Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Coal-blooded attacks on Coalition unity

When a prime minister has to appeal for unity in his ranks, not one but two weeks running, you know there isn’t any. And the awful reality for Scott Morrison is that he’s got one hand tied behind his back as he tries to restore the promised stability in the Coalition. The fate of his government lies with the fractious Nationals, and there is no prospect of the divisions racking the junior Coalition partner healing any time soon.

By Tuesday’s government party room meeting, the Nationals had succeeded in spectacularly humiliating their own leader, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, and by association Morrison. A day earlier, five or six Nationals MPs had joined a Labor-engineered ambush to deny the government its choice of deputy speaker in a secret ballot. The election of Llew O’Brien, the Queensland MP who walked away from the Nationals after last week’s attempted leadership coup, was an act of brazen defiance. It sent the unmistakeable message that the problems that led to Barnaby Joyce’s failed lunge at McCormack’s leadership had not been resolved.

With the crossbench keeping shtum on who voted which way, the focus was squarely on the government’s disarray. Queensland National Michelle Landry fessed up she thought “it might have been a bit of revenge happening there because Barnaby didn’t get the leadership”. Joyce himself said he was disappointed that O’Brien, who obligingly moved the spill motion against McCormack last week, had accepted Labor’s nomination.

But Joyce was prepared to back another National, Ken O’Dowd, to run against the party whip, Damian Drum. O’Dowd made no secret of the fact he declined because he didn’t want to make more trouble for the Nationals. Almost in the same breath, though, O’Dowd claimed he voted for the renegade O’Brien because he is a Queenslander. He also thought this might send a message to McCormack to lift his game.

O’Brien delighted Labor when he accepted Tony Burke’s nomination. The opposition was aware of the ructions in the Nationals over the deputy speaker’s job and thought it was worth a punt. Anthony Albanese defended the tactic, telling RN Breakfast that it was not Labor’s job to hide the cracks in the government. Indeed, they had succeeded in dramatising them.

O’Brien assured parliament he was still a member of the Coalition, just not part of the Nationals’ party room. But it was left to Morrison, not McCormack, to shore up this commitment – a desperately necessary job in light of the government’s perilously thin one-seat majority after supplying the speaker. O’Brien is a fierce critic of the Nationals leader. According to stories in The Australian and The Courier-Mail, he was disgusted with McCormack for organising party room meetings in Victoria ahead of last year’s Melbourne Cup and this year’s planned centenary dinner for the Nationals, and having taxpayers foot the travel bill.

The fact that these negative leaks against McCormack keep appearing in the media is a sure sign the drip treatment to undermine him has begun. Until he is dispatched or quits, the leaks will continue. The hapless leader knows he is under siege and has cancelled a scheduled trip to attend a conference in Sweden next week because of the rising tensions.

After his written assurances of continued support were handed over to the prime minister, O’Brien attended the government party room meeting. No one welcomed him or drew attention to his new status as a free radical. So worried was Morrison that another bout of brawling over climate change action might erupt again this week, he and the Liberals’ deputy leader, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, urged urban Liberals to avoid clashes with the Nationals’ pro-coal advocates. They reluctantly complied and did not take the provocation when Matt Canavan, the Queensland senator who quit as Resources minister to back Joyce’s leadership bid, again spoke in favour of coal. Canavan rejected Morrison’s vision of using gas as the best fossil fuel in the transition to renewables.

The Australian reported moderate Liberals were furious with the directive and quoted one MP as saying, “It is like appeasing a child who has a tantrum. This is what we have been doing for four years. The more they don’t get their way, the bigger the tantrum is.” Other Liberals are fed up with Nationals such as Joyce and George Christensen threatening to cross the floor and blow up the government if they don’t agree with legislation. Holding the entire government to ransom for the sake of four coal seats in Queensland is infuriating many in the Coalition. One told The Saturday Paper there would not have been a miracle election win without Coalition MPs around the country such as himself holding their seats. Or, in the case of Tasmania, taking two off Labor.

Morrison, in his party room plea for hostilities to end, acknowledged, “There are many parties in this government, but they all have a contract with the people to be their government.” He said, “We must do this as a team … I am not the government. We are the government; no individual is, we are together the government.” The treasurer expressed his frustration that the fracas over the deputy speakership had overshadowed the visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the signing of a free trade deal between Australia and its closest neighbour. “When watching the news last night,” Frydenberg said, “that historic moment didn’t feature at all.”

Queensland Nationals such as Canavan, it seems, have more immediate priorities. The former Resources minister, who is based in Rockhampton, is credited with orchestrating the successful pro-coal campaign in the run-up to the 2019 election. He equated the Adani Carmichael mine with thousands of jobs – a figure that has been disputed, with even former Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie saying at one point that only 100 ongoing jobs would be created. But Canavan is intent on repeating the same trick with the proposed Collinsville coal-fired power station in the lead-up to the Queensland state election at the end of October. This foreshadows nine months of pain for Morrison, and for other metropolitan Liberals who have read the mood in their electorates for more action on climate change and a phasing out of fossil fuel use.

Canavan was defiant midweek, making use of every second of an 18-minute interview on ABC Radio to say he would continue to speak out on energy policy, defending coal jobs and dismissing the “futility” of Australia doing anything to reduce emissions while India and China aren’t doing their part. Canavan shares a dated mantra with his colleague Michelle Landry that new coal-fired power will deliver cheaper electricity – something former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed as “nuts”.

In Canberra for the Widodo visit, Turnbull told reporters, “The cheapest form of new generation is a combination of renewables plus storage … That is no longer even a remotely contentious proposition.” Indeed, a recent report by Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, found that wind and solar are cheaper for generating electricity than coal or gas, even with the additional costs of “firming capacity” to ensure the renewable sources have 24/7 availability.

Professor Finkel, at the National Press Club this week, said climate change is nature’s reaction to our actions. “It is real, and it is already happening,” he said. “… The link between climate change, a rising number of forest fire danger days and our season of bushfires is clear and has resulted in a steep collective cost that can be measured in billions of dollars in economic damage.” He said this cost pales in significance when compared with the greater toll behind the statistics – “the lost lives and livelihoods, the lost businesses and homes, the lost flora and fauna”.

Canavan was in the audience. His ears must have been burning when the chief scientist detailed the cost of doing nothing. Earlier on radio, the senator said there should be no commitment to a net zero emissions target by 2050 without the cost to jobs and the economy being spelled out. This was the argument thrown at Bill Shorten at last year’s election, but it is now clear the cost of doing nothing, as the British economist Nicholas Stern warned more than 13 years ago, is increasing the longer we delay emissions reduction.

Canavan appears to be relying on two old reports to argue Collinsville would be profitable and provide cheaper electricity to north Queensland. He even claims that former treasurer Wayne Swan commissioned one. Swan says this is untrue and that the climate change deniers are getting desperate. He says Canavan is “on a collision course with physics and elementary economics”. There can be no new coal-fired power station without a huge government subsidy. But that truth won’t hit home until the federal government’s
$4 million feasibility study is handed down some time next year, well after the Queensland election.

While the brawling Coalition has grabbed the media’s attention, tensions in the Labor Party over climate policy – or the lack of one – surfaced in caucus on Tuesday. Albanese is holding his nerve but is under pressure to make a strong statement of intent soon. He says there are two years to the next election and voters will know his policies in plenty of time. But can he be sure the government won’t implode before then?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Coal-blooded attacks on Coalition unity". Subscribe here.

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

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