Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The madness of KingGee George

Scott Morrison is daring to dream. By Christmas, he wishes, the nightmare of 2021 will be substantially over and Australians will be able to confidently embrace the future with a wonderfully restored economy, living safe, vaccinated lives in a nation strongly committed to new climate change action.

The prime minister outlined this vision both in the party room and in the parliament. If nothing else, it reveals his reading of what the public wants his government to deliver. The latest Newspoll reads it, too: support for Morrison’s handling of the pandemic and vaccinations has collapsed dramatically, and the government is still trailing Labor badly.

Interruptions to Morrison’s dream are principally to be found in the junior Coalition party, but not exclusively. There are a number of Liberals, too, who are unhappy with his imagined future. Their libertarian bent is mightily disturbed by the restrictions imposed through lockdowns, talk of vaccine mandates and wanting to do more than window-dressing on emissions reductions.

The real world, of course, is crashing in on the ideological preferences and vested interests driving much of this internal resistance to rational policy responses. The dire warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the beginning of the week did nothing to change the arguments made by climate change denialists and fossil fuel champions for the past decade.

In George Christensen, the Queensland Liberal National Party member for the coal seat of Dawson, those views find an outspoken proponent. In parliament on Tuesday it was Covid-19 raising his temperature. Just before question time he gave vent to conspiracy theories running rampant against the measures Scott Morrison is employing to “save Australian lives and livelihoods”.

All unscientific rubbish as far as Christensen is concerned. He claimed unspecified studies to say face masks don’t stop the virus, it isn’t all that lethal anyway, lockdowns don’t work and “domestic vaccine passports are a form of discrimination”.

Theatrically, he ended his spiel with a call to arms. He said while we have to accept the inevitability that some people will die, “what we should never accept is the systematic removal of our freedoms based on zero-risk health advice from a bunch of unelected medical bureaucrats. Open society back up! Restore our freedoms! End this madness!”

The Christensen outburst, defying government health advice, was certainly a challenge to Morrison’s authority. Labor’s Anthony Albanese seized the opportunity to make sure no one missed it. He interrupted question time seeking leave to move a motion praising the “heroes of the pandemic” – scientists, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. He condemned Christensen for “spreading misinformation” and undermining the actions of Australians trying to defeat the virus.

Morrison used his speech to defend his government’s response to the pandemic, with heavy emphasis on 2020 rather than this year. But he could not bring himself to repudiate George Christensen by name. He said if others wanted to undermine the government’s job looking after the health of the nation, “it’s up to them”. But, he said, “We do not support misinformation in any way, shape or form.”

What he does support is Christensen remaining on the government benches. Should the Queenslander follow fellow Covid-19 conspiracy theorist Craig Kelly to the crossbench, the government would be plunged into minority.

For only the second time in 25 years a motion proposed by the opposition passed the parliament unamended. The last time was when Albanese managed to get the house to recognise the sacrifices of Victorians in their second, long lockdown. On that occasion the treasurer played bad cop to Morrison’s good cop. He used his speech to stridently criticise the Andrews Labor government for the lockdown; something he didn’t reprise this time against the Berejiklian Liberal government.

Albanese was expecting the government to stick to its usual playbook and shut him down. That it didn’t is a sure sign Morrison realises the politics of the pandemic have turned against him. The situation in New South Wales is dire for him. Not only is Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian presiding over what looks to be a situation beyond her control, but she is deflecting her own failures onto the prime minister. She almost daily blames the Commonwealth for not purchasing and supplying enough vaccines to either head off the outbreak or contain it more quickly.

The Commonwealth is playing desperate catch-up and would prefer the premiers and everyone else to concentrate not on the shambolic and stalled vaccine rollout but on the promise more vaccines are on the way. Morrison is claiming that by Christmas, 70 per cent of the adult population will have received two jabs and, if you can believe Health Minister Greg Hunt, the rollout now is world-beating – though we are still at the back end of developed countries, with only 23.7 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

It is not unprecedented for politicians to put the best possible gloss on their failures. The Americans call the practice “putting lipstick on a pig”. If it seemed as if that’s what was happening with vaccines this week, it is certainly what has been happening regarding the government’s response to the IPCC report.

Though parliament was sitting, the prime minister called a midday news conference in his courtyard to claim Australia is responding better than most in meeting its targets and indeed surpassing them. Never mind that the Kyoto targets were a special carve-out that allowed Australia to emit at a higher level than everyone else. Or that when it comes to Tony Abbott’s targets of 26 to 28 per cent reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 they are way behind what the government’s own expert advisory panel recommended, which was closer to 45 per cent if we are to get on a trajectory to net zero by 2050.

Greens leader Adam Bandt summed up the bravado succinctly. He said Morrison “is asking for a pat on the back for only taking three minutes to run a 100 metres race”.

Even the prime minister’s claim that Australia’s emissions have fallen by 20 per cent since 2005 are something of a fudge. If you take out contentious land use measurements, the impact of drought and slower land clearing, you in fact get a 7 per cent rise in emissions.

Research for The Australia Institute, carried out by leading energy analyst Dr Hugh Saddler, finds that Australia’s energy transition away from fossil fuels is among the worst of 24 developed nations.

Morrison is promising to unveil new targets by the end of the year, although the word out of the government’s backroom is that he is reluctant to call these “targets” and would prefer the word “goals”. The difference is not clear but Morrison and his Energy minister, Angus Taylor, take every opportunity to claim the word “target” has been debased by countries that set more ambitious ones without ever reaching them.

The coal champions in the Nationals, such as former resources minister Matt Canavan and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, believe the whole international framework is a sham because you can’t trust “communist China” and India isn’t very interested and both these giant countries account for more pollution than the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Morrison kept repeating his favourite slogan in this space at the news conference – that he would be using “technology, not taxes”. We can only presume he is talking about “carbon taxes”, but this in itself is specious: Labor abandoned its commitment to making polluters pay through a market-based price on carbon at the last election and will not revisit it.

The slogan is an abandonment of anything that could even pretend to be fiscally responsible. With the federal government’s gross debt forecast to hit a trillion dollars by about 2030, how will it pay for the $20 billion it is promising to deliver cleaner heavy industry? And on top of the $10.3 billion in subsidies it pays to the gas and coal industry, which it is not showing any inclination to end?

Morrison is in a much stronger position than his deposed predecessor Malcolm Turnbull in this space. For one thing, Tony Abbott is no longer in the parliament and most of his militant fossil acolytes, at least the ones with an anti-Turnbull agenda, have left as well. One Liberal backbencher says Morrison could take as ambitious a goal or target as he liked to the Glasgow climate summit – something Turnbull could never do.

Maybe. But there’s always Barnaby Joyce and the Gina Rinehart-backed Nationals. The deputy prime minister says he will not agree to net zero by 2050, unless he sees a plan to get there outlining what it will cost. There is some wriggle room in that statement, but it is so much terrible deja vu.

NSW Energy and Environment minister Matt Kean says the federal government can do more. He says the IPCC report gives hope that if the world’s nations take concerted action now they can avert the worst of the climate catastrophe that is already upon us.

We could all then join in Scott Morrison’s Christmas reverie. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "The madness of KingGee George".

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