Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
A burning issue

It has been a long time coming and it has taken the biggest fire front in Australia’s history to do it, but climate change denial has finally lost its political potency.

The pressure is now on Scott Morrison to resolve the fierce resistance in his own government’s ranks and respond with policies that persuade voters – thousands of them victims of this week’s inferno – that the federal Liberals and Nationals get it.

In New South Wales, the Berejiklian Coalition government declared a state of emergency on Monday, with the forecast of catastrophic conditions covering much of the state and for the first time Sydney itself. It left nowhere for the sceptics or denialists in the federal parliament to hide. Still, these sceptics are sure to fight a rearguard action: already they are seeking other explanations for the extremes in drought, temperatures, low humidity and intense fires we are now enduring.

One tactic is avoidance. For seven months, the Morrison government sat on the report of the coordinator-general for drought, Major-General Stephen Day. Many of the time lines for action he recommended have already passed.

Why the government took so long to respond to Day’s findings suggests unease with him putting climate change front and centre in his calculations. In the report, finally released last week, Day wrote: “As a consequence of climate change drought is likely to be more regular, longer in duration, and broader in area. It means that farmers and communities who rarely see drought are likely to see it more often. And those that have been managing drought for many years may now see it intensify beyond their lived experience. Ultimately, the nation could see some areas of Australia become more marginal and unproductive.”

Late last week, at a testimonial dinner held for Tony Abbott in Sydney to mark his 25 years in politics, the former prime minister was asked what the answer was to drought. He said: “More dams.” The answer drew a huge cheer. This has become a shibboleth for those blind to the fact hundreds of dams and town reservoirs around the nation are near empty. Scott Morrison didn’t disagree. He began a flattering speech with his trademark opening salvo: “How good is Tony Abbott?”

Morrison credited Abbott with laying the foundations for his government, “which is now in its third term”. He thanked Abbott for giving him the privilege of a cabinet seat. As NSW and Queensland burn, and Morrison faces the need to credibly reposition on climate change, it’s a history worth considering.

Shortly after Abbott came to government in 2013, devastating fires swept through the Blue Mountains in NSW. On 3AW, Neil Mitchell asked Abbott about a view expressed by the then head of the UN’s climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres, that there was a “clear link between climate change and the NSW fires”. Abbott scoffed at the suggestion and said “the official in question was talking through her hat”. While claiming to take climate change seriously, he said, “These fires are certainly not a function of climate change; they’re a function of life in Australia.” He said, “We’ve had bad fires since almost the beginning of European settlement.” The same week, then Environment minister Greg Hunt said he “looked up … Wikipedia” and was confident there was no link between the fires and climate change. That view went up in acrid smoke this week in NSW and Queensland.

Morrison’s credibility problem – apart from bringing a lump of coal into the parliament two years ago – is that he was part of the Abbott cabinet that set about dismantling the framework the Rudd and Gillard governments had set up to cut emissions and foster renewable energy. Abbott scrapped Labor’s price on carbon emissions, the so-called carbon tax, and abolished the Climate Commission, with its remit to inform Australians of the latest science. At the same time, any mention of climate change in federal documents began to disappear and business leaders, according to one source, discovered there was “a fatwa on those who spoke the term”.

This week, among Barnaby Joyce’s other contributions to the public discourse was the claim that Greens policies were getting in the way of undergrowth clearing and burnoffs in state forests and national parks. It’s the same argument Donald Trump made when threatening to cut off aid to fire-ravaged California earlier this month – without realising his government was responsible for fire management in the majority of forests in the state.

Joyce was joined in his rhetoric by Nationals leader Michael McCormack. The problem is that the facts do not bear this out. The state Coalition government, in power in NSW since 2011, says its National Parks and Wildlife Service has exceeded its hazard-reduction target of 680,000 hectares set eight years ago. More hazard reduction has been carried out because of increased funding. But clearly this doesn’t remove the threat of bushfire, nor does it negate the unprecedented climatic conditions that create catastrophic fires.

The Greens’ Adam Bandt says a global threat needs a global response, but he says Australia has to be more serious in its response if it is to carry more credibility urging others to do the same. He was unapologetic for linking the fire emergency to climate change. He says, “At the moment we are following Donald Trump down a dangerous path of increasing pollution and making catastrophic events like this more likely.” McCormack accused Bandt of spouting the “ravings” of “inner-city lunatics” and “woke capital-city greenies”. That left mayors and fire victims in regional NSW completely cold. One, MidCoast Councillor Claire Pontin, dismissed McCormack for “just saying silly things”. McCormack and Joyce may have missed this pivotal change in their own constituencies.

One government insider privately asked, “What do you want the government to do?” Getting the rhetoric right would be a start, and then matching it with real and substantial emissions reduction commitments. Importantly, it should properly support the United Nations in its efforts to build international action. Instead we saw Morrison skip the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September and stand by his defunding of the UN’s Green Climate Fund.

Barnaby Joyce was joined by former Howard government minister Alexander Downer in running the latest line from the sceptics. On Twitter, Downer asked: “If Australia hadn’t repealed the Gillard government’s carbon tax would we have been spared the current fires?” It is a recipe for doing nothing, but the fallacy lies in the fact that if the other 100 or so countries on Earth whose emissions are about 1 per cent similarly did nothing, the situation would be graver than it already is. Boris Johnson’s Tories joined the parliamentary majority at Westminster in declaring a climate emergency and yet Britain’s emissions are just over 1 per cent of the global total. In Australia, a statewide fire emergency in NSW has failed to persuade our national leaders to commit to the same expression of urgency.

Federal Labor has refrained from joining the hullabaloo between the Nationals and the Greens. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says he’s been criticised for not “trying to politicise these bushfires”. He says he has a strong view about climate change and the science told us the seasons would start earlier and be more intense.

Albanese got a boost in the latest Newspoll – no indicator on who would win the next election but perhaps telling us the Morrison government is not travelling as well as people would imagine. Labor is now lineball on the two-party-preferred poll, but the real significance is the 12-point turnaround in Albanese’s approval for the highest satisfaction for a Labor leader since Bill Shorten hit the same 42 per cent after Tony Abbott knighted Prince Philip and faced an empty chair challenge in 2015.

In the survey period, Albanese delivered his first vision statement, where he emphasised climate change was as much an opportunity for jobs and economic growth as it is a threat.

Last Friday, the Labor leader fronted the National Press Club following the release of the party’s review into its election loss. His performance was praised by those who helped install him in the job – and even by those who do not rule out a return of Bill Shorten sometime in the future.

This week, it became apparent that ignoring climate change is not a viable political strategy. The view around Parliament House was that climate change politics had reached a watershed. It took the burning of a million hectares of NSW but the mood has definitely shifted. This presents an enormous challenge for Scott Morrison – and a huge opportunity for Labor. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "A burning issue". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.