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As Scott Morrison attempts to balance his weak climate policies with US ambitions, a key Biden adviser is returning to Australia to help revolutionise state responses. By Mike Seccombe.

Biden adviser: ‘I don’t know whether Angus Taylor is an ideologue or an idiot’

Scott Morrison and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outside her office in the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
Credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images via AFP

Nancy Pelosi is an extremely meticulous person. This is the overriding recollection of a former colleague who knows her well and worked with her on energy and climate legislation during the Obama years. With this punctiliousness in mind, he was taken aback to hear her praise Scott Morrison for his “leadership” on climate change.

What on earth could have led the progressive speaker of the United States house of representatives to so mischaracterise Australia’s prime minister at their media call in Washington last week? Was she trying to butter him up?

Her former colleague suspects a more prosaic explanation: Pelosi really didn’t know anything about the man standing beside her. She meets lots of people and had never encountered Morrison before.

“I mean, she is absolutely thorough, absolutely exacting, absolutely careful,” he says. “So the only thing I can suggest is that someone in her office would have contacted the Australian embassy to get something on Morrison in advance of the meeting, and that tidbit slipped into a briefing note. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me.”

People who understand the international politics of climate change, on both sides of the Pacific, were left flummoxed as to why she would convey the impression that the US administration is appreciative of Australia’s efforts at combating climate change. It is decidedly not – and could well be even less so in the near future – the former Capitol Hill source says.

Morrison has hinted he will not even turn up for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, which begins on October 31. He continues to equivocate on whether Australia will set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, as have most developed countries, including 80 per cent of Australia’s trading partners and many of the world’s largest corporations. He has not committed to improving on Australia’s interim target of 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction by 2030.

President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry, has already criticised Australia’s lack of commitment – although only briefly. The source says he “is a heat-seeking missile on this issue and he has just been ferocious in his pursuit of having a successful Glasgow”.

Biden himself has not criticised Morrison publicly, but he hasn’t falsely praised the Australian government either, as Pelosi mistakenly did. At the highest level, the source says, climate diplomacy between America and Australia is being played with subtlety.

“Because the relationship is so good … there is no way that the president would embarrass or undercut the Australian prime minister,” he says. “Below the presidential level there has been intense pressure on the Australians to come to the party. But the message from the top is, ‘Dear Australia, the world is going this way. And it’s up to you to figure out what to do.’ ”

The problem is the current federal government has not figured out what to do. It remains divided over its climate response, as it has been since it came to office eight years and three prime ministers ago. The divisions are only becoming deeper and more public as the Glasgow climate talks and next election draw closer.

A relatively small number of members remain opposed to any stronger commitment to emissions reduction. The most vehement of them are three Queenslanders: former Resources minister Matt Canavan; Gerard Rennick; and George Christensen. A dozen or so others profess concern for the jobs of their constituents and economies of their regions.

Most of those are Nationals and most are also from Queensland. Some are senior members of the government. Resources Minister Keith Pitt is in cabinet, as is the Nationals leader in the senate, Bridget McKenzie. Barnaby Joyce, the party leader, also is hanging out to be persuaded of the economics as he tries to keep his fractured party together.

The Nationals are feeling political pressure from the right as well: from the climate change deniers in One Nation; Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, led by former Liberal Craig Kelly; and former Queensland premier Campbell Newman, who is leading the new Liberal Democrats.

At the other end of the spectrum, Liberal moderates are struggling with the party’s lack of policy. Their mostly urban constituents are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and the government’s position on taking action.

McKenzie’s recent behaviour is indicative of the strains. This week she flew angrily into print in The Australian Financial Review, accusing Coalition members who support carbon neutrality by 2050 of exhibiting the “worst kind of vacuousness over values”.

She wrote: “It is easy for the member for Kooyong or the member for Wentworth to publicly embrace a net-zero target before the government has a position, because there would be next to zero real impact on the way of life of their affluent constituents.”

The member for Kooyong is Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. McKenzie’s article was provoked by his declaration, three days earlier, in favour of a net-zero 2050 target. Frydenberg warned that Australia was at risk of being starved of investment as “trillions of dollars are being mobilised globally in support of the transition” to a renewable economy.

No doubt he was motivated by a comprehension of climate and fiscal reality; but there was likely another consideration, too. Frydenberg nearly lost his Melbourne seat at the last election. He got less than half the primary vote; the Greens got more than 21 per cent, Labor got almost 17 per cent, and another climate-focused independent got almost 9 per cent.

Frydenberg could be in trouble again this time, as could several other government members in seats with large numbers of climate-concerned voters.

As well as Labor and the Greens, a loose grouping of independent candidates will be gunning for them, inspired by the success the current crop of high-profile, high-calibre independent MPs in Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie, Helen Haines and Zali Steggall.

While the various grassroots groups will select their candidates on a seat-by-seat basis, they are getting a lot of organised help. Back in February, Cathy McGowan, who preceded Haines as the independent member for Indi in Victoria, organised a conference of some 300 people representing groups in 72 electorates, at which she, other former independents, and various professional political strategists offered campaigning instruction.

The movement also is getting support from a group called Climate 200, whose convener is the millionaire investor and climate activist Simon Holmes à Court. At the last election it had a war chest of about $500,000. This time it already has about three times that amount. It’s not much by major party standards, let alone those of Clive Palmer, but it’s enough to scare the Liberal Party, as evidenced by a plea sent out this week by the party’s federal director Andrew Bragg to potential donors.

“We can’t risk more left-leaning Independents tipping Labor (and the Greens) into power,” his missive read. “Friend, your support is vital. Can you make a contribution to our Fighting Fund to help stop them?”

The Liberals have some reason for concern, too. One is that Climate 200 is taking a very professional approach.

“Our job is to try to help in capacity building,” says Holmes à Court. “For instance, we did a Zoom recently bringing them up to speed on disclosure laws, funding and authorisation of material. We got in one of the top lawyers in the area and she briefed about 30 groups.”

Likewise, they have brought in experts to give workshops on how to run digital campaigns. The focus will be on a small number of seats identified as vulnerable. Holmes à Court says, “We’ll support six and maybe 10.”

That includes several Liberal-held seats. They are looking at three in New South Wales – Wentworth, North Sydney and Mackellar – all of which are in traditional Liberal heartland where the “most salient” issues identified by polling are climate, integrity and the treatment of women, and where close to one-quarter of respondents said they would vote for an independent “like Zali Steggall”.

The seats are currently held, respectively, by Dave Sharma, Trent Zimmerman and Jason Falinski. All three are moderates, all have lately been much more vocal in their public advocacy of greater climate ambition, and all were part of a group of worried MPs whose concerns Morrison tried to allay via teleconference this week. According to party sources, not very successfully.

In Victoria, Climate 200 has identified the seats held by Frydenberg, Health Minister Greg Hunt, and Tim Wilson.

“We’re also having a look at Hume because there’s a really strong group there,” says Holmes à Court, referring to the seat held by the minister for Industry and Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor.

“It’s a harder demographic to shift, but frankly, Taylor is very easy to fundraise off, because there’s such outrage that he’s doing such a bad job.”

The independents movement is substantially composed of disaffected small-l liberals. Former Liberal MP Julia Banks, for instance, recently joined the Climate 200 advisory board. Whether it manages to elect any of its number or not, it will likely prise away like-minded moderate conservatives and complicate preference flows.

In response to the conflict in his government, Morrison, the great prevaricator, has shifted his rhetoric. No longer does he wave around lumps of black rock in parliament, while shouting, “This is coal. Don’t be afraid.” He’s moved on, first to the gas-led recovery, and more recently to the “technology, not taxes” line. There also has been some money, strategically directed.

“It’s no coincidence that a billion dollars of funding towards hydrogen is primarily focused in regions that have previously relied on fossil fuel industries,” says one senior Liberal MP. “It’s actually about providing pathways for continued employment.”

It is also about trying to placate rebel Nationals and make the government look less paralysed. “Morrison’s alive to the fact that climate policy has been the rock upon which many a prime minister has been wrecked,” says the Liberal.

There is no hiding the reality of the federal dysfunction. This week it was further highlighted, ironically by the state Coalition government in NSW.

Already, NSW, like all the other states and territories, has done what Morrison dares not and has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. On Wednesday, NSW announced it would halve its greenhouse emissions by 2030 – almost double the commitment the federal government made at Paris six years ago.

The announcement came in a joint media release from the state’s minister for Environment and Energy, Matt Kean, outgoing premier Gladys Berejiklian and, most tellingly, Nationals leader John Barilaro.

So, how is it that NSW can achieve the unity that the federal government cannot?

The short answer is that Kean has been able to persuade his colleagues that “you don’t have to believe in climate change to believe in capitalism”.

“The backstory,” Kean tells The Saturday Paper, “is that in 2020 I took a plan to cabinet, the Net Zero Plan. And at the time, I proposed that we set an interim target – 35 per cent emissions reduction by 2030.

“I got everyone on board by saying that we will put in place policies to reduce emissions only where they create jobs, they lower cost of living for families, don’t impose additional costs on business, drive investment and grow our economy.”

Pushed by Kean, NSW has introduced a series of initiatives, including incentives to encourage electric vehicles, a strategy to reduce emissions from the state’s waste stream and, the big one, the designation of regional renewable energy zones.

As Kean pointedly notes: when the government recently called for expressions of interest in the New England Renewable Energy Zone, near Armidale, in Barnaby Joyce’s electorate, it got responses from 180 proponents. “It was oversubscribed more than four times. Those 34,000 megawatts are worth around $40 billion, all going into Barnaby’s electorate.”

State legislation requires a yearly assessment of progress in a “State of the Environment” report. “And when we did the modelling,” Kean says, “that showed that we were going to smash a 35 per cent target.” The calculations showed reductions of 47 to 52 per cent.

On Monday night, when Kean took to cabinet a proposal that the state lift its target to 50 per cent, it was quickly and unanimously agreed upon. Kean is effusive in his praise for the leadership of Barilaro and Berejiklian, for whom this will be one of the final acts in office. He leaves unstated the obvious contrast with the federal Coalition.

NSW is not the first Australian jurisdiction to set an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target. Victoria is committed to a 45-50 per cent reduction. Several other states have set higher goals than the federal government. The ACT is the most ambitious, aiming for 65-70 per cent.

But the NSW announcement was particularly humiliating for Morrison because (a) it came from a Coalition government, and (b) because NSW, like Queensland, has a big fossil fuel industry, at least for the short term.

The small positive for the Morrison government is that whoever attends the Glasgow climate conference will be able to honestly says Australia will beat its current 2030 emissions reduction target. Projections suggest Australia might claim 35 per cent, but it won’t be because of what the federal government has done. Rather, it will be because of state and territory action, as well as household and business uptake of renewables.

“The federal government,” says Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at The Australia Institute, “is like the member of the group project that does nothing, then takes the credit.”

Next week Kean will join his Victorian Labor counterpart, Lily D’Ambrosio, for the launch of a new report from the institute, drawing on the work of Saul Griffith, an Australian adviser to the Biden administration. Kean is one of his biggest fans.

“He was literally Biden’s climate and energy adviser,” Kean says. “He’s got a brain the size of a planet. Right here, living down in Wollongong, we have a guy that’s literally advising the people that run the world. And he’s a genius.”

Griffith’s CV includes qualifications in metallurgical engineering from UNSW Sydney and the University of California, a PhD from MIT in “the junction between materials science and information theory”, a Macarthur Fellowship for inventions in the service of humanity, and stints in senior roles with the US Department of Energy and NASA, along with a string of tech start-ups and more.

Griffith has, during the past 18 months or so, been working with the White House, senate leader Chuck Schumer and energy and natural resources committee member Martin Heinrich on climate and energy policies that would, he tells The Saturday Paper, “lower everyone’s energy costs and save the country money while getting to zero carbon much, much faster”.

“I realised while I was doing the work … that in fact the country in the world with the easiest run at this, with the best savings for people, is Australia,” Griffith says.

The report will detail enormous cost and environmental benefits that could flow if Australia’s 10 million households electrified everything – cars, cooking, heating, cooling, the lot – which now are responsible for more than 40 per cent of the country’s carbon emissions. By 2030, the report projects, the average Australian household would save $5000 to $6000 compared with what they now spend.

If the commercial sector followed – small businesses, offices and other workplaces – emissions would fall 70 per cent.

The reasons Australia could make big savings are several, Griffith says. Because of our low population density, our electricity and gas distribution networks are expensive. So is petrol, at least relative to the US, while our renewables are cheap. Australia’s world-leading uptake of rooftop solar is “truly a miracle”. In the US, the cost is three times higher, and more expensive that taking power from the grid.

Griffith has been talking with anyone who would listen – Labor in Victoria, the Liberals in NSW, the Greens in Tasmania – and also has some big-money backers, notably the tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes.

He calls himself genuinely apolitical – he left Australia at 19, before he ever voted, but he is nonetheless swingeing in his criticism of the federal government and Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s so-called “gas-led” recovery.

“I don’t know whether Angus Taylor is an ideologue or an idiot or paid off by the gas industry, but there’s nothing technically reasonable or economically reasonable about his arguments,” he says.

“I’ve been doing hand-to-hand combat with the natural gas industry in the US senate for the past three months. And they are extremely well funded, they’re extremely cynical, they are engaged in the culture wars. And I think they fully intend to burn our children’s future.

“When I am talking to Joe Biden and his climate team, I tell them, if you could make the perfect country with the perfect policies, it would be Australia for rooftop solar policy, Norway or California for its electric vehicle policies, and South Korea or Japan for their electric heating. And if that place could exist in one place, you’ve got the recipe for domestic climate success.”

Australia is such a place, Griffith says. The recalcitrant nation could easily lead the world.

“I have a theory of change that the way to get the best, fastest climate action globally is for Australia to go big, go fast, go early, and show the rest of the world how it’s done.”

That might have been the country Nancy Pelosi was thinking of, except Scott Morrison is still leading it and the party he has under him is still utterly divided. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Biden adviser: ‘I don’t know whether Angus Taylor is an ideologue or an idiot’".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.