Opinion

John Hewson
When will Morrison learn that a slogan is not a policy?

When will Scott Morrison and the Liberal National Party realise that three-word slogans are not a policy; indeed, they may not even be an effective way to deliver the desired marketing message?

In the past two elections we were bombarded with “Jobs and growth”. Absent any detail, we were left asking, Which growth? In what sectors? On what time line?

The government’s unwillingness or inability to provide necessary policy detail can easily be taken by voters as contempt for them. It is an attempt to take them for granted rather than leading on the issue – that is, providing the detail and attempting to persuade voters to accept the explanation and go along with them. This last point is a very big ask, given the significance of the trust deficit with the Morrison government.

The latest slogan covering the absence of policy detail is “Technology not taxes”. Morrison is using this over and over for his presentations to the G20 and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). As has been well documented, this slogan is the outcome of what was an elongated negotiation with the National Party to get their agreement for Morrison to commit to a net-zero emissions target for 2050.

Most in the climate debate were left absolutely cold at the thought Morrison was prepared to abrogate his climate responsibilities to Barnaby Joyce and the Nationals, especially when the Nats seem consumed by the need to pay off their mates and donors rather than consider policy in the national interest. We still don’t know what price Morrison paid to gain Nationals support, but we suspect yet another regional slush fund for Nationals pork-barrelling with a nod and a wink in favour of more coalmines, additional gas projects and more gas and coal-fired power.

The slogan is presented as if it was a choice that had to be made, but the slogan is riddled with a number of the Coalition’s legacy issues on carbon-pricing, including the carryover baggage from Tony Abbott’s outrageous campaign against Julia Gillard’s decision to put a price on carbon. It is most unfortunate that many in the LNP think that they won government by promising to abolish the carbon price that Abbott mischievously characterised as a carbon tax. Nevertheless, while Gillard’s election loss was more to do with a broader perception of failures of her government, the LNP has locked itself in to total opposition to carbon-pricing.

It should be clear that the LNP’s position on carbon-pricing is totally hypocritical when their preferred alternative, the so-called Direct Action plan, actually purchases emission reductions and thereby puts a price on carbon to do so. Every tonne of emission reduction achieved has a price.

Morrison’s choice of slogan – “Technology not taxes” – is not ideological but simply opportunistic. A true conservative who claims to believe in small government and low regulation, and that market forces should be relied on where possible, would begin to address the climate challenge by putting a market price on carbon. This would also deal with their concern about being seen to attempt to pick winners, as the market will do the selection.

Nobody is disputing the likely role of technology in an effective and fair transition to a low-carbon Australia, but this slogan without detail leaves considerable doubt about the relative significance of different technologies and about their commercial viability and timing.

Morrison may also get caught for sticking with this slogan given the way the G20 and COP26 processes might unfold. These processes will be seeking a way to unify the various commitments of national government in terms of both emission reductions targets and their policies to achieve them. What better way to do this than by considering their implicit or explicit carbon prices? Indeed, it’s not inconceivable that the outcome of the G20–COP26 meetings is a call for a global carbon-trading system and a global trading price.

Academic evidence is overwhelmingly that a market-determined carbon price is the most efficient mechanism to drive the transition process to a low-carbon world.

In responding to Covid-19, Morrison made much of the fact that he was relying on science and medical advice. Climate change is a much more significant challenge than was the pandemic. The body of climate science is much more substantive, being more thoroughly peer assessed than the medical science behind the response to the pandemic. So why isn’t the Morrison government more readily accepting the significance of the climate science and evidence?

Morrison’s assumed cleverness of his slogan will not necessarily cut through in these conferences, nor will his arguments that he has an outstanding record of achieving an emission reductions scheme. The major powers will find it very difficult to accept that a country such as Australia abandoned an emissions trading scheme that was actually reducing emissions.

Morrison is unlikely to admit the further truth of emissions reductions in Australia, where the heavy lifting has been done by households with rooftop solar and by state and territory governments, most notably by the Queensland government’s changes to land-clearing policies. It won’t help Morrison to be believed when French President Emmanuel Macron has gone out of his way to call him a liar. This is particularly so when the Gillard scheme, had it been allowed to continue, would have had us formally linked to the European carbon price by now.

Moreover, given that so much of the focus at COP26 is on midterm targets, for Morrison to turn up without one shows an appalling ignorance of how he would have to manage his carbon budget to achieve his commitments in relation to the objective of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. To stick with 26-28 per cent reductions in emissions by 2030 is totally inadequate, about half of what will be required to do the job.

Morrison also claims that the LNP doesn’t believe in “mandation”. Yet in an area where we clearly led the world some years ago, when Malcolm Turnbull was Environment minister, mandating a transition from incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient light bulbs resulted in significant reduction in emissions in the power sector and was followed by many other countries.

As simple as the slogan “Technology not taxes” seems, it hides a multiplicity of important issues, where it’s only reasonable to expect that the prime minister would or should have detailed answers. Morrison uses these slogans repeatedly to duck the detail, but he will not continue to fool anyone who has a genuine interest in the subject of climate.

It is obviously difficult for him to escape his marketing roots. He needs to realise that to continue to rely on such slogans to avoid producing policy substance and detail easily harks back to the famous slogan from his tourism days: “So where the bloody hell are you?”

Morrison has a huge trust and leadership deficit on issues where voters realistically expect him to have answers and solutions. All that happened this week was that Macron caught up with the average Australian voter in understanding that Morrison will lie in order to cover up policy failing or inadequacy, especially in the context of an election campaign.

What perhaps Macron is yet to realise is that his French naval construction company was used as a mere pawn by Morrison in his bid for re-election last time around. The French submarine contract was a parting gesture from Christopher Pyne to shore up votes in South Australia, with a substantial local manufacturing aspect “guaranteed”. This was the big lie, claimed with such passion and conviction by Morrison and Pyne. But there was always a certain vagueness from the French – the level of local manufacturing depended on the available people, skills and equipment.

Early this year there was discussion in naval circles that perhaps it was time for us to pull back from the French contract. Expected costs were blowing out and there was uncertainty around the likely local content for what in the end would prove to be an inferior submarine product. It was being said that total costs could blow out from about $90 billion to some $500 billion, with local content barely 50-60 per cent, well short of the 90 per cent announced in Australia.

A decision was never announced until the AUKUS deal was consummated. Obviously it got quite ugly, with the United States and France operating on different assumptions. Morrison is yet to come clean with all concerned. Again, the endgame for him is simply winning, ignoring the costs and our genuine national interest. The fallout tells us a lot about his approach to climate change, too. Both issues require long-term, strategic thinking, making decisions that will benefit the country in several decades’ time. Scott Morrison’s problem is he can’t see past the next election.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Three-word Monte".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.