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The Nationals meet on Sunday to decide their climate change policy, although some members worry Barnaby Joyce has already done a deal with Scott Morrison. By Karen Middleton.

Clock ticks for the Nationals on climate

Screenshots of Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce on the ABC’s 7.30 this week.
Credit: ABC

Some Nationals MPs are privately accusing leader and deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce of striking a unilateral agreement with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on a plan to fight climate change before they have seen the detail.

Some Nationals fear Joyce’s language suggests a done deal – that he may have already committed their party to embracing the Liberal-led move to a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Joyce has been negotiating with Morrison but denies committing his party to anything.

In a Tuesday night television interview before federal cabinet endorsed the plan, Joyce tackled those suspicions. Without being asked, the Nationals leader insisted he would not act alone.

“The worst thing I could do for anybody – for Mr Morrison the prime minister, for anybody – is to start saying, ‘Oh well, I, Horatio Joyce, have now determined that this is the direction the Nationals are going,’ ” Joyce volunteered on the ABC’s 7.30 program. “Because I’ll just get a size 9 up my backside if I do that. So, I’m not going to do it.”

Joyce vowed to make sure his party was equal in any discussions. Forecasting some division in his party room, he said: “I have my views and other people will have theirs.”

The Nationals have significant leverage and are demanding a payoff in the form of regional job creation and financial support.

The plan is due to be revealed to a meeting of all 14 Nationals MPs and senators on Sunday.

Joyce said they would assess the benefit to the nation and the regions in particular.

He said farmers had been burnt by broken promises before, having agreed to steps to cut emissions under the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol, set when John Howard was prime minister.

“What happened then was we got done over,” Joyce said. “People played a sneaky little game. We ended up with the divestment of our private property – we actually owned the vegetation on our [properties].”

The protocol was endorsed at the third annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, coming into force in 2005.

At COP15, in Copenhagen in 2009, next-stage talks collapsed as countries failed to agree on mitigation action beyond 2012.

At COP21, in Paris in 2015, they agreed to limit emissions to net zero by mid-century and “pursue efforts” to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. They also agreed to “ratchet” emissions reduction commitments every five years.

The coming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, starting on October 31, is where those next commitments must be presented. The meeting was originally set for last year, but the Covid-19 pandemic delayed it.

In Australia, the Nationals are the last bastion of significant policy resistance on an issue that has plagued federal politics for 15 years and claimed leaders in both major parties. Some, particularly from central Queensland, remain implacably opposed to anything harming the fossil fuel industry.

Queensland senator Matt Canavan said on Tuesday that the Coalition’s “brand” was about “delivering practical opportunities”.

“Focusing on stuff that’s utopian and saving the planet and all this stuff – it’s not our core business,” Canavan told Sky News. “I’m uncomfortable here that some in the Liberal National Party seem to be putting ourselves in the position of McDonald’s trying to sell health food. Our brand is not about this sort of stuff.”

He said he supported “sensible decisions” to cut emissions but net zero was “a fantasy”.

Yet in what looks like the beginning of a breakthrough, the Nationals’ numbers now favour a deal to endorse net-zero emissions by 2050.

Beyond politics, momentum has also swung dramatically among other traditionally resistant players.

Influential media giant News Corp is now campaigning through its tabloids in favour of climate action. This week, the Business Council of Australia formally abandoned previous objections and advocated in favour of net zero.

Facing global threats of tariff penalties for inaction, Morrison has also undergone an about-face on a target he previously described as “reckless”.

Morrison initially suggested he would not attend the Glasgow meeting because he had spent too much time in quarantine after travel. But polls indicate public support for action and international pressure has also been mounting. This week, Prince Charles issued an indirect rebuke and urged him to go.

“This is a last-chance saloon, literally,” the environmentalist Prince of Wales said when told Morrison intended to stay away. “Because if we don’t really take the decisions that are vital now, it’s going to be almost impossible to catch up.”

Morrison is most focused on the domestic implications of going, or not. He is now expected to attend but can’t turn up without a net-zero commitment.

Fearing a conservative election backlash, both he and Joyce want to present any net-zero plan as a natural progression for the Coalition based on technological advances, not a dramatic political U-turn.

They emphasise its focus on “technology, not taxes”.

Morrison said reaching net zero was “now a matter of how, not if” and regional communities must be persuaded there were opportunities in change.

Joyce refuses to say whether he personally supports moving to net zero. “As soon as I say something like that, I’ve already given an endorsement or otherwise to the decisions which are my colleagues’,” he said on Tuesday. “… I don’t support it without the support of my colleagues.”

But as a cabinet member, he is bound by cabinet’s decisions. So are other Nationals cabinet ministers Bridget McKenzie, David Littleproud and Andrew Gee.

Agriculture Minister Littleproud and Nationals senate leader and Regionalisation Minister McKenzie are among those publicly asserting their refusal to be railroaded.

“There’ll be no deal until the National Party party room examines the detail of the plan and then makes a determination about what impact that would have on regional Australia,” Littleproud told Sky News on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, McKenzie said the Nationals were just asking that they be “respected as the second party of government”.

She wants a get-out clause in any deal to guard against broken promises, saying the Nationals would demand commitments. “Until I hear those, we’re not signing up to anything,” she told ABC Radio National.

The Nationals are also coming under direct pressure. Fortescue Metals chief Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest telephoned both McKenzie and Joyce on Wednesday. He said McKenzie was “a bit impatient, wanted to get off the line”, but Joyce was willing to listen to “the facts”.

“We need to stop scaring Australians,” Forrest said. “We need to stop fearmongering. You might crack a few more votes at the coming election, but after you will be seen for what you are: just a fearmonger trying to save your political job, not the jobs of every regional Australian.”

Forrest’s view is echoed by New South Wales agriculturalist Charlie Prell, who chairs national advocacy group Farmers for Climate Action. Representing 6000 farming families nationwide, the group commissioned a report last month identifying readily available measures to reach net zero.

Prell says for too long political leaders have talked about “targets and dates and road maps without talking about the benefits” of a shift to large-scale renewable energy production.

“I think it’s now demonstrated that it is not a scary thing for farmers in particular in regional centres to talk about climate change,” he says. “… I also think that setting targets and dates is just the first step. We need a plan that steps out how we get to those targets.”

In agriculture, Prell and his group advocate expanding the existing pilot incentive on-farm mitigation programs rather than trying to invent new approaches. He has wind turbines on his property and says the renewables sector offers more prospective jobs than the export coal industry.

He wants a plan that details specific commitments and targets for 2030, 2035 and 2040, not just 2050.

“The target has to include some sort of mechanism to get to the target,” he says. “But that’s the second step. We’ve got to set the target. If the target’s set, that attracts investment.”

Scott Morrison has long insisted Australia will “meet and beat” the existing target for 2030 of a 26 to 28 per cent cut on 2005 emissions levels.

At time of press he had not committed to anything more ambitious. But state government moves to boost wind, solar and green hydrogen production and use are now expected to deliver up to a 10 percentage point boost on their own.

Labor also has not yet set early targets but supports net zero. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese wants to legislate it, but Morrison wants to avoid images of a handful of angry Nationals crossing the floor against their own government.

Some Nationals continue to demand support for coal.

Resources minister and Queensland Nationals MP Keith Pitt has called for a $250 billion taxpayer-funded loans facility in return for Nationals support.

Pitt said this week that the Nationals would be neither pushed nor rushed.

“The fact that it’s five minutes to midnight is not an emergency for the Nationals party room,” he told Sky News. “We will be taking our time to consider the proposal … These are significant decisions. They won’t be made in 10 minutes.”

But with the Glasgow meeting beginning in less than three weeks, the clock is ticking – and not just for the planet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Climate deadline".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.