Britain is hosting the next round of international climate agreement talks – COP26 – in Glasgow next year.
Thornberry said in her letter it was essential Britain back a candidate with green credentials because of the OECD’s role in helping tackle global warming.
“I must ask you to guarantee that you will not support the candidacy of former Australian finance minister, Mathias Cormann,” Thornberry wrote in a letter obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“Whatever other attributes and credentials Mr Cormann may have, his record on climate change is one of denial, inaction and deeply retrograde steps on issues like emissions trading, carbon pricing, and fossil fuel investment.”
“If you were to support Mr Cormann’s candidacy – and indeed, if you have already promised the Australian Prime Minister that you will do so – it would make a mockery of your own claims to leadership on climate change, and would send entirely the wrong signal to the world about how seriously the UK takes the issue ahead of the crucial COP26.”
Thornberry said while it was vital the UK continue to strengthen its alliance with Australia on security and a post-Brexit trade agreement, “we would be doing neither ourselves nor our Australian friends any favours by backing an opponent of net zero to take up such an important international role”.
Cormann responded to the criticism from Britain’s opposition, saying he was absolutely committed to “ambitious and effective action” on climate change and that he was proud of the Australian government’s attempts to meet and possibly beat its 2030 target by up to 28 per cent as well as to reach net-zero emissions “as soon as possible”. By contrast, Britain has a policy to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.
Cormann said that Australian investment in renewable energy in Australia last year was three times higher than in the UK, on a per capita basis.
“To maximise global emissions reduction outcomes, we will have to bring people together, not to continue to polarise the debate. I am well positioned to help achieve that.”
“I give this commitment. If selected as secretary-general of the OECD, I will use every lever available through the organisation to help lead and drive ambitious and effective action on climate change as a top priority.”
Former Labor premier Mike Rann, who was replaced by the Abbott government just one year into his term as Australia’s high commissioner to Britain in 2014, added to the criticism.
“For Aussie diplomats trying, with a straight face, to convince governments that Mathias Cormann has the track record and enthusiasm to lead the OECD in its climate ambitions must be like their US colleagues reassuring allies that President Trump really was a very stable genius,” Rann said.
But Cristina Talacko who chairs of the Coalition for Conservation said Cormann was not a climate change sceptic.
“Mathias is certainly not a climate denialist and that he will be very well placed to help the OECD member countries to achieve net zero given his experience on negotiations, his knowledge on how to apply the best methodologies and his fiscally responsible mind.
“He is very much a believer that we must tackle climate change,” she said.
British Labour’s opposition to Cormann’s candidacy is significant in the context of the UK-Australia bilateral relationship, particularly given the Australian Labor Party has endorsed Cormann’s candidacy.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has praised Cormann’s rise through Australian politics as a European migrant and said he was skilled negotiator with the ability to engage across the political spectrum.
However, opposition frontbenchers have criticised Cormann’s use of a taxpayer-funded private jet to conduct in-person lobbying while tens of thousands of Australians are waiting to return home under COVID-19 restrictions.
Cormann was one of the most respected members of the Liberal government, serving as finance minister from 2013 until this year.
He was a key figure in the putsch against the then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009. Turnbull had wanted to support the carbon trading scheme proposed by Kevin Rudd but was rolled by the right wing of his party.
Cormann remained a powerful and trusted figure in the Coalition, even after Malcolm Turnbull ousted Abbott in 2015, earning promotions under Turnbull.
But his internal standing took a hit when he and two other cabinet ministers who had been part of the cabal that had rolled Turnbull in 2009 abandoned Turnbull in favour of Scott Morrison in 2018, with internal rebels again citing efforts to price carbon as a key reason for removing Turnbull.
Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in question time, has begun to shift the Australian government’s position to supporting net-zero emissions “as soon as possible”.
Number 10 declined to comment.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.