Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Mission zero, credibility less

The dramatic shifts in the politics of climate change have finally caught out Scott Morrison. It’s a reckoning that’s been coming since the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires.

That disaster came nine months after an election campaign in which the Liberals, aided and abetted by the Murdoch media, persuaded enough voters the cost of action was too great a price to pay. During the campaign, The Daily Telegraph splashed on its front page a $60 billion price tag for the “Bill you can’t afford” – which they said were the climate policies of a Bill Shorten-led Labor Party.

How that worm has turned. On Monday the News Corp tabloids launched Mission Zero with a 16-page wraparound spelling out “How Australia could be number one in the new global economy”. The Tele’s editor, Ben English, opined that “for too long the climate debate has been dominated by ideology and extremism”. He went on to say that “it has been used as a political weapon, wielded by power players and vested interests and people looking to make a buck”. He neglected to mention his company’s role in that cynicism or apologise for its contribution to the imbroglio during the past decade.

This conversion is “greenwash”, according to Kevin Rudd, one of the prime ministers the old editorial policy helped to bring down. Rudd points out that the biggest names on Murdoch’s Sky News channel – Peta Credlin, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones – are all still sprouting their climate extremism “after dark” and to a huge audience on Facebook and throughout regional Australia on the WIN and Prime networks.

Rudd says News Corp has taken a public relations and circulation hit from his community campaign for a royal commission into the company’s abuse of monopoly power, which has generated more than half a million signatures.

There’s little doubt that the company realises it was increasingly out of step with its major advertisers, who clearly agree with Prince Charles’s assessment that the COP26 climate action conference next month in Glasgow “is last-chance saloon” for mitigating catastrophic climate change.

Scott Morrison’s realisation that his luck was running out with climate change double-speak – a lump of coal in one hand and weak emissions targets claimed to be “world-beating” in the other – came within days of his rushed return from his secret Hawaiian holiday in 2019.

Peter Strong, then boss of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, went on ABC Radio calling for any climate change sceptics on the Coalition frontbench to quit their ministries. He argued they had stymied preparations for that year’s bushfire season.

Strong said the preparation at the state level was very good but at the federal level “there are people within government who firmly believe there is no such thing as climate change or that human beings don’t have an impact upon it, and they are adamant that no extra work or extra effort should ever happen”.

This stung, especially coming from a core constituency. Three weeks later, when Morrison finally unveiled a relief package for fire-ravaged small businesses, Strong was invited to join him at a news conference. As the lobbyist waited in the prime minister’s office before going into the blue room to face the media, a staffer approached him.

Strong was asked, “If a journo raises your criticisms of the government, what are you going to say?” The staffer quickly added, “You do know the prime minister isn’t a denier, don’t you?” The message was clear: Morrison knew it was one thing not to act; it was another not to believe.

The posture he was trying to strike is further explained by The Australia Institute’s yearly survey of voters’ attitudes to climate change, out this week. Now in its 14th year and with a sample of 2626 people, it found 75 per cent of Australians are worried about the crisis, the biggest result in its history. And while the percentage was smaller in the mining state of Queensland, it was still at 69 per cent.

The poll also found 69 per cent want the government to put Australia on a path to net-zero emissions and to get far more serious about encouraging Australians into electric vehicles.

The government’s unedifying contortions to address the issue are certainly weighing heavily on the minds of Liberal MPs, particularly in metropolitan seats. Even some Nationals, such as Darren Chester, are feeling it in regional seats. Federal cabinet met on Wednesday to resolve the mess of a government at war with itself. The verdict on its success will come tomorrow when the Nationals’ party room meets.

Since the fateful summer of two years ago only one senior sceptic, Matt Canavan, has obliged Peter Strong’s request and quit cabinet. He is the most outspoken of the Nationals opposing net zero, although fellow Queensland backbenchers George Christensen and Llew O’Brien are not far behind and would not likely support a legislated net-zero target on the floor of parliament.

Some old hands around the parliament are convinced all the huffing and puffing from the Nationals is political theatre designed to persuade its coal backers and resource-seat voters that it’s in there battling for them. But that is an optimistic view. There is every indication the prime minister has been paralysed with fear that one wrong step could see his government implode on the issue. So fraught have negotiations been over the past three months that up until this week only Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison had seen the working document.

Nationals ministers have been out in the media pushing their demands. A fantastical $250 billion line of credit from taxpayers for coal projects is Keith Pitt’s boldest gambit. Bridget McKenzie is against a rock-solid commitment to net zero, calling for a legislated mechanism to pause emission reductions if they begin costing regional jobs.

On Monday, Morrison said it was his job to bring people together and meet the challenge of the new energy economy. He said there are big opportunities and there is a way through. That way through looks and sounds very similar to what Bill Shorten and the Labor Party put to the electorate in 2019, and which Morrison and his Business Council backers attacked as “economy-wrecking”.

This has left Joyce in a real quandary. He has likened climate action to baying at the moon and can’t quite bring himself to shamelessly pivot in the same way as the prime minister. On ABC TV he adopted the absurd position of a leader who is a follower first and foremost. He said he didn’t support a net-zero target by 2050 “without the support of my colleagues”.

One well-placed Nationals insider is confident Joyce and Morrison will be able to hold the government together and Joyce will get a majority of the party room to back his deal with the prime minister. Keith Pitt is not expected to quit the frontbench in protest, as he did against Malcolm Turnbull’s energy policies. I was told it is different to then and, with an election looming, “there is a clear pathway, and these people aren’t silly”.

Labor’s Chris Bowen says as important as net zero by 2050 is as a destination, how we get there is more important. He says the government must legislate that commitment and significantly improve its medium-term targets. He says “anything less will be a copout”.

Morrison’s hand is particularly weak here. With a majority of one on the floor of the house – and at least three National Party backbenchers who would cross the floor – he needs Labor’s support. There are real doubts that will be on offer without a genuinely benchmarked road map.

And that is the problem. Even Liberal backbenchers such as Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman in vulnerable Sydney seats, while calling for a stronger interim target than the current 26-28 per cent, are not publicly endorsing the Business Council’s call for a 46-50 per cent cut by 2030.

This is particularly disappointing when you realise the Coalition government in New South Wales has a 50 per cent 2030 emissions reduction target. The architect of that policy, Matt Kean, says at the very least Morrison should take the average target of all the states and territories. That target is about 40 per cent, still below the 45 per cent the government’s own experts recommended ahead of the Paris climate summit in 2015.

Labor, which has lost the past three elections with stronger climate change policies than the Liberals, is waiting to see the colour of Morrison’s money this time before revealing its hand. There is no guarantee it will be wildly more ambitious. For one thing, it doesn’t trust the depth of News Corp’s conversion to the cause. One MP says he’s sure the company will always find a way to attack Labor before and after the election.

Anthony Albanese got it right when he said “nothing that the Coalition have done over eight long years has been of benefit when it comes to climate change action”. They have certainly been wreckers of the genuine and successful abatement policies of the Gillard government, replacing them with half-baked measures that the world is now calling out.

But the politics here have changed dramatically. Scott Morrison knows it. Merely being “not a denier” doesn’t cut it anymore. Still, he’s yet to demonstrate he really gets that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Mission zero, credibility less".

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