While the Biden presidency pushes forward international climate action, both the Morrison government and its Labor opposition are fractured over emissions policy. By Karen Middleton.

How Australia’s leaders are preparing for climate change

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at The Lodge last week, in an official photograph distributed by his office.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison at The Lodge last week, in an official photograph distributed by his office.
Credit: Adam Taylor / Prime Minister’s Office

With state border closures easing and pandemic anxiety along with them, politicians are back on the road and on the hustings. Queensland Nationals senator Matt Canavan turned up in the New South Wales Hunter Valley on Wednesday, spruiking coal-fired power in the seat of renegade pro-mining Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon.

“I think we should use our defence powers as we did to build Snowy Hydro and build a coal-fired power station in the Hunter Valley using [the] best thermal coal,” he told Sky News.

Canavan and Nationals leader Michael McCormack, who was also visiting the seat of Hunter, were resurrecting the energy and climate-change debate with one objective: to launch a bid to win one of Labor’s most vulnerable seats in NSW at the next federal election, due in 18 months.

“There is a future for coal and the Nationals back those workers who put on the high-vis and go to work every day and also those people – many of whom are in capital cities – who work in white-collar jobs who are supported by the coal industry and work directly in the coal industry,” McCormack told local radio station 2NM.

Both men sought to exploit Labor’s internal troubles over climate change and energy. They also confirmed the Coalition has a few of its own.

After a hiatus caused by coronavirus, the twin issues of climate change and energy have resumed their place, secured over two decades, as the most intractable and dangerous in Australian politics. As ever, they are plaguing both sides.

The Morrison government finds itself increasingly at odds with its NSW Coalition colleagues on the issue of climate, particularly in the wake of the state’s decision to legislate an advantage for renewable energy producers over the fossil fuel industry.

Pushing his power-station proposal back into the national debate on Wednesday, Canavan took a direct swipe at the NSW government, calling its legislative move “a disappointing outcome”.

“Let’s drop all this rubbish of trying to work together because we’re not,” Canavan, a former Resources minister, said bluntly.

While the Nationals want new coal infrastructure in the Hunter mining hub, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is still focused on a gas-led recovery from Covid-19. This week, the government gave environmental approval for the controversial Narrabri gas project, in north-west NSW, despite ongoing opposition from Indigenous traditional owners and farmers.

Three months ago, Morrison vowed that if energy giant AGL didn’t announce it would build a gas plant in the Hunter Valley by April next year, he would use the government-owned Snowy Hydro to build it.

AGL agreed initially but has now reneged in the wake of the NSW legislation, passed this week, which effectively sets a renewable energy target for the state and penalises fossil fuels.

Politically speaking, one Coalition government has undercut another, putting pressure on Morrison to make good on his threat to use taxpayers’ funds to build the promised plant instead.

Addressing an energy summit on Monday, federal Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said he was confident the two governments could find a way through. But he repeated Morrison’s threat.

“The Commonwealth remains committed. If the private sector doesn’t step up, then we will,” Taylor said.

Yet Morrison is also seeking to shift his language on climate change to reflect a new reality.

The election of Democrat Joe Biden to the United States presidency, on a platform of strong climate change action and a “green new deal”, is forcing Morrison to reposition. He needs to ensure Australia does not fall victim to a global version of what happened with the NSW legislation this week. The government continues to resist setting a target of net zero emissions by 2050, despite momentum in that direction from similar countries and from big emitters in Australia.

Meanwhile, the government is funding a worldwide campaign – including the use of a Royal Australian Air Force jet – to get retired former Finance minister Mathias Cormann elected as the new head of the Europe-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

That quest has turned the conservative Cormann into a sudden advocate for renewable energy and green jobs.

After his candidacy was announced last month, Cormann addressed the Asia-Pacific Conference of German Business, outlining what he said should be the foundations for leadership in the global economic recovery.

The speech was a rhetorical departure from Cormann’s previous positions on climate change action and the energy mix.

“[We] need to be positive and grasp the opportunities presented to us by this pandemic, opportunities like the pursuit of an inclusive and future-focused recovery, including a green recovery, with an increased reliance on renewables, improved energy efficiency, addressing climate change and accelerating the transition to [a] lower-emissions future,” he said.

Last weekend, Morrison told an event on the sidelines of the G20 annual summit, held online, that Australia was committed to “practical pathways” to address climate change.

“As G20 members we all have important responsibilities to the present but also to the future, and we must all take action to safeguard our planet for our peoples and for the generations to come,” he said.

Morrison said Australia was overachieving on meeting the emissions-reduction commitments made at the Paris United Nations climate change conference and that it would no longer need to rely on carryover credits – an accounting move that uses extra reductions in one year to offset increases in another, rather than striving for a consistent fall.

“We’ve got great form on achieving our goals – what we’ve set, we’ve met, and we’ve exceeded it,” Morrison told the G20 seminar.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese later accused Morrison of “crab-walking away” from the use of carbon credits – which he called “that absurd policy” – out of political necessity. He added: “No one in the world is going to allow [the use of carbon credits] to occur.”

The government and the opposition are walking a fine line – seeking to find policy positions that allow them to both advocate the interests of workers in the fossil fuel industry and promote the growing renewables sector, the Coalition more heavily favouring the former and Labor the latter.

Neither is having complete success.

In Labor’s case, the issue has become entangled with unhappiness over Albanese’s performance.

Joel Fitzgibbon has led that charge. The former frontbencher and Albanese’s long-time friend, who quit the frontbench three weeks ago after a confrontation with his leader over climate change policy, took a break with his family this week at Byron Bay.

But he’s indicated he does not intend to let up in his campaign to push Albanese into more strenuously backing mining workers and the industry in general.

Fitzgibbon has told many people of a promise he received from Albanese, after last year’s federal election, to visit a coalmine and declare support for mining jobs. He remains angry that the Labor leader hasn’t done so.

On Monday, Albanese’s Left-faction ally, Queensland senator Murray Watt, took up the mantle with a speech to a northern Australia conference in which he made a strenuous defence of the coal industry. He sounded like a leader’s proxy.

“Anthony Albanese has repeatedly said we should continue exporting commodities like coal, iron ore and other minerals, gas, beef and crops, to a world that’s hungry for them,” Watt told the conference. “The jobs in these industries are important – to families, to the north and the nation – and they deserve our ongoing support.”

Watt said there were also jobs in renewable energy and the debate should not be a choice between “the old and the new”.

“The argument that renewables don’t work is as wrong as the opposing one – that we can convert to renewables overnight,” Watt said. “The fact is the north will continue to source much of its power from coal and gas for years to come and we should treasure every job they create.”

Later, Watt played down suggestions that his address signified at least a change in tone, saying he was surprised at the “kerfuffle” over what was a “pretty normal” speech. Albanese insisted Watt was just restating the party’s policy.

“That’s consistent with what we’ve been saying for a long period of time,” Albanese said on Monday. “Those decisions [about exports] will be made in Tokyo, in Washington, in Beijing – in places that receive our minerals. What Australia has to do is to ensure that we have a trajectory for zero net emissions by 2050.”

But the internal unrest is not just about the policy. It’s about the way it – and everything else – is being presented.

Those backing Albanese continue to believe Labor stands to gain more electorally from advocating strongly in favour of action on climate change than it stands to lose. They are confident that, when the coronavirus crisis passes, Labor’s political traction will improve.

But Albanese’s critics within the parliamentary Labor Party point to a persistently low primary vote. They are extremely concerned about the party’s electoral prospects, especially in NSW, fearing Hunter could fall – most likely to One Nation. They are also worried that the ultra-marginal Western Sydney seat of Macquarie will be hard to hold.

These critics are gloomy about the prospects of gaining NSW Liberal-held seats they had hoped would be in play, including Lindsay, Reid and Robertson.

That leaves Queensland – a mining state – as a crucial hunting ground.

Labor risks criticism from its own constituents at either end of the climate-versus-coal argument that it is sitting too much on the middle ground.

In the Hunter Valley on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister McCormack wasted no time in celebrating Labor’s climate divide.

“There’s a very big split there,” McCormack said of the recent altercations between Albanese and Fitzgibbon.

“The Nationals are all as one when it comes to coal and when it comes to what we need to do for regional and rural economies. We are always supportive of those economies. Labor, well, they wouldn’t know the regions if it bounced up and hit them in the face and certainly they don’t support coal.”

For Labor though, the more direct issue is whether Fitzgibbon is still prepared to support Albanese, or whether the Hunter MP will continue his campaign until the opposition leader is removed.

The week after he left the opposition frontbench, Fitzgibbon carpet-bombed the airwaves, demanding Labor’s Climate Change shadow minister and left-wing Albanese ally, Mark Butler, be shifted out of his portfolio. A reshuffle of Scott Morrison’s ministry is scheduled before year’s end, which will prompt one in the opposition, too.

An ongoing campaign by Fitzgibbon against Butler would leave Albanese with two politically unpalatable choices: capitulate and risk his constituents on the left seeing him as selling out, or refuse and be labelled unresponsive from critics on the right.

It puts him in a no-win situation and there is little doubt it is designed to do just that.

On Wednesday, Butler held a news conference to criticise the government’s energy policy.

Seemingly from left field, he was asked if he would like to move to Aged Care, a portfolio he had held previously. Surprisingly, he did not dismiss it. That may give Albanese an out.

If Joel Fitzgibbon’s outspokenness continues, it will be seen as no longer being about climate change and energy but about changing the leader, regardless of the absence of a challenger.

His outbursts are a long way from guaranteeing Albanese’s demise. But as parliament enters its final fortnight for the year, it won’t help the Labor leader either.

Scott Morrison may also face renewed pressure from conservatives not to move away from fossil fuels as the world begins to demand a speedier reduction in emissions.

His high approval rating will make that much less dangerous than it was for his recent predecessors.

But he still needs to more fully rehabilitate Australia’s international reputation on climate change ahead of next year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, where the momentum will now be towards zero.

The world is finally moving. Far from being out in front, Australia can’t afford to let domestic poison-politics – on either side – see it left behind.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2020 as "How Australia’s leaders are preparing for climate change".

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