Liberal MP Bridget Archer ‘open-minded’ on Labor’s push to overhaul climate safeguard mechanism

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Liberal MP Bridget Archer says she has an open mind on supporting the Albanese government’s planned overhaul of the safeguard mechanism if Labor can satisfy her concerns that a stronger climate policy won’t see heavy industry quit the country.

“I’m open-minded in relation to it,” Archer told Guardian Australia on Wednesday. “Of course I can see what the government is trying to do.”

Archer’s comments follows the Coalition party room on Tuesday rubber-stamping a decision by the shadow cabinet to oppose the government’s new legislation facilitating below-baseline crediting in the safeguard mechanism – even though the Morrison government had supported that principle before the May election defeat.

While the majority position was to reject the Labor bill, two senior moderate Liberals, Simon Birmingham and Paul Fletcher, queried whether saying no was a good idea.

As well as the pushback in the shadow cabinet during two discussions over the past fortnight, the Liberal senator Andrew Bragg also queried the wisdom of that landing point during a meeting of the Coalition party room on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, Archer argued keeping an open mind was important. The Liberal backbencher said she was worried that Labor’s more ambitious climate policy could lead to heavy industry shuttering local operations and moving to a country with less onerous environmental regulation.

“I’ve expressed some concerns around [whether the crediting bill] will do what the government wants it to do, and what are the risks,” Archer said. “This idea [the new rules] could lead to potential offshoring of some higher emitting industries concerns me.”

But she said a better position for the Coalition to adopt would be seeking improvements to the legislation rather than opposing the changes outright. Asked whether she was prepared to support the reform, Archer said: “Yeah, potentially.”

“We should be able to come and raise these sorts of issues and work constructively across the parliament where we can rather than it always being we are either for things or against them.”

Archer crossed the floor to support Labor’s higher emission reduction targets in August last year. The Liberal MP supported the primary legislation, but not the consequential amendments bill.

Labor is pursuing reforms to the safeguard mechanism, introduced first by Tony Abbott, to help drive down pollution from Australia’s heavy emitters in a trajectory consistent with the government’s national climate targets for 2030 and 2050. The first tranche in the overhaul is new legislation facilitating below-baseline crediting in the safeguard mechanism.

Guardian Australia revealed on Wednesday that Fletcher and Birmingham had raised concern during internal deliberations when it was clear the recommendation to shadow cabinet would be to oppose the bill.

Sources have confirmed Birmingham argued opposing the reform was both bad policy and bad politics, given the rout of Liberals in city electorates in the election last May.

Concern about the risks of offshoring are universal in the Coalition. But concerns were also expressed during the shadow cabinet discussion that scuttling the crediting bill would only make it harder for businesses to comply with their new emissions reduction obligations.

In the lead-up to the shadow cabinet and party room decision on the crediting legislation, the Coalition has faced public pressure from business groups to make looming reforms to the safeguard mechanism a bipartisan exercise.

Business groups have expressed concern that the Coalition’s failure to give the safeguard overhaul bipartisan support means a perpetuation of the decade-long climate wars, and opens the way for the Greens to demand changes to the government’s proposal as it makes its way through the parliament.

Greens leader Adam Bandt has already accused Labor of “gaslighting” and “greenwashing” for allowing new coal and gas mines to offset their emissions as part of the safeguard mechanism reboot.

The Australian Industry Group has characterised the government’s legislation as essential policy infrastructure, and the chief executive of the organisation, Innes Willox, has argued “it is strongly in everyone’s interest to pass it”.

The climate change minister, Chris Bowen, rounded on the opposition after the Coalition party room rubber stamped the shadow cabinet position, accusing them of hypocrisy after abandoning an in-principle position in government.