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Paul Bongiorno on the Coalition’s war over net zero, and how Barnaby Joyce’s National party is holding the country’s future to ransom.

Barnaby Joyce is holding Australia hostage

Read Transcript

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has finally confirmed that he will be attending the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow in November.

Morrison is under pressure, both from voters and Australia’s international allies, to publicly support a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. 

But his coalition partners, the Nationals, are yet to support the policy - and some in the minor party are pushing hard against it. 

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on the Coalition’s war over net zero, and how Barnaby Joyce’s National party is holding the country’s future to ransom.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music starts]

OSMAN: 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi. This is 7am.

 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has finally confirmed that he will be attending the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow this November. Morrison is under pressure, both from voters and Australia’s international allies, to publicly support a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. 

 

But his coalition partners, the Nationals, are yet to support the policy - and some in the minor party are pushing hard against it. Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno, on the Coalition’s war over net zero - and how Barnaby Joyce’s National party is holding the country’s future to ransom.

It’s Friday, October 22.

 

[Theme Music ends]

OSMAN:
Paul, when we spoke to you last week, the prime minister was waiting for the National Party to meet and discuss whether or not they would support his move to adopt a policy of net zero emissions by 2050. So what did they end up doing?

PAUL:
Well, Osman, initially ...nothing. The Junior Coalition Party had a long party room meeting on Sunday where they discussed the Morrison government's climate policy and at the end of it they didn't have anything that looked like an agreement. They pleaded for more time to understand the 900 page proposal Federal Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, had given them.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“The National Party meeting over net zero has broken a marathon meeting. Let's go straight to the deputy leader of the party, David Littleproud - David, welcome.” 

Archival Tape -- David Littleproud:
“Yeah, thanks for having me.”

PAUL:
The Deputy Nationals leader, David Littleproud, went straight onto Sky News after the meeting and said the party was going to take its time...

Archival Tape -- David Littleproud:
“There's still some more questions that need to be answered, and we're going to take our time to get it right…”

PAUL:
...but he wasn't ruling out the party supporting the new position developed by Taylor. 

Archival Tape -- David Littleproud:
“We're actually going to come back and think about this and continue to probe the issue, because this will probably be one of the biggest decisions many of us will ever have to make while we're here…”

PAUL:
On Monday, the Liberal Party room met, and interestingly, the Libs have more regional MPs than the Nationals do; the so-called ‘party of the bush’. Anyway, the Liberal meeting supported the net zero position and that was a win for Morrison, but it still left the question open of where the Nationals would land.

OSMAN:
So after taking most of Sunday to try and develop their position, they didn't land on one. Did we get a sense of which way they were at least leaning this week, Paul?

PAUL:
Well, Os, as the week dragged on without agreement, the impressions strengthened the Prime Minister was a captive of the climate neanderthals in the Nationals. Senator Bridget McKenzie warned that if the Prime Minister accepts net zero without the approval of the Nationals, it will be ugly she said. Some were in fact threatening to quit the government.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
Keith Pitt, welcome back to breakfast.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:
“Good morning, Fran.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“Are you a helpless, hopeless climate laggard?”

PAUL:
Another Nationals Cabinet Minister, Keith Pitt, went on ABC radio to disown the science of climate change mitigation as a costly waste of time. 

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:
“Oh, the climate is changing. It's always changing, Fran. Do I think that Australia can change the temperature of the globe? Well, I don't think we can. If we shut our economy, I don't think we'll make one iota of difference.”

PAUL:
And Barnaby Joyce, himself, the party's leader, studiously avoided supporting the net zero target, a target previously he's ridiculed and been critical of.

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:
“Well, can I just say something? I think it's really important. We have not said we are doing this. That decision is yet to be made…”

PAUL:
Further eroding the government's credibility was the vow of former Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, that he would never support in parliament any measure towards net zero. 

Archival Tape -- Matt Canavan:
“Well, I'm pretty firm in my view here that adopting a net zero by 2050 target will be a betrayal of so many supporters of the Coalition, and that's the feedback I'm getting…”

OSMAN:
OK, so Scott Morrison's trying to unite his government around a position of net zero. He's managed to get the Liberal Party on board, but it's the Nationals who are playing hardball. What does it mean, Paul? I guess in terms of Australia's climate policy on one hand, but also in terms of Morrison personally, considering that he's now finally confirmed that he's going to attend the Glasgow climate summit?

PAUL:
Well, for Morrison personally, it could mean going to Glasgow without a commitment to net zero by 2050. A couple of weeks ago, the Nationals reluctance to support it was dismissed as grandstanding. But as the days dragged on, Morrison was getting nervous. As for what happened next? Well, Barnaby Joyce set up a four person advisory group to help finally decide what position the party could support...

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:
“In the Senate just now. The Minister for Regionalisation has said that if the prime minister adopts
net zero without the approval of the National Party quote, it will be ugly. Does the minister agree?” 

Archival Tape -- Speaker of the House:
“The Deputy Prime Minister has the call.”

PAUL:
On Wednesday, under pressure in question time, Joyce said he would deliver the Nationals verdict on Thursday.

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:
“And what I can say, Mr. Speaker, in that a committee of four, which is Minister McKenzie, Minister Pitt,  Minister Littleproud, and Minister Hogan, have all been working on this process. And as recently as today, I've had a meeting because we're going to make sure that the Prime Minister of Australia is reported back to as soon as possible. In fact, I believe in the next day...within the day, we will get back to him, because we are not grandstanding…”

PAUL:
And what we know at least a third of the party room remains dead, set against net zero. The other two thirds could be bought. The price tag, according to one leak, is $20 billion. The last month, Osman, has been a bad look for the Prime Minister. He's appeared to be held hostage by not only the Nationals, but more particularly the small rump of the party that doesn't want any action taken on climate change. And with Morrison setting out an election pitch that promises a net zero target and a conversion to real action this is more problematic for the Prime Minister. The government's internal brawl saw Morrison on Tuesday attempting to deflect attention away from the ugly, unfinished business. In parliament, the Prime Minister ensured that the first question from the government side was not about climate, but about the national plan to safely reopen and live with Covid. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Mr Speaker, Victoria is opening up. And I note in particular, Victoria's road map just announced, Victoria's road map delivering the national plan, Mr Speaker, from the Victorian state government. I welcome that, Mr Speaker, Queensland is opening up. Mr Speaker, the Queensland borders will be coming down. Mr Speaker, we welcome that as Queensland honours the national plan…”

PAUL:
Clearly the hope is that enough voters will have short memories on the failures and vaccine and quarantine that have ruined their lives over the past 18 months and solely focus on the fact that the states are starting to open, and as Barnaby Joyce says, Christmas is coming. 

OSMAN:
We’ll be back after this

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OSMAN:
Paul, can you tell me more about how Scott Morrison is trying to shift attention away from climate change ahead of the upcoming federal election?

PAUL:
Well, Osman Scott Morrison, true to form, will try to take credit for the fact Australia is on track now to have some of the world's highest vaccination rates.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We originally said, even last year, that we hope to be at a point that we would be hitting these vaccination rates in October. And we've overcome those challenges and we've got it on track…”

PAUL:
He's claiming this was his plan all along.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Now, Mr Speaker, that means the Melbourne lockdown will end on Thursday night as a result of the national plan, Mr Speaker. It means that in New South Wales and the ACT, the lockdown has already come to an end…”

PAUL:
But that depends on which plan he's talking about. It certainly wasn't the one hatched last year. You might remember that went up in flames this March, when it became glaringly obvious the target of four million vaccinations by Easter wouldn't be reached. That's when Plan B was put in place.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Mr Speaker, Live Theatre is open again in Sydney now. Hamilton is back on the stage, Mr Speaker, and the middle of November, Harry Potter will return to the stage in November as the national plan takes effect…”

PAUL:
By any measure it's been the states that have done the heavy lifting in terms of the pandemic response but really it was the lockdowns in the two big states Victoria and New South Wales this year that forced the dramatic lift in vaccine rates. It's hard to see where exactly Scott Morrison and the federal government deserve a lion's share of credit for all of this. 

OSMAN:
Yeah, and I'm sure that's an argument that the federal Labour Party will want to capitalise on, right?

PAUL:
Well, that's right. Labor's Mark Butler says in the first phase of the pandemic, Australia was up with the best in terms of controlling the virus. But he says we ended up the worst developed country on vaccination. The fact is the government was too slow securing vaccines last year, about five months behind comparable countries. Morrison had to scramble and belatedly scour the world for the Mrna vaccines he'd failed to order enough of.

But Osman, the question is will voters remember or care enough about this at the next election? Well, Morrison's banking on the hope they won't. Whether the elections later this year, in December or early next year, we're likely to have a situation where lockdowns have ended, vaccination rates are sky high, families can reunite for Christmas and the economic recovery is well and truly underway. It is possible by then that the minds of voters, the ones who haven't lost their small businesses or jobs, are turned to future challenges facing the country, rather than reflecting on the horrors of the past two years.

OSMAN:
And speaking of future challenges, Paul, that brings us back to the big question of climate change. Unlike the issue around vaccines, that is definitely not a policy debate that's going to go away. And in fact, it's looking like it'll be a problem that will plague the coalition for months to come. 

PAUL:
Well, you're right. Yet again, it looks like the terrain where the next election will be fought. Labor will hammer the painful process of getting to net zero as evidence the coalition really isn't serious about doing anything. The opposition leader Anthony Albanese says Australia's climate policy is still being held hostage by a minority. One huge victory for the Nationals already was forcing Morrison to abandon more ambitious targets for 2030. Albanese says this is such an act of self-indulgence to have National's ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, acting as if they're not part of the one coalition government. Albanese on Tuesday told his party room that the election could be called for December 11 as soon as the Prime Minister returns from the Rome G20 meeting and the Glasgow Climate Summit. He said Labor would be ready and homed in on the net zero brawl, tearing the government apart. He said it was a colossal failure on Morrison's part because he was abrogating his responsibility as Prime Minister and leaving it to Barnaby Joyce to decide the policy.

OSMAN:
Paul, it sort of sounds like that, despite the fact that the pandemic has dominated every conversation really for nearly two years now. It might not actually feature that heavily as an issue at the election, and instead, the big question will be about climate change.

PAUL:
Yeah Osman, much will depend on what Labor comes up with in response to Glasgow. Morrison wants to drag the debate back to the economy and jobs. Already, we're hearing that a greener Labor would be and is a threat to both. But there are indications Albanese won't be as ambitious as Morrison is counting on. But, you know, whatever the politics of the major parties, according to the government's own polling, 80 percent of Australians want net zero and re-election to get there. 

OSMAN:
Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL:
Thank you, Osman. Goodbye.

[Advertisement]

OSMAN:
Also in the news today…

Victoria’s lockdown officially ended at midnight last night, after the state reached its 70 percent double dose vaccination target on Thursday. Hospitality venues are now allowed to open with up 20 customers indoors and 50 outdoors, and the travel limit within metropolitan Melbourne has been scrapped. Up to 10 people are allowed to gather at households.

And federal parliament’s privileges committee will investigate the issue of anonymous donations to MPs including former attorney-general Christian Porter’s use of a blind trust to pay for part of his legal fees.

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. It’s edited by me, and Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

I’m Osman Faruqi, see ya next week. 

Host

Osman Faruqi is a political journalist. He was the host of Schwartz Media's The Culture podcast and the editor of 7am until early 2022.

Guest

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