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Cabinet papers: Coal to be king in face of ‘uncertain science’

Minister for Arts, Sport, Environment and Tourism Ros Kelly with school children at the launch of a brochure on the greenhouse effect in April 1990. Photo: National Archives of Australia Australia’s coal future began to emerge as a challenge to its environmental credentials. Photo: Michele Mossop

A glimpse of Australia’s coal future came in December 1991 when the cabinet agreed to lift export controls on all minerals except uranium.

It also agreed to push hard for the liberalisation of international coal trade, seeking enhanced market access that would build on the rapid development of the Australian coal industry and spur local producers to more competitive processes.

While keen that Australia take an active part in the United Nations’ Convention on Climate Change and the Fourth International Negotiating Committee on Climate Change, the cabinet was already wary of “uncertain science” on the issues and the politicisation of their discussion by developing countries.

A series of submissions through 1991 from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gareth Evans, and the Minister for the Environment, Ros Kelly, spelt out that “maintaining our willingness to contribute our ‘fair share’, and strengthening our capacity to enunciate this in practical ways, is very necessary to reinforce Australia’s ‘credentials’ given likely criticism of [our] ‘special pleading’ on fossil fuels”.

When it came to meeting emission reduction targets, Australia should “not proceed with the adoption of measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness”.

The cabinet was developing the case for Australian “exceptionalism” that became central to later governments’ positions on international commitments: “low population density, population growth due to immigration, heavy reliance on resource-based industries” and “extended domestic and international transportation links” all meant that Australia had distinct interests to protect.

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the Archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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