Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Lean times for ineffective Morrison

Joe Hockey infamously divided the nation into “lifters and leaners”. There’s little doubt which side of that line Prime Minister Scott Morrison now finds himself on.

Morrison is a political leaner, just ask the states, who are frustrated with the federal government’s failures on the critical vaccine rollout and on climate change. Or ask his political opponents, who the prime minister scoffed at again this week for policies that substantially did most of the lifting to cut Australia’s greenhouse emissions – something Morrison claimed all the credit for at Joe Biden’s virtual climate summit.

The prime minister is indignant at the suggestion he’s leaning on others’ enterprise. At the Business Council of Australia’s yearly dinner, in the swank ballroom of The Fullerton Hotel Sydney, Morrison derided his elite city critics and rejected the charge while proving it at the same time.

He insisted Australia was carrying its load in its emissions reduction. He went further, saying, “We are leading the way.” And then the punchline: “Our domestic emissions have already fallen by 36 per cent”.

This achievement is due in no small part to the scaling up of the renewable energy target by the Gillard Labor government and the incentives offered by the states and territories to encourage domestic rooftop solar. Not to be forgotten either is the significant contribution of Gillard’s “carbon tax”, which the Abbott Liberal government repealed only to have Tony Abbott’s key adviser, Peta Credlin, later admit it was never a tax.

Even as Morrison was spruiking Australia lifting more than most of the 40 nations at Biden’s summit, he had still not committed his government to net-zero emissions by 2050. Once again, the states and territories have had to fill that breach. And unlike many of Morrison’s cheerleaders in the media, his failure to commit to net zero has left the states mightily unimpressed.

Morrison’s incrementalism smacks of political cowardice. The most common explanation is that he doesn’t want to blow up his government over the issue having seen what befell his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, on two occasions – once in opposition and then more spectacularly in office. There is little doubt the more rabid coal warriors, especially in the Nationals, including former resources minister Matt Canavan, are more than willing to make trouble.

Canavan lashed out at reports that Morrison, in his Business Council of Australia speech, was pivoting to a more sympathetic “job-creating” view of renewables and was beginning to tiptoe to embracing net zero. The Queensland senator dismissed the target as “mythical”. He told Sky News that committing to net zero would “impose massive amounts of red tape” on regional Australia. He said, “Effectively this is like a 10-year-old kid trying to jump off his parents’ roof thinking he’s Superman. He doesn’t have the technology to fly and he’s going to fall flat on his face.”

The contrast with the Coalition government in New South Wales is stark. In that state, the Nationals are supporting the target and an ambitious plan to reach it. The NSW Liberal Environment minister, Matt Kean, earlier this year described Morrison’s failure to commit to the net-zero target as “ridiculous”. The Berejiklian government is committed to cutting the state’s emissions by 35 per cent by 2030. Critically, the plan is to create 2400 jobs and to attract more than $11.6 billion of investment during the next decade, mainly in regional and rural areas.

What is to be noticed here is the state government’s leadership in this project as well as the political will and gumption to pursue it. Morrison, on the other hand, is more like a bystander, cheering on the environmental initiatives taken by companies including Fortescue, BHP and AGL. He singles them out for praise while at the same time failing to give a national framework that would encourage the sort of investments more widely needed.

Instead of taking responsibility as leader of the nation to get to net zero, Morrison says he’s relying on the “animal spirits of the business community”. He blithely ignores the role the states are playing to stir those spirits, as well as the consequences of there being no national co-ordinating policies. One energy industry source says that while we have three states on the eastern seaboard pursuing different power policies the only result will be chaos. “It’s insane,” he says.

Morrison seems to think all he needs is marketing slogans such as “technology not taxes” to meet the challenges. They may persuade some voters, but The Sydney Morning Herald’s new Resolve Political Monitor has found the government is losing ground. If an election was held now, it would see no end to the hung parliament.

Still, old tricks die hard, and the nation was given a cheap, valueless sneer as part of the spiel to persuade us that the prime minister is serious and finally gets the urgency on climate change. “We’re not going to achieve net zero in the cafes, dinner parties and wine bars of our inner cities,” Morrison said. Pitting Australians against each other is hardly the way to achieve anything, let alone the sort of changes needed to make the planet safer by decarbonising our economy as others are committing to do.

Slogans will not cut it, nor will pretending there is no short-term cost for long-term benefits. Labor’s new Climate Change and Energy spokesman, Chris Bowen, was closer to the mark when he responded to Morrison’s taunt. “Every Australian,” he said, “has a stake in the future, regardless of whether they live in the city or the suburbs or the region.”

With an election now 12 months away – according to the view gaining traction in Canberra – Anthony Albanese is beginning to spell out what his alternative government would look like. For starters, it will not look like what Labor took to the last election on coal jobs. And on this point Albanese, like Morrison, is in grave danger of speaking out of both sides of his mouth on climate change action and the economy’s hitherto reliance on fossil fuels for a whack of its prosperity.

The Labor leader is promising “national leadership” on climate and energy, sort of. He says Australia will continue to export resources, including coal, “based on global demand”, but the decisions on the future of those industries will be made “in the boardrooms of Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and New Delhi”. Albanese is trying to make clear he does not intend to shut down the coal industry and is distancing himself from the impression Bill Shorten was plagued by at the last election, particularly in Queensland’s coal seats. But at the same time, Labor’s leader has begun rolling out policies linking renewable energy to new manufacturing jobs and incentives for this to happen.

In what could signal the end of the climate wars, both Albanese and Morrison agree that renewables are the future and that “we ignore this fact at our national peril”. The difference is Albanese is not saddled with fanatical coal champions in his party willing to bring him down over the issue. The maverick Hunter Valley MP Joel Fitzgibbon, for example, actually agrees with net zero by 2050.

So Albanese has adopted the target and is promising interim signposts along the way. He is biding his time, waiting to see what comes out of the Biden climate summit and the United Nation’s COP26 conference in Glasgow at the end of the year before nailing his colours to the mast.

Fuelling the delayed election timetable speculation is the horrible fix the government has landed in, thanks to its bungling of the Covid-19 vaccination rollout. Health Minister Greg Hunt has become something of a sick joke with his assurances that everything is on track when clearly it isn’t. One press gallery wag says Hunt has become the minister for vaccine rollout announcements. If announcements were vaccines, he says, the nation would have been inoculated three times over by now.

Morrison’s “war footing” national cabinet met twice this week to agree on mass vaccination hubs to extend the rollout to 50- to 69-year-olds. The sticking point continues to be supply, despite Hunt’s assurances. Infectious diseases expert Sanjaya Senanayake told ABC TV that at the current rate it will take four years to vaccinate 75 per cent of the Australian population. Opening our international borders without more substantial coverage would be a lethal pandemic risk.

The other sticking point is the Morrison government’s lack of urgency last year to secure vaccines. Economists Steven Hamilton and Richard Holden wrote in The Age that ordering just 10 million Pfizer doses, rather than the 50 million required to cover the population, saved the government about $600 million. “But that’s a tiny fraction of what our economy will lose due to the delay – a false economy if ever there was one,” they wrote.

Just as the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, could scarcely hide her frustration at Canberra’s lack of vaccine urgency in recent weeks, Victoria did the heavy lifting midweek, announcing $50 million to fund mRNA Covid-19 vaccine production. Monash University’s Professor Colin Pouton will play a key role, building on research he’s already done. Pouton’s calls for such funding last year from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Had then Science minister Karen Andrews been more receptive, such a factory would have been a reality by now. Another example of the Commonwealth’s failure to invest in and keep up with vital technological innovation.

It’s hard to blame the states for thinking that they are doing the heavy lifting while Morrison leans on them to deal with these existential challenges.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Lean times for ineffective Morrison".

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