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Mike Seccombe on how climate politics has wedged Scott Morrison, and why he’s running out of time.

Inside the Coalition’s climate war



The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has so far refused growing international pressure to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

Now he’s facing a concerted push from MPs in his own party to embrace the policy. But on the other side of the Coalition, right-wing Nationals are refusing to budge - including senior figures in the government.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how climate politics has wedged Scott Morrison, and why he’s running out of time.

 

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

 

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has so far refused growing international pressure to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.

Now he’s facing a concerted push from MPs in his own party to embrace the policy. But on the other side of the Coalition, right-wing Nationals are refusing to budge - including senior figures in the government.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how climate politics has wedged Scott Morrison, and why he’s running out of time.

It’s Thursday, October 7.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Mike, the federal government is currently debating whether or not to adopt a position of net zero emissions by 2050. But while that process has been going on, their colleagues in New South Wales have moved even further ahead. So can you tell me about what the state government there has announced?

MIKE:
Yeah, for sure. The first thing to say is that there was a big announcement last week, but even prior to that, the New South Wales government, like all the other states and territories in the country, had already done what Scott Morrison did is not. And that is, commit to carbon neutrality to net zero carbon greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. So they had already done that. 

But on Wednesday, the announcement came out that they were going even further and that New South Wales would halve its greenhouse gas emissions - well, roughly half - by 2030. And that, of course, is roughly double the commitment that the federal government made at the Paris Climate Conference six years ago. So it was a pretty big advance on what the feds have committed to.

And that's significant because not only is it one of the biggest emissions reduction commitments in the country, it's being implemented by a conservative government and a completely united conservative government that includes both the Nationals and the Liberals being onside. And that is, of course, not the case in the federal parliament. And so it's really ratcheted up the pressure on Scott Morrison, especially, you know, in the lead up to the next big Climate Summit in Glasgow next month. 

RUBY:
So how has the New South Wales Coalition managed to implement this kind of policy, Mike, especially seeing as climate change has been such an internal headache at the federal level for more than a decade now?

MIKE:
Well, let me give you the short answer, courtesy of Matt Kean, who I spoke to about this.

He was able to convince his colleagues, quote, “that you don't have to believe in climate change, to believe in capitalism.”

Archival tape -- Matt Kean:
“This provides a template for the Prime Minister and the Federal Coalition as to how they can take action on climate change and grow our economy…”

MIKE:
So when I spoke to him, he told me that's how he got everyone on board, was by saying that they would only put in place these policies to reduce emissions where they were sure they would create jobs, they would lower the cost of living for families, they didn't impose extra costs on business, and that they drove investment and grew the state economy. So in other words, he argued for climate action by using economics.

Archival tape -- Matt Kean:
“I took to Cabinet last night a plan to update the state's ambition or targets or goals, whatever you want to call it, to 50 percent, which cabinet adopted unanimously, backed in by Nats, backed in by conservatives, backed in by moderates”

MIKE:
This, of course, leaves unstated the obvious contrast with the federal coalition, where Scott Morrison clearly can't get the two warring sides of the issue to any kind of compromise. 

RUBY:
And so what kind of pressure does this announcement put on Scott Morrison and on the federal government?

MIKE:
Well, quite a lot. I mean, New South Wales, we should note, is not the first Australian jurisdiction to set an ambitious target for emissions reductions by 2030. Victoria also is committed to 45 to 50 per cent reduction. The ACT, which is the most ambitious, is aiming for 65 to 70 per cent. Most of the states have more ambitious 2030 targets than does the federal government. 

But the New South Wales announcement is particularly humiliating for Morrison because firstly, it came from a coalition government unlike Victoria and the ACT. And secondly, because New South Wales is a big fossil fuel economy, you know, as is Queensland. And so this is really just another bit of public pressure on Morrison and on the federal government to take up a more ambitious position on climate change.

And he's been facing a lot of it, not only domestically international pressure most notably from the United Kingdom, where they've been urging him to pledge net zero commitment.

Archival tape -- Boris Johnson:
“We must show that we are capable of learning and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet, but upon ourselves” 

MIKE:
He's been getting pushed by John Kerry, who's the president's special envoy on climate from the United States.

Archival tape -- John Kerry:
“And I think Glasgow has to not only have countries come and raise ambition, but those countries are going to have to define in real terms what their roadmap is for the next 10 years than the next 30 years…”

MIKE:
He's being pushed by Pacific Island nations...

Archival tape -- Pacific Nations
The upcoming COP in Glasgow is our point of no return. Our commitments from then onwards will determine the future trajectory for our planet

MIKE:
And of course, he's being pushed by those within his own government who are demanding the same thing.

On the other side, though, Morrison, or more correctly, the National Party, are being wedged largely along state lines - someone referred to it to me as the Brisbane line - you know, north of Brisbane, you have all these right wing nationals who are just vociferously opposed to any change on climate policy.

So that's the problem.

He's getting pressure to do more. But at the same time, he's getting big time pushback from those who don't want anything further to happen, and in fact, you know, who would like to see new coal plants opened up, would like to see more gas, would like to see more coal mines; the whole box and dice.

But with the climate summit looming and shortly thereafter an election, he's running out of time.

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Mike, we're talking about the battle that's dividing the federal government, the battle over what to do on climate policy. Let's talk some more about the group who's pushing for greater emissions cuts. Who are they and what’s behind their advocacy on this issue?

MIKE:
Well, this group is largely liberal moderates who live in metropolitan electorates, often very affluent, well-educated liberal electorates where the constituents are very concerned about climate change.

And so these members are struggling with their party's lack of policy because, you know, their constituency is deeply concerned and they can see that the government isn't doing anything. So they're worried about the electoral consequences. You know, Labor's gunning for them, the Greens obviously gunning for them, and now there's sort of a loose grouping of independent candidates who will be gunning for them.

So, this is quite a big movement, and It's getting support financially from a group called Climate 200, whose convenor is a millionaire investor and a climate activist Simon Holmes á Court. And at the last election, this group Climate 200 gathered a war chest of about $500,000. This time, it's already got around three times that amount, you know, and the election’s still quite some distance into the future. 

Admittedly, this isn't much by major party standards, but it's certainly enough to scare the Liberal Party. And that was evidenced last week when someone gave me a copy of a plea that had been sent out by the federal party director Andrew Bragg to potential donors in which he said, and I'm quoting, “we can't risk more left leaning independents tipping labour and the Greens into power.” And then he asked for people to give him money.

So clearly, the Liberals are worried, and they have some reason to be worried because the people who are part of this movement are not by and large, that left leaning at all. Most of them are disaffected, small-L liberals. And the seats that they're targeting include those who are held by moderates like Dave Sharma, Trent Zimmerman, Jason Falinski. And it's interesting to note that all three of those people have been very out and very vocal in their advocacy of greater ambition on climate policy just slightly. But the most high profile of the lot is the federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. 

RUBY:
Hmm. So should Josh Frydenberg be worried then? Is he at risk of losing his seat back?

MIKE:
Well, Frydenberg's seat is really one of the jewels in the liberal crown. It was Sir Robert Menzies old seat. It's absolutely blue ribbon affluent, but he nearly lost it at the last election. He got less than half the primary vote and the Greens got more than 21 per cent. Labour got almost 17 per cent, and another climate focussed independent got almost nine per cent. So Frydenberg's feeling the pressure.

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:
“Markets are moving as governments, regulators, central banks and investors are preparing for a lower emissions future. It's a long‑term shift, not a short‑term shock.”

MIKE:
Last week, possibly partly in response to this, he publicly declared that he was supportive of net zero by 2050

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:
“What I want to make sure is that Australia is not disadvantaged by these structural and systemic changes that are occurring in financial markets, and to the contrary that Australia is advantaged by these changes and capitalizing on those new opportunities…”

MIKE:
So that was a pretty big call on his part, and it promptly drew an absolutely furious response from the other wing of the government; you know, those opposed to these kinds of moves. 

RUBY:
Let's talk about that element of the coalition Mike those who are opposed to taking this kind of action. Who are they and what is their position on net zero?

MIKE:
Well, they're mainly from Queensland. Most of them sit as Nationals MPs, but there are some Liberals involved as well. And they range in their vehemence. The most vehement other former resources minister Matt Canavan...

Archival tape -- Matt Canavan:
“People can’t get enough of our high quality coal, and they will continue to demand that for decades and decades to come…”

MIKE:
a bloke called Gerard Rennick...

Archival tape -- Gerard Rennick:
“I don’t think we should sign up to any foreign agreements in terms of climate change and stuff like that--

We have…

Well I know we have! I mean I wasn’t in that government and I disagree with what we did…”

MIKE:
and George Christensen.

Archival tape -- George Christensen:
“Energy! It's too expensive and we need to bring costs down. And one way we can do that is by pumping more baseload power into the system. And the cheapest form of baseload we have is coal fired power…”

MIKE:
It's hard to see how they would ever be persuaded, quite frankly. There's a dozen or so others who profess concern for the jobs of their constituents in the economies in their regions - you know, they tend to represent fossil fuel dependent seats, and they are to varying degrees persuadable depending on whether an economic case can be made. And I might add, this lot includes some quite senior members of the government. You know, the current resources minister, Keith Pitt, is one of the intransigents in cabinet. So is the Nationals leader in the Senate, Bridget McKenzie, and of course, Barnaby Joyce; the party leader was a long time climate sceptic, and he's still hanging out to be persuaded of the economics of any shift. And at the same time, of course, he's trying to keep his fractured party together. I mean, it's really daggers drawn within the National Party at the moment.
 

But there's electoral imperatives on both sides, I guess, is what you have to say for the right wing nationals. It's the imperative of the interests of their electorate and the fact that they're being pushed from the right. And for the, you know, urban liberals, there's an electoral imperative from their constituency and that they're being pushed from the left. So, you know, it's hard to see how the two will ever meet.

RUBY:
Hmm. So Mike, where does all of this leave Scott Morrison then? Because net zero by 2050 is by now, in some ways, a fairly uncontroversial policy that's supported by most Australians, and it's now been embraced by state governments, including a coalition government in New South Wales. But the federal government seems consumed by trying to fend off parties and candidates on both the left and the right?

MIKE:
Yeah, you're absolutely right. And I mean, the irony here, of course, is that, you know, it's a relative handful of people in the parliament who are holding the whole thing up. But, you know, Morrison needs their votes. He's got the narrowest of majorities. So where does it leave him? It leaves him tap dancing his way towards the Glasgow Climate Summit next month, I guess, and after that, towards the election.

In the case of Glasgow, he's taken to using various forms of weasel words, you know, around net zero by 2050, you know, saying that the government hopes to get there, preferably by 2050. So, you know, he's being very careful not to say anything that will be stuck to him by the right. 

Next week, The Australia Institute, you know, the big progressive think tank is launching a major report written with a bloke called Saul Griffiths, who's an Australian who's been based in Silicon Valley doing all sorts of interesting stuff for about 20 years. And he was a climate adviser to the Biden administration, has been working very closely on their very ambitious climate plans. And anyway, I spoke to him ahead of the release of this report, and he was absolutely scathing of the Morrison government's climate response, you know, particularly its emphasis on the so-called gas led recovery.

And what his report will say is that if Australian households electrified everything you know, cars, cooking appliances, we had efficient electric heating and cooling. We would not only cut our emissions by 40 some per cent, but save the average household five to $6000 a year on their energy costs.

And if industry did the same thing, they would achieve similar cost savings and our total emissions would be reduced by 70 per cent.

So there is a very positive future ahead of us...if only we had the leadership to embrace it. 

RUBY:
Mike, thank you so much for your time.

MIKE:
Thank you for yours. 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

NSW Nationals MP Paul Toole has been chosen by his colleagues to replace John Barilaro as the state’s Nationals leader and deputy Premier.

 

The member for Bathurst defeated water minister Melinda Pavey in a secret ballot on Wednesday. 

 

Bronnie Taylor has been appointed deputy leader of the NSW Nationals Party. 

 

And US President Joe Biden says he has discussed Taiwan with Chinese President Xi Jinping after Beijing sent a record number of military aircraft into the island’s air defence zone.  

 

Top diplomatic officials from China and the US are set to meet this week in a bid to ease mounting tensions between the two states.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.