Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison’s slow burn

Scott Morrison must regret that he did not use the enormous authority of his shock election win last year to impose a credible climate and energy policy on his fractious Coalition government. This failure of leadership has now painted him into a very tight corner. And the ground rules he’s set out will make it virtually impossible for him to do anything.

The prime minister spelled it out earlier in the week when he was asked about a report he was planning – a “technology investment target” – to get Australia to net zero emissions by 2050. That target is the one the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists advise is our last chance to contain global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Morrison said he favours “technology over taxation”. But he said that before he goes down the technology investment path, he must be satisfied about three things: the impact on jobs, electricity prices and rural and regional Australia. “And currently,” he said, “no one can tell me that going down that path won’t cost jobs, won’t put up your electricity prices, and won’t impact negatively on jobs in the economies of rural and regional Australia.”

We will have to wait until next month to see whether Energy Minister Angus Taylor can magically meet these goals or overcome these obstacles, depending on your point of view. The minister is working on the technology investment plan to take to the next United Nations summit in Glasgow at the end of the year. His final handiwork won’t be allowed to use the word “target” because that, apparently, is too prescriptive. “Goal” may keep the sceptics and deniers in the tent. Until then, we are left to speculate on what will be included.

An obvious starter, surely, would be more electric vehicles. But that would be something of an about-face for the government. You may remember Morrison, while ridiculing Labor’s election pledge to encourage more electric cars, said they would “end the weekend” because they can’t tow your boat or your trailer.

The technology investment target was news to government MPs. One said he didn’t know what the hell the PM was talking about but after this shocking summer the government should be committing to tangible help for fire victims. Labor’s Mark Butler says the Coalition has talked about technology as the answer before, when John Howard refused to sign up to Kyoto emissions reduction targets.

Anthony Albanese was quizzed on the technology investment target on Tuesday. “What does this actually mean?” a journalist asked him. He replied, “The answer is in the question, in that it’s just more marketing and spin from a government that’s out of touch and doesn’t have a plan.”

What’s crystal clear is that the Liberals will be getting no help from the Nationals. On Insiders, the embattled deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, bluntly rejected the critical time lines of the world’s scientists. McCormack said, “The IPCC is not governing Australia. The Liberals and Nationals are.” He says voters endorsed the emissions policies the Coalition took to the last election. He agreed that you have to listen to the scientists but, he said, “You’ve also got to … listen to the workers.” They are the ones who wear the high-vis vests in coalmines, and in central and northern Queensland they depend on the resources sector for a job, “for a future”. He said, “Let’s face it, coal provides $66 billion of exports, 55,000 jobs … Why wouldn’t we support that important sector?”

Over on Sunday Agenda, former Resources minister Matt Canavan, now an outspoken spruiker for coal on the backbench, was threatening to cross the floor in the senate should the government adopt the “fantastical” 2050 target. Canavan is taking full advantage of his new freedom and lapping up the media attention. His stock-in-trade is the time-honoured technique of populist politicians. He ignores intellectuals and denigrates the science while appealing to voters’ raw emotions and fears. Surely he was being disingenuous when he asked, “How, as a country, can we commit to net zero emissions in 30 years’ time when we’ll receive our last diesel submarine in 35 years’ time? It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.” The target is for “net” emissions, not “no” emissions.

Canavan, in an opinion piece for The Australian, made the bald assertion that “without new coal-fired power stations, thousands of manufacturing jobs across Australia will be lost”. So much for “firmed” renewables or green hydrogen. The Nationals senator has no appetite for a transition to a less carbon-intensive world because it doesn’t suit his arguments to accept the scientific evidence of human-induced climate change. It certainly doesn’t suit the vested coal interests that his party prioritises ahead of farmers.

Labor has read the mood of a nation still reeling from recent harrowing months. Albanese has decided that the 2050 IPCC target cannot be ignored so he has recommitted to it. Shadow cabinet has also signed off on a policy of no taxpayer funding for new coal-fired power and no use of Kyoto carryover credits to achieve targets. Labor knows it will have to map out a pathway to achieve the net zero target. Those details are yet to come, which is not unreasonable. Morrison may shock us all and actually come up with a meaningful road map Labor can adopt or improve on. There is plenty of help at hand. The Business Council of Australia has committed to the target and is backing independent MP Zali Steggall’s private member’s bill with its series of five-year carbon budgets.

The Business Council has produced a scoping paper that spells out the enormity of the task. Based on European modelling, it estimates that to reach the 2050 target Australia will need $22 billion of investment in new technology every year and a doubling of current renewable energy generation capacity by 2040. The study agrees with economists such as Ross Garnaut that the best mechanism is a “market-based carbon price”.

The BCA’s chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, says surely after this past summer both sides of politics can sit down and agree on where we want to go. She says we should be talking in terms of opportunities, rather than just costs. She has a point – talk of costs nobbled the national broadband network.

Erwin Jackson of the Investor Group on Climate Change, with $2 trillion under management, says we need to conduct the transition in a better way than we drove renewables. There was no plan to integrate the new power source into the system. “Now we are rushing to catch up and get the infrastructure in place,” he says. The road map to the 2050 target should rule out technologies that are inconsistent with the net zero goal, otherwise a “mixed signal” of dirty/clean technologies will be sent to the market, thus undermining the purpose. Jackson told ABC Radio: “If we don’t set the target and we don’t do things to achieve it, we won’t get there.”

Our political leaders would do well to emulate the way Germany has applied a “Just Transition” from fossil fuels to renewables. Taxes were raised to ensure 1.5 million Germans directly employed in mining were protected. Black coal was phased out last year and brown coal pits will be closed in 2038. Tony Maher, national president of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, told The Project that Australia’s record of labour adjustment is dreadful. Unlike the Germans, where pits were closed with workers not sacked but redeployed or pensioned off, our governments allow too many to be “thrown on the scrap heap”.

The diabolical problem for Morrison is that his credibility tank is running on near empty. According to a new poll, only 27 per cent of respondents were confident or very confident in the government. This trust deficit is certainly not being helped by the Coalition’s open tug of war over climate and energy. The Australian National University polled a representative sample of 3000 Australians about their experience and exposure to the unprecedented bushfires. Lead researcher Professor Nicholas Biddle says there “was quite strong disapproval” of the government’s handling of the bushfires. When it came to confidence in Morrison his score was 3.92 out of 10. That’s a decline in his popularity from 5.25 out of 10 last June. Significantly, 14 per cent of adult Australians – three million people – say they were directly exposed to the fires, while more than 15 million Australians reported some form of indirect exposure.

Biddle says the survey found the environment and climate change figured more prominently in the responses than previous surveys, with support for new coalmines falling dramatically. He says the big question is “whether these shifts are temporary or permanent”. The clues to an answer come from scientists warning that unless emissions are reduced rather than increased globally, this summer may be only a harbinger of worse to come.

The brutal fact is Morrison’s concerns for jobs in rural and regional Australia cannot be confined to coalminers. The personal and economic costs of climate change are too extensive for that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 22, 2020 as "Morrison’s slow burn".

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

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