Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Nationals still hot on coal

On Monday Scott Morrison walked into RAAF Base Williamtown near Newcastle to the soundtrack of the movie Top Gun. It may have been appropriate to his mission that day – lauding the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter program – but it was a parody of his helplessness in the endless climate war.

Morrison is no top gun when it comes to delivering the sort of decisive leadership Australia needs if it is to take part in reinvigorated global efforts to contain catastrophic climate change. No longer does he have the cover provided by disgraced United States President Donald Trump, the leader of “our greatest ally”. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement made Australia look good, comparatively. Our Paris targets may have been well short of what is needed – just ask Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson – but at least we had some.

Now with Joe Biden rejoining the Paris Agreement, making climate change a pervasive imperative of his entire administration and taking concrete steps to get to net zero by 2050, Australia’s top gun looks more like a pilot in a simulator. Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor – whose other title, the minister for Emissions Reduction, sounds more like a spoof – are yet to sign up to that target. It is still only a preference.

In his discussion paper outlining his agenda for a future fuels strategy, Taylor actually increases transport emissions by 6 per cent over the decade to 2030. The government’s much hyped “gas-led recovery” also raises emissions as it sidelines renewables.

The Liberals, as you may remember, spent the 2019 election campaign deriding Labor’s interim target of 45 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 as an economy-wrecking prescription. The Biden climate plan aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector to net zero by 2035. Furthermore Biden, like the European Union and Britain, will factor in carbon tariffs for future trading arrangements. The new US president intends to exert as much pressure as possible in arresting climate change, which he sees as an existential threat to the planet.

Already the issue has come up in negotiations that are under way with Britain and the EU over new free trade agreements the Morrison government is assiduously pursuing. The evolving geopolitical situation will be an acid test of the prime minister’s claim that he will not be dictated to by other countries but will always put Australia’s interests first. Now those interests will inevitably lead to accommodations, which in the past decade the Coalition, with its militant coal champions, have rejected. Our prosperity as a major trading nation will depend on this reality check.

Those coal champions have certainly not vacated the field. The junior party of the Coalition that keeps Morrison in power, the Nationals, has served notice that it will not readily accept the net zero target. The pace is being set by a trio of hitherto senior members of the Nats now relegated to its backbench. They are determined to set the agenda and preferably replace the current leader and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack. Blitzing the media this week with their ultimatums were former party leader Barnaby Joyce, with ambitions for a comeback; former resources minister Matt Canavan; and former sports (rorts) minister Bridget McKenzie.

Joyce and Canavan wrote an opinion piece in The Australian where they said while they “can’t stop cabinet signing up to a target… [they] can vote against any subsequent legislation if it is noxious to our constituents”. When the Coalition was in opposition, Joyce was a serial floor crosser and says it gets easier the more you do it. But if Morrison was of a mind to call Joyce’s bluff, it could see the government’s effective one-seat majority disappear. Government sources are briefing that no legislation is needed to set the target, something Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed on radio this week.

Where this leaves Morrison’s caveat over setting the target is anyone’s guess. He told the National Press Club that when he can “tell you how we get there, that’s when I’ll tell you when we’re going to get there”. We know it will be by “technology and not taxation” but unless he is prepared to do much better than his electric vehicle plan – which has been debunked by experts including Dr Jake Whitehead of the University of Queensland – not even technology will achieve the Holy Grail. Whitehead, a transport economist, rejects Taylor’s claim that hybrid cars are cleaner than 100 per cent electric vehicles. Again, the nod to fossil fuels is not to be missed.

The prime minister has persuaded heavyweights in the Canberra press gallery that he will take a 2050 net zero commitment to the Glasgow climate conference at the end of the year. Realistically, he has little choice, but the plan to get there can’t rely on another of his “miracles”. Not even Morrison can believe that some new technology on the eve of New Year 2050 can make up for 30 years of doing nothing, as Barnaby Joyce and his mates are espousing. Richie Merzian of The Australia Institute says the strong signal sent by the Biden administration of the new president’s commitment, and the Democrats winning control of the US senate, “flipped General Motors on electric vehicles”. Once it was clear Trump was gone, Merzian says, the car manufacturer “flipped in a week and signed up to all-electric vehicles by 2025”.

New Zealand and Britain have legislated a net zero target. The latter has a carbon budget reviewed every five years, something independent Zali Steggall’s private member’s bill would achieve for Australia. The pathetically inadequate 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 – the Climate Change Authority recommended 40 to 60 per cent, which the climate sceptic Tony Abbott ignored as prime minister – simply doesn’t cut the mustard. Abbott never legislated his target. Morrison’s commitment to it is evidence of his awareness of public opinion.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is accusing Morrison of being “all smirk and mirrors” for not legislating the net zero target. He has committed a Labor government to do so, telling reporters in Brisbane “you can’t have a target unless it’s legislated” otherwise it is “an aspiration, it’s a theory”.

McCormack tried to sue for peace when he suggested agriculture could be excluded when compiling Australia’s net zero numbers. But Canavan rejected the idea. He says the net zero target is mythical because he believes no one actually will achieve it. On Sky News Canavan said, “It’s a bit like saying if we just shut down 95 per cent of the economy but protect 5 per cent, everything will be okay.” And then came the crunching conclusion, when he asked rhetorically, “How are we going to mine coal?”

This puts the Nationals rebels at odds with the National Farmers’ Federation, which supports the target. This divide angers many farmers. One from central Queensland, Domenica Jensen, on ABC Radio accused Canavan and his amigos of using farmers as a cover for their real agenda. She said they were doing it under the guise of protecting farmers and challenged him to be upfront in protecting coal, another “important iconic industry”, and leave farmers out of it. “The climate is getting hotter and hotter,” she said, “and more and more farmers are dealing with incredible suffering … We won’t have much of an industry if the climate keeps getting hotter and drier.”

Analysis of Climate Change Authority numbers by the Greens has found the Nationals’ support for Tony Abbott’s dismantling of everything to do with the “carbon tax” has cost farmers billions. The leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt, says by repealing the carbon price, the Coalition nobbled the carbon farming initiative, which has seen farmers lose “over $12 billion in lost carbon credits”.

There is no doubt that over the decade of the climate wars, vested interests and the plutocrats have played a critical role in thwarting majority public opinion in Australia on a transition from fossil fuels. And no one has been more blatant in dancing to their tune than the LNP in Queensland – and their Liberal and National colleagues federally. Queensland billionaire Clive Palmer, with his huge coal investments in the Galilee Basin, is a prime example. Palmer spent upwards of $80 million to thwart Labor at the last election, even going to the trouble of setting up a straw political party to do it.

Palmer is at it again with an expensive media campaign, targeting the head of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, James Shipton. ASIC has charged Palmer with breaches of directors’ duties and fraud. The matter is listed for next month in Brisbane.

Labor’s Stephen Jones says Palmer’s campaign is outrageous and likens it to someone charged with housebreaking running an expensive advertising campaign against the police. That someone such as Palmer can ply such influence is a blight on our democracy. While his activities help fund the Liberal and National parties – along with fellow billionaire miner Gina Rinehart – the country is becoming functionally less of a democracy where citizens have an equal voice. A few rich people are disproportionately powerful.

Another farmer, Anika Molesworth, told RN Breakfast the Nationals rebels are making her extremely anxious about an “irresponsible failure of leadership to adapt to the future”, which is “incredibly irresponsible and damaging to the farming community”.

Certainly with them holding back any progress, Australia is not playing its part in the global effort, which Scott Morrison says he assured Joe Biden he was up for.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Friendly fire in climate dogfight".

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