, gas and oil to meet our domestic energy needs, it can’t be true.

When the government says new projects will be approved if they “stack up”, this does not mean stacking up morally or economically.

When the government says, “We need to keep the lights on,” we know we can meet our domestic energy needs already – we export 80 per cent of our gas.

This week Parliament discusses the Safeguard Mechanism, Labor’s flagship policy, which is being presented as the way to manage the emissions of the top 215 facilities. It is a policy that only looks at 28 per cent of Australia’s emissions, but tells us a lot about the focus of the government.

The Safeguard Mechanism allows for new coal, gas and oil projects, including expansions and extensions. It allows for unlimited use of carbon ‘offsets’ when we know that many offsets are dubious. It also permits those top emitters to effectively pay off their emissions bill at a low $75 per ton, which will not serve as a disincentive for those companies that have billions in profits.

coal fired power station in the Hunter Valley
Emissions from a coal fired power station in the Hunter Valley, who is the government really safeguarding? Photo credit: Greenpeace/Sewell

We have to ask ourselves who is the government really safeguarding. A recent national poll for GetUp shows that 61.6 per cent of respondents think Labor should work with the Greens and independents to make sure the laws require corporations to make genuine cuts to pollution. And, overwhelmingly, 80.3 per cent of Labor voters agree that the Albanese Government should ensure the Safeguard Mechanism requires big corporations to actually cut their pollution.

If the Safeguard Mechanism is not going to hold the top polluters to account for their emissions and their role in the climate disasters we are now facing, how are they going to reach their unambitious 43 per cent target?

Surely we would need to see a climate trigger in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act? The evidence is unequivocal.

For Labor to make policies that allow for over 100 new coal, oil and gas projects to open flies in the face of the science and the good faith that Australian voters put in Labor to address the climate emergency.

The latest IPCC report shows we still have time; we just need to act now. The science tells us clearly. Morality, equally so.

 Frank Jotzo and Mark Howden, both climate scientists involved in the latest IPCC revealed,

“Rapid action on climate change is the economically sensible thing to do. If we fail to rein in emissions, adapting to the damage it causes will be more difficult and expensive in future. What’s more, our existing adaptation options will become less effective.

Every increment of warming will intensify climate-related hazards such as floods, droughts, heatwaves, fires and cyclones. Often, two or more hazards will occur at the same time.”

We do not have time for countries that should be global leaders to act disingenuously, for them to allow fossil fuel companies to continue to game the system. The top emitters have had decades to transition and billions of dollars in profits to do so.

These companies sold us the lie that our carbon footprint could make the difference; communities have done their best and now those responsible need to give us a fighting chance at a liveable future.

Is the government really looking at safeguarding those communities that are on the frontlines of climate disasters, or are they sending a clear message that there is worse to come, and they are safeguarding someone else’s interests?

So who is Labor actually safeguarding?

Amy Blain is a mother and parent, a member of Australian Parents for Climate Action Canberra and the Peoples Climate Assembly. She is extensively involved in the ACT community including Buy Nothing Ainslie, Ainslie Community Pantry, Redraw the Balance ACT, Young Women Speak Out and Girls’ Uniform Agenda, as well as a Gender Equality Advocate and Climate Change Activist.

Feature image: Canberra shrouded in smoke from the 2019/2020 bushfires, the city started its first day of 2020 with the worst air quality in the world. Photo credit: Daria Nipot/

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