Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Political climate changes with Biden win

Australia’s political leaders were among the first to declare their faith in America’s democracy when the Biden victory in the presidential election became clear. They realised that what was at stake was the credibility of a nation that for the past 75 years has claimed to be the leader of the “free world”.

The prime minister resisted Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s naive challenge to Scott Morrison to defend democracy by calling Donald Trump and asking him to accept the results of the election. That was made as the Biden victory slowly built a head of steam, only to be matched by Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was being stolen.

Then, as now, some members of the Coalition backbench were echoing Trump’s conspiracy theories. The Nationals’ George Christensen, for one, kept posting bizarre theories on social media despite Facebook superimposing warnings of “False information checked by independent fact-checkers”.

But it was not only the usual suspects on the crazy right of the government who were wondering whether Morrison’s acknowledgement of Joe Biden’s win was premature. Others privately worried there might be some basis to Trump’s claims, such was his vehemence and the reality of multiple legal challenges.

These are doubts Australia and America’s other Five Eyes partners were determined to quash. Our ambassador in Washington, Arthur Sinodinos, was in urgent talks with his counterparts from Canada, New Zealand and Britain. The leaders of all four countries were quick to accept the election outcome as tabulated by the major American media outlets from results posted by the vote count in all 50 states.

The context of Australia’s concerns, shared by India and European nations such as France and Germany, is the increasing assertiveness of China as a competing superpower. Trump may not care, but if his claims came anywhere near reality, he would be conceding that this great democracy was at its core a sham and its ballot processes a shambles.

The point could not have been missed when Morrison, in the formality of the Australian parliament, saluted the Biden victory. He emphasised that he was joining other nations in doing so, as an enduring alliance partner and leader of a “liberal [and] democratic people”. This is an alliance, he said, “built on fundamental shared values, the equal and unalienable rights of our people, the supremacy of the ballot box, the rule of law, freedom of the press, the separation of powers and the free flow of commerce and ideas”.

The fact the prime minister needed to remind the house what being a “liberal and democratic people” entailed speaks volumes of the damage Trump has done to the institution. Albanese in his reply echoed Morrison’s sentiments. Both sides of politics in Australia have repudiated Trump’s scorched-earth tactics often employed by defeated combatants in retreat.

Now comes the task of adapting to the global leadership on the key issues Biden is promising. Albanese was fast out of the blocks. He had a simple message at the weekend. President-elect Biden is committed to net zero emissions by 2050 in stark contrast with the Morrison government. “Australia,” Albanese said, “is now isolated on climate change [as it] was at the last international conference.” All our major trading partners have committed to the net zero target. China has nominated 2060, but Morrison only hopes to get there some time in the second half of the century.

On Monday, Albanese said it was a “big problem” for us that John Podesta, a key figure in the Biden campaign who will play a “critical role in the Democrat administration”, doesn’t see Australia as a “like-minded country” on climate change. Albanese said Podesta names places such as Britain, New Zealand, Europe, Japan and Korea but “he doesn’t name Australia”. He promised Labor would “adopt positions that are consistent with zero net emissions by 2050”.

But Labor’s Resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon had a different message. As he left his home in the Hunter Valley to come to Canberra for parliament, he began calling journalists. His concern was that the Biden victory and the new president’s ambitious policies on climate change would lead his colleagues to “overreach”. This overreach would lead to yet another election defeat, he believed. Fitzgibbon is convinced Biden’s commitment to a carbon target in 30 years’ time was not the most significant factor in the election result.

Albanese was furious his frontbencher was running such public interference, especially as the Biden win was a perfect opportunity for a reset on climate policy. At the very least it was expected the pressure would be on Morrison to do a lot more than merely window-dress Australia’s woefully inadequate response to emission reduction.

There was an angry blow-up at Monday night’s shadow cabinet meeting, where Albanese tackled his “old mate” head on. The shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, chimed in, calling Fitzgibbon “a disgrace”. Fitzgibbon shot back at the Victorian MP: “Shut up, you idiot.” Some think Albanese was on the brink of sacking Fitzgibbon but was beaten to the punch. Fitzgibbon decided then and there to quit. It was gold for Morrison, who paints Fitzgibbon as a victim of Labor’s climate “zealots” at the expense of coalminers and other workers in regional Australia.

Neither Fitzgibbon nor Dreyfus contradicted the reports of their confrontation in shadow cabinet. Dreyfus told ABC Radio in Melbourne that Fitzgibbon “does not represent more than a handful of views” in the party room. He said the election of Joe Biden meant the United States and the world will be taking more action on climate change and not less. Like Albanese, Dreyfus says heading to net zero emissions with more investment in renewables will create more jobs.

One Labor insider said the party would be mad to do anything to weaken its climate change policies. He pointed to the Australian National University’s 2019 election survey, which found concerns over global warming were “at an all-time high” and helped Labor win votes. Remember, this was some months before the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires that were linked to climate change.

The Emerson–Weatherill review of the election found higher-income urban Australians and the young were concerned about climate change and swung to Labor. But the same review found the party’s ambiguous language about the Adani coalmine, and some anti-coal language, cost the party votes in the New South Wales Hunter Valley and Queensland coal seats.

The answer is to fix that language, something deputy leader Richard Marles understands. Marles, whose welcoming of the demise of coal before the last election cost the party votes, told ABC TV on Monday that to suggest there is not going to be a place for gas and coal for decades to come “is just not right”. This approach certainly worked for Labor in the Queensland election a couple of weeks back.

Joel Fitzgibbon’s concerns over a Biden-inspired overreach is not confined to climate change, however. It also goes to heading off any temptation Albanese and shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers may have to repeal the tax cuts for high-end income earners due in 2024.

Biden is promising to repeal Trump’s tax cuts for billionaires and corporations. He managed to persuade millions of voters that anyone earning under $400,000 would not see their tax relief reversed.

Fitzgibbon says he has a very simple view on the question of tax: “Never get in the way of a punter and a legislated tax cut.” His punters, according to him, work hard to earn anything up to $200,000. The Morrison tax cuts will offer enormous and expensive relief to these very people. The $130 billion package would see someone on an income of $200,000 getting a tax cut of $9075 a year, while someone on $50,000 gets just $125.

Albanese tried to knock out this top-end generosity when it came into the parliament and has kept open the option of looking at it again. This has already given Morrison the opening to brand the Labor leader as “big taxing” like his predecessor Bill Shorten.

Election reviews showed voters trusted Morrison more on tax and the economy than his opponents. And, as in America, they will have the last say at the next election.

Democracy, messy as it is, thankfully still rules in both countries.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "Climate of change".

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