The smallest man in the room

In February last year, Mike Seccombe reported what at the time seemed incredible: Australia had a net-zero emissions target for 2050. This was in spite of the Morrison government. The story added up the commitments of every state and territory and found that Australia would reach the global target irrespective of Scott Morrison’s then refusal to endorse it.

“It’s meaningless, when every state and territory says it has a net-zero target, to have a federal government saying, ‘No, we don’t,’ ” the economist Richard Denniss noted in the piece. “If the states all meet their stated goals, then Australia meets it, and what Scott Morrison thinks about that is precisely irrelevant.”

This week it emerged that the federal government has been working to overturn the capacity of states to meet their targets. An email from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Victorian government it had 14 days to leave a global coalition of subnational governments focused on arresting climate change.

The ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia were also told to leave the consortium because they “failed to properly classify” their involvement in a memorandum of understanding. New South Wales, which is a signatory, is attempting to clarify its position.

The extraordinary intervention was made under the Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act, which Morrison hastily passed last year. At the time it seemed designed to allow the federal government to tear up Victoria’s Belt and Road partnership with China. Its usage to limit action on climate change is staggering.

Lily D’Ambrosio, Victoria’s Energy, Environment and Climate Change minister, said the decision was egregious and that the government were vandals. “Rather than addressing the urgency of climate change, they are actually putting forward more barriers.” Queensland’s minister, Meaghan Scanlon, called it a silly game. “Clearly, the Morrison government aren’t content with their own failures on climate change; they’re now trying to stop the states from taking action.”

Analysis released in October showed state actions on climate would cut emissions by 35 per cent by 2030, even without further changes. Many have now committed to a 50 per cent reduction by 2030. Morrison has stubbornly refused to update his midterm target. His contribution has not risen above finding the rhyme between “meet” and “beat” and showing off that he learnt the word “canter”.

It is difficult to fathom Morrison’s desire to interrupt genuine action on climate change. He views climate change as an issue of identity and regards indifference as Australian. His potency is measured by the impotence of his response. Like all masculinity, the foolishness and fragility of this is in direct proportion to what he regards as its strength.

The states will still likely meet their targets. Morrison’s attempts to slow them will only go so far. Much greater forces are at work. The interference, though, says something very important about Morrison: nothing is too small for the smallest man in the room.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "The smallest man in the room".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription