Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
A steaming pile of nothingness

When Scott Morrison flew out of Canberra in his VIP Airbus on Thursday night for the Glasgow climate summit, Labor’s Anthony Albanese wasn’t on board. He wasn’t even on the tarmac waving goodbye.

The opposition leader says he wasn’t invited. Furthermore, his representative, Pat Conroy, was told to make his own way to the COP26 talks. In other words, there was no attempt by the prime minister to showcase to the world that Australia had a bipartisan approach on how to deal with the most urgent issue confronting the planet, that no matter who wins the looming election, Australia’s commitments would survive a change of government, unlike what happened in 2013.

Albanese’s climate spokesman, Chris Bowen, puts it bluntly. He says Morrison doesn’t have any policy that attracts bipartisan support. He explains Labor’s failure on not announcing its own 2030 target by now in terms of giving the government “the room” to arrive at a policy Labor could embrace. He says it’s still worth giving them time at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

After Tuesday’s failure by Morrison to be more ambitious by 2030, as urged by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, it is back to the drawing board for the ALP. But Bowen insists climate action will be hotly contested in the looming campaign.

There is an active discussion on how strong Labor’s interim targets should be. No matter whether they are 4 per cent or 20 per cent more ambitious for 2030, no one doubts Morrison will portray any divergence from his numbers as economy destroying. But given that the Business Council’s 46-50 per cent suggestion for an interim target, and the Coalition state of New South Wales’s 50 per cent, his attacks will be struggling for traction and credibility this time.

Bowen says, “We’ll be announcing detailed plans, more than the steaming pile of nothingness that Morrison pretends is a plan.” The shadow minister is intent on repairing his campaigning reputation, damaged at the last election after he said people who didn’t like his party’s tax policies could just not vote for Labor. Too many took his advice.

Bowen is also determined to address Labor’s failure at the 2019 election to cost its climate policies. He says in the weeks ahead Australians will see a lot of activity in this area, with the release of a very strong road map and plans that will actually achieve the target. And, he says, “not assumptions, not slogans, not mottos” but costed policies with evidence and “a lot of support analysis to show the world’s climate emergency is Australia’s jobs opportunity”.      

Weighing heavily on the opposition is how to build on the entrenched lead it has established in the opinion polls, particularly Newspoll, and not have Morrison snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as he did in 2019. Party insiders have no doubt Morrison is itching for a scare campaign – any sort of scare. One strategist says Morrison is “gagging for it” – but so far Albanese has denied him any leverage on tax cuts, nuclear submarines or indeed coal jobs. He has even agreed the path to 2050 isn’t linear.

How to repeat that “miracle” win is also playing on the minds of key government figures. In the Coalition party room Treasurer Josh Frydenberg went all the way back to John Howard’s come-from-behind win in 2004 for inspiration. He told colleagues dejected by this week’s 54-46 Newspoll that back then the Coalition was behind in the two-party-preferred polls but ahead as preferred prime minister.

Frydenberg said, “In 2004 the Coalition won a fourth term based on ‘who do you trust?’ ” His advice: “Let’s make that happen again.”

John Howard made Labor’s Mark Latham the issue, much of it based on feedback from his MPs that voters in their electorates had grave doubts about Latham despite the then opposition’s consistent lead in the polls. Latham was dogged throughout the campaign by the story about him breaking a taxi driver’s arm in a dispute over a fare. Labor’s lead only started to evaporate towards the end of the campaign and then disappeared after Latham’s aggressive handshake nearly yanked off Howard’s arm on the eve of the election.

Anthony Albanese scoffs at the comparison. “I am not Mark Latham,” he says. And whatever else about the Howard government 17 years ago, it wasn’t the shambles the Morrison–Joyce Coalition has become. Albanese told caucus it is “extraordinary that they have adopted a plan not supported by the deputy prime minister”.

Barnaby Joyce has struggled all week to insist he has fallen into line despite telling his party room at the weekend he didn’t support the net-zero target embraced by a slim majority of his members. Nine of the 21 Nationals are understood to have been against the target.

The most high-profile of them, former Resources minister Matt Canavan, has pledged to campaign against the target all the way to polling day. He told RN Breakfast it was a betrayal of the Nationals voters. He asked rhetorically how they can now adopt a target they said would cost 300,000 jobs and put a wrecking ball through the economy. He argues Australia should be expanding its coal industry rather than putting mining jobs at risk. He warns the switch puts at risk the Nationals’ ability to hold on to their Queensland coal seats.

In another act of defiance, the endorsed Liberal National Party candidate for the Rockhampton-based seat of Flynn, Colin Boyce, has similarly pledged to campaign against the target. Boyce is currently the state LNP member for Callide and comes with a reputation for voting against his party in the parliament.

Scott Morrison insists his government is united around the net-zero target. He has been able to hold it together. Just how tenuously, though, was amply demonstrated by the fact Joyce was a notable absentee from the Tuesday news conference unveiling “the plan”. Members of the assembled media pack in Parliament House’s blue room struggled to remember the last time Morrison and Joyce appeared together at similar events.

Instead of the 2004 federal election, perhaps a bigger historical precedent for the Coalition is 1987. That’s when the Queensland Nationals under the rogue leadership of then premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen forced the federal party to go to the election with a different tax policy from the Liberals. The Labor prime minister at the time, Bob Hawke, capitalised on the disarray and called a midwinter election, which he duly won.

The contemporary lesson is stark enough. Just look at Newspoll. Its results for the past six months, while the government has been at war with itself, has seen Labor lead by either six or eight points in the two-party preferred.

There is not much doubt that one thing spooking the Queenslanders is the Clive Palmer-bankrolled multimedia campaign against them. The net-zero target features prominently. There are billboards all over the Sunshine State, Facebook advertisements and almost daily newspaper front-page ads in the national and state print media. Their latest message: “Zero emissions, zero jobs, zero future.” Sure, Labor is a target, too, but Albanese says Palmer is causing the Nationals “enormous grief” and is a huge distraction for them. He says the problem for Morrison is his government is fracturing on this key issue, on both the left and the right.

Albanese is very happy to turn the trust question back on the government. He says, “How can you trust this mob?” They are claiming “technology not taxes”, thinking voters will be unaware or untroubled where the promised $20 billion is coming from if not from their taxes.

Perhaps the Labor leader’s strongest counterattack is ironically one he shares with Matt Canavan. He says the prime minister now supports net zero but stridently campaigned against it. He attacked electric vehicles for ending the weekend and rejected them completely. He ridiculed battery storage as making as much sense as the Big Banana or the Big Prawn. Albanese says, “This is a prime minister who is arguing against himself.”

There is one Newspoll finding that can give some comfort to Albanese personally. Although his own approval is a net minus nine points, 17 per cent of respondents are uncommitted. Similarly, for preferred prime minister, 18 per cent are undecided. Of course, how these undecideds break on election day is yet to be seen. The problem for Morrison is his government’s continued poor standing may influence these numbers to go against him and the government.

One thing seems certain. Any thought of a December election is dead and buried. John Howard’s former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, says there’s no way Morrison would chance it given the latest Newspoll. Morris now chairs Barton Deakin, a government relations consultancy whose business model does best when the Liberals are in power. He says Morrison, like Howard before him, will now set about neutralising the negatives against him in the months ahead.

On Tuesday, Morrison foreshadowed a budget next year and Morris believes he wants to repeat the winning tactic of 2019: bringing down a budget then immediately calling an election, probably for early May, which is the last possible date.

Still, Albanese is confident there will be no repeat miracle. For one thing, Morrison was new and largely unknown in 2019. This time, voters have had three years of him – and there is too much going against him in the two states he relied on last time, Western Australia and Queensland.

Labor is going into this election as the perceived underdog thanks to the 2019 upset, which suits Albanese just fine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "A steaming pile of nothingness".

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