Paul Bongiorno
Climate wars return amid Coalition chaos

The old tautology “deja vu all over again” has become a jarring reality for the Coalition. And shattering the promised peace and stability are all the same factors that destroyed the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull: climate change, energy policy and competing egos.

The big difference this time is that hostilities broke out among the Nationals rather than the Liberals. But the collateral damage is much the same. A government with a narrow majority of one – already reeling from its prime minister’s failure of leadership during the bushfire emergency – has been further knocked off balance. With its credibility and legitimacy under serious question thanks to the $100 million sports rorts scandal, the Coalition is in even poorer shape to restore its electoral standing. The latest Newspoll, taken in the days before Barnaby Joyce launched his blitzkrieg on Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, is further evidence of the parlous state of things.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese has maintained his lead over Morrison as preferred prime minister for the second survey running. It’s a result Bill Shorten never managed against this prime minister, notes one party insider. He credits the win to Albanese’s performance over the summer: the Labor leader turning up, and, as far back as November, setting the agenda for a response that the prime minister either rejected or ignored, only to later implement.

Morrison on Monday, in his speech of condolence for the fire victims and his recognition of the heroic work of the firefighters, dubbed the crisis the “Black Summer”. But the country is only halfway through the fire season with fire chiefs, including Shane Fitzsimmons in New South Wales, bracing for more days of catastrophic conditions. The prime minister would be wise to take note.

Morrison’s handling of the sports rorts scandal in the wake of the auditor-general’s scathing report on the “Award of Funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program” is more evidence of self-harm. It is directly linked to the implosion in the Nationals party room, which had the effect of handcuffing the government to a climate change response completely counter to the mood of the disaster-shocked nation. The surviving Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, is now on notice to do no more on emissions reduction than what was laid down by Tony Abbott five years ago – but so is Morrison.

The prime minister had been warned by McCormack a week earlier that to sack the embattled Bridget McKenzie for her brazen doling out of millions of dollars’ worth of grants in a vote-buying exercise would destabilise the Nationals leadership, and the Coalition. In the end though, 18 days of leaks from within the government made McKenzie’s position completely untenable.

The stonewalling only solidified the perception that corruption was being tolerated, as did Morrison’s too-smart-by-half response to stem the bleeding. He used a confidential report from his departmental head, Phil Gaetjens, who had previously been his chief of staff in the Treasury portfolio, to find no political bias, which was a direct contradiction of the forensic findings of the auditor-general. The government apparently offered no such defence when the auditor-general sent it his draft findings before publishing his audit.

Just as shameless was another bit of confidential advice from Attorney-General Christian Porter, another Liberal MP whose marginal electorate received a grant from McKenzie. According to Morrison, Porter’s advice was that the minister was legally entitled to override the independent corporate entity Sport Australia. No written support of this advice was supplied. Experts, including Professor Anne Twomey of the University of Sydney, are mystified by this and can find no legal basis for McKenzie’s actions.

Gaetjens did, however, find that McKenzie had, in a strict reading of the prime minister’s guidelines, breached ministerial standards by failing to declare a conflict of interest in a $36,000 grant she gave to a gun club of which she was a member. If this move was designed to quarantine Morrison and his office from the stench of the sports grants, it only served to ensnare another Nationals minister, Matt Canavan. On Monday, the Queensland senator revealed he, too, had failed to declare a potential conflict of interest: he was a member of the North Queensland Cowboys football club when the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility provided a $20 million loan to the club.

Canavan, one of the most outspoken coal champions in the Coalition, disclosed the conflict and offered his resignation at the same time as endorsing a return to the leadership of Barnaby Joyce. Canavan said his constituents need “a bulldog … to fight back against those who want to take away people’s coal jobs”. Joyce took the cue and began a round of media interviews. He promised to renegotiate the Coalition agreement with a more independent profile for the Nationals. Key to this would be an anti-environmental agenda completely out of harmony with Morrison’s hitherto vain attempts to sound, if not look, like a born-again climate change activist. More coal-fired power stations, more land clearing and a rewrite of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan to release more water to farmers and towns and less to natural habitats. On display was a complete blindness to the watershed on climate change, triggered by the summer from hell.

This siren song was rejected by the 21-member Nationals party room. But the fact Joyce’s allies claim the vote was close – just 11 to 10 in McCormack’s favour – sounded a warning that the former deputy prime minister will have another shot when the opportunity arises. Joyce confirmed this in an interview with his local ABC station in Tamworth. We may never know the exact numbers of the vote – McCormack’s backers claim they had 15 to Joyce’s six – as, according to the rules, chief party whip Damian Drum must not divulge the outcome and must destroy the ballots.

Unlike a papal election in the Vatican, the Nationals provided no smoke when they destroyed the ballots at the end of their conclave. The huge bushfire in the Namadgi National Park, south of Canberra, more than substituted. The acrid smoke haze, almost constant since New Year’s Eve, fittingly rendered the capital’s air quality “unhealthy”.

McCormack, in his condolence speech to the bushfire victims, identified with the climate sceptics, if not the outright deniers, in his own party room. As did the Liberal senator Jim Molan on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night. Molan said he didn’t rely on evidence to doubt “man-made climate change”. The following day, McCormack told parliament that “the current fire season is not without precedent”. He emphasised the need for hazard reduction and the role of arsonists – all part of the fossil fuel lobby’s arsenal against meaningful emissions reduction.

Ringing in the deputy prime minister’s ears would be the first shots in the latest climate war, which erupted in the government party room earlier that day. Joyce, while promising his colleagues he would now loyally serve, warned them not to give in on climate change to greenies and claimed it was not an issue in Nationals electorates. He criticised people for “pushing hobbyhorses” on the back of tragedies. He was joined by four of his supporters, including Queensland National George Christensen, who said five seats depended on the government’s backing of coalmining and the support of those voters could be in jeopardy with more climate action.

This alarmed a number of Liberals. The new member for the inner-Melbourne seat of Higgins, Katie Allen, said climate change needs to be tackled. She backed Morrison’s preference for the use of new technology to bring down emissions. The member for North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman, said more than technology was needed and he said Joyce’s camp was wrong to assume climate change was not an issue just because it did not register in their seats. Zimmerman observed the only way to win back Tony Abbott’s old seat of Warringah from green independent Zali Steggall was to get serious about climate change. Another Liberal, Fiona Martin, said climate change had become a major issue in her seat of Reid in Western Sydney.

There is no doubt McCormack and Morrison are aware of what happened in the previous climate wars. The sceptics and fossil fuel champions are prepared to blow up the government rather than to allow policies that cut across the vested interests of coal and gas. But there are real indications this time that the electorate has moved on. The tradeoff for a few coal seats is a losing strategy.

No one knows this better than Zali Steggall. As the Coalition parties brawled inside parliament, the independent was drawing huge applause from hundreds of Extinction Rebellion protesters outside on the lawns. She is promising to introduce a private member’s bill within weeks for a comprehensive framework of policies – somewhat ironically based on the British Conservatives’ 2008 Climate Change Act, which is designed with a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Steggall will discuss her bill with Labor’s Mark Butler but, she said, “If Liberal MPs in metropolitan seats want to honestly advocate for a robust climate change response, then they must speak up and not let the climate change deniers in the party hold progress to ransom.” She said a recent community survey in her electorate showed “climate and the environment as the No. 1 concern”.

The last shots have not been fired.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 8, 2020 as "Climate wars return amid Coalition chaos".

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

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