The Institute of Public Affairs paid to push targeted Facebook ads based on a “faulty analysis” claiming net zero would cause massive job losses in key Liberal and National seats during last month’s Coalition infighting.

Last month, as the Coalition debated a net zero 2050 policy, the IPA paid for a series of Facebook and Instagram ads targeting the electorates of Nationals Barnaby Joyce, David Littleproud, Mark Coulton, Ken O’Dowd and Anne Webster, as well as the Liberal trade minister, Dan Tehan.

The ads warned the policy “will destroy” huge numbers of jobs in each electorate. In Flynn, O’Dowd’s electorate, the ads warned “net zero emissions will destroy one in four jobs”. Other electorates would lose one in five, one in six or one in seven jobs, the ads claimed.

Two of the Facebook ads that the IPA ran targeting Flynn and Maranoa
Two of the Facebook ads the IPA ran targeting the electorates of Flynn and Maranoa. Photograph: Facebook/IPA

The ads relied on and linked to an IPA analysis described by experts as “beyond cynical” and almost “comical if the stakes weren’t so high”.

The IPA’s research identified 10 industries with higher-than-average emissions – the agriculture and air transport sectors, for example – and tallied the total numbers of jobs in each sector, describing them as “at risk” from the policy.

However the ads went one step further, using figures premised on the assumption that every single job in that sector would be wiped out if a net zero policy was adopted.

The underlying report, for example, assumes that all 306,200 agriculture jobs identified in Australia by the Australian Bureau of Statistics would be at-risk from a net zero policy because the sector’s “emissions per job are above the economy-wide average”.

Dr Rebecca Colvin, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University with expertise in energy transition and development, described the IPA’s analysis as “faulty” and “an exercise in counting without context, a far stretch from a rigorous analysis”.

“So they have simply counted the number of jobs in those sectors and deemed them ‘at risk’. There is no nuance, nor explanation of what ‘at risk’ means,” she said.

“To then use the report as the basis for a targeted social media campaign that declares these jobs will ‘be destroyed’ by a net zero target is beyond cynical It would be comical if the stakes weren’t so high.”

Facebook estimates suggest the ads would not have cost a huge amount. The expenditure would have been roughly several thousand dollars.

But Facebook data also shows most of the ads could have had a maximum audience of 500,000 people.

The IPA’s director of research, Daniel Wild, said the thinktank had “led the debate about the economic and humanitarian consequences of a net zero emissions by 2050 target”.

“It says everything about the media, big business, universities and the political class that they failed to acknowledge the impact that net zero emissions will have on Australians living in the regions and outer-metropolitan parts of the major cities,” he said.

“Regardless of how a net zero emissions target will be pursued, high-emitting jobs in industries such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing are the most likely to be destroyed.”

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He said the research was disseminated to the public and policymakers to “communicate the impact that a net zero emissions target will have on Australians”.

When asked to respond to Colvin’s criticisms of the research being “comical if the stakes weren’t so high”, Wild said: “The stakes are very high for the more than 650,000 Australians who stand to lose their job from net zero, many of whom will never work again.”

Colvin said farmers knew Australia would clearly still need food in a decarbonised economy, and the need for travel and the mining of many minerals would not evaporate.

“Suggesting otherwise is an insult to the intelligence of the workers in these industries.”

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The Coalition has since adopted a policy of net zero by 2050.

Colvin said the adoption of the policy was an important milestone. But she said there was more work to be done, including implementing credible interim targets to help workers in exposed industries.

“Fear-mongering based on a faulty analysis does not help Australia achieve a just transition to a net zero future,” she said.

Colvin is a member of the Blueprint Institute, which conducted recent polling in coalmining and power generation regions.

The polling showed strong support for the net zero target, she said. Colvin also noted Meat and Livestock Australia, the peak body for the red meat and livestock industry, supported net zero emissions in the sector by 2030.

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