Marise Payne insists the Morrison government shares “the same ambitions” as the incoming OECD chief, Mathias Cormann, for a green recovery from the pandemic.

The foreign minister made the claim despite the government’s promotion of a gas-fired recovery and despite research showing Australia was the worst performer among the world’s 50 largest economies for “green recovery” spending to kickstart economic growth.

Payne on Thursday faced a range of questions about the language embraced by Cormann, the former Coalition finance minister, during his successful campaign to become the next secretary general of the Paris-based OECD.

During a Senate estimates hearing, the Labor senator, Tim Ayres, pointed to Cormann’s backing of “an inclusive and future-focused recovery, including a green recovery” and “accelerating the transition to a lower emissions future”.

When asked whether the government agreed with the need for a green recovery, Payne said it “would agree with the incoming secretary general’s observations around a strong, sustainable, cleaner recovery”.

“I’m not going to quibble about words, senator – there’s nothing in what you’ve just put to me that this government doesn’t agree with,” Payne said.

Pressed on whether anyone in government had ever described its post-pandemic response as a green recovery, Payne said: “We don’t have to use the same language as Mr Cormann to share the same ambitions … our record on renewables stands for itself.”

Ayres then asked: “Did [former] minister Cormann say what he needed to say to be elected or is there a transformation that’s occurred here?”

Payne replied: “I really reject that reflection on Mr Cormann, senator Ayres. I really reject that reflection.”

When asked whether she had ever heard Cormann use the green recovery phrase before he launched his OECD campaign, Payne said: “I don’t have an 11 years of collected works of Mr Cormann.”

Helen Stylianou, a Dfat first assistant secretary, said Cormann had committed during the campaign “to drive ambitious and effective action on climate change using the OECD’s particular capabilities to guide members to be able to achieve those net zero emissions by 2050”.

Stylianou confirmed that climate change was “discussed in many of his meetings” with representatives of OECD member countries during the campaign.

She said Cormann had emphasised during his meetings that the debate in Australia was not about the ambition, but how to get there.

Stylianou said she had read “with some amusement” a news report that Cormann had travelled with a colour-coded spreadsheet of OECD countries’ emission reduction targets.

“There were fact sheets included as part of a briefing which Mr Cormann received across a range of issues, all issues of interest to OECD members, covering policy issues under discussion in the OECD,” she said.

“Part of that briefing did relate to emissions and there were some colours on some pages but there was no colour-coded spreadsheet.”

Officials confirmed that Cormann made two separate overseas trips, the first from 8 November to 10 December and the second from 16 January to 25 February, as part of the campaign.

Only the first trip involved use of a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft – and the costs of that are expected to be reported by the defence department by 30 June.

Cormann travelled on the RAAF aircraft to visit 15 countries – Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Austria, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, France, Colombia and Chile.

Stylianou said the second trip, involving visits to just the United States and France, was able to be done using commercial flights.

The purpose of that trip was to press his case with officials in the new Biden administration, and then to “base himself at the headquarters of the OECD” in Paris, she said.

To date, the Australian government has not formally committed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, even as a range of allies and trading partners embrace the goal.

Asked if she welcomed the Biden administration’s adoption of a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, Payne said: “We welcome the Biden administration’s engagement on all of these issues.”

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, asked whether the US adopting that commitment was a negative or positive development in the global fight against climate change.

Payne replied that US engagement, including rejoining the Paris agreement, was “all a net positive”, before repeating Scott Morrison’s recent rhetoric on net zero.

“Our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible and preferably by 2050,” she said.

Australia’s ambassador for the environment, Jamie Isbister, was also asked whether net zero was being raised with him in the lead-up to the Cop26 summit in Glasgow later this year.

“Yes, through the negotiations there are a range of parties who are continuing to encourage greater ambition and commitments by countries,” Isbister said.

The government is expected to release a long-term strategy before Cop26. Isbister said that long-term strategy could potentially include an emissions reduction target but “that’s a decision by government”.

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