By Paul Kelly
The tasks facing Scott Morrison in 2021 are the immunisation of 25 million Australians and navigating a policy transition to net-zero carbon emissions at 2050 — with the message from parliament’s opening week being that his chief dangers come from populist conservatives and regional Australia.
Morrison’s ambitious effort to move his government to the 2050 “net-zero” goal is essential to meeting the new wave of global green politics being triggered by US President Joe Biden, along with the shift in domestic opinion, but the National Party is warning Morrison it will not sacrifice regional Australia or tolerate damage to the agriculture, mining and manufacturing sectors.
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce told Inquirer: “Our biggest issue right now is our relationship with China in the next year, not the weather in 30 years. The issue is what policy will be brought into the parliament now as part of a 2050 aspiration. We can’t stop the executive government signing, then dining, on any new treaty.
“But what we can do — and you’ll get a lot of support for — as they try to legislate for these new processes, you will have a section of the National Party crossing the floor. And when it comes to crossing the floor, the first time is painful, the second time is a breeze.
“In our areas there is a greater proportion of blue-collar jobs more reliant on cheap power to be internationally competitive. There is farming and all the downstream jobs that rely upon it. In our areas these new costs are a higher proportion of people’s incomes than for those employed near the capital city CBDs.
“What is in the forefront of many people in regional Australia is that the laurels and garlands of righteousness from this fall at the feet of people from the inner suburbs while the bill arrives in regional Australia. And that’s when our radar goes up. Climate politics has many quasi-religious aspects to it. Like many religions it breeds a cynicism, especially when the religion is forced upon you.”
National Party Senate leader Bridget McKenzie told Inquirer: “I won’t be signing up and the National Party won’t be signing up if agriculture, mining and manufacturing pay the price for this lower emissions target. We won’t be taking a leap of faith on the future of our communities.
“Senators and MPs across the National Party have been vocal that they will not support climate change policies that see rural and regional Australia pay the ultimate price. Nothing has changed. It always seems to be the case — and this is why the National Party still exists after 100 years — that structural adjustments across our nation are typically paid for by rural and regional industries and people.
“New Zealand has signed up to very ambitious emissions reduction targets but they have actually carved out agriculture. If New Zealand has carved out agriculture, I cannot see why we would not. It is only fair for Australia, that relies heavily on agriculture, mining and manufacturing, that we provide similar carve-outs for those industries.
“In terms of zero emissions by 2050, about 120 nations have signed up and only about six have a plan to deliver, and most of those already use nuclear to get there.”
McKenzie said Australia’s future was as a low-emissions nation with affordable and reliable power. But Australia, she said, had failed to explain how much it had achieved already in terms of emissions reduction. What mattered was results, not targets.
This is not just a mere revolt from many Nationals. Their concern is their constituency and their party identity. That is also a vital interest for Morrison.
The Nationals are gearing up to extract major concessions from Morrison, who has made plain that any 2050 goal will depend upon technology and protecting “jobs and living standards, particularly in regional Australia”. There is a sense of resignation in the remarks of the Nationals — the coming argument is about the concessions.
Support for the 2050 goal is broadbased in the Liberal partyroom. The conservatives are weaker than before and Morrison has greater authority. But former prime minister Tony Abbott, invoking his status on the conservative side, told Inquirer: “We were elected in 2013 to do four things — to keep our borders secure, to repeal Labor’s bad taxes, to keep the budget under control and to end Labor’s emissions obsessions. The one thing you have to do is to keep faith with the electorate.”
This is a warning to Morrison — the issue is about faith with Coalition loyalists. For a decade climate change has been a highly charged symbolic and political issue within the Coalition.
Morrison, trying to achieve by incremental steps an overall epic transition in Coalition policy, must manage many forces — the Nationals, conservative Liberals, regional concerns, One Nation populists and conservative media figures. One Liberal conservative told Inquirer: “Our task is to fight the net zero at 2050, not surrender to it.”
But Morrison is right to push the policy transition. Blind conservative resistance is a doomed stance for the government in electoral terms.
The 2050 net-zero goal is the norm with banks and lenders, most superannuation funds, the major business lobbies including the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group, most big companies, the ACTU, most NGOs, all state governments and the National Farmers Federation, and is the focus of a new Biden-driven global diplomacy.
“Where is Morrison’s plan?” was the message from some Nationals. It is the pivotal question. Morrison made clear again this week that while he wanted to achieve net zero “as soon as possible and preferably by 2050”, that depends upon technology and assessments showing the 2050 aspiration can be delivered without economic harm.
Morrison made a direct pledge, saying: “I will particularly not ask regional Australians to carry that burden.” The task, therefore, is to square the circle. Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud, alert to the task, said the National Party had a similar position to Morrison. “We have got to be honest with the Australian public,” Littleproud said.
Speaking to Inquirer, he said: “Everything depends on how we get there and who pays for it. The Prime Minister had made it clear that before he commits he will be honest with the Australian people about it. This was the lesson of the 2019 election when the Labor Party promised carbon neutrality at 2050 but couldn’t tell us how they would get there or who would pay for it.
“Agriculture counts for about 13 per cent of emissions. Within those industries there are already strategies in place to achieve neutrality, some by 2050, some might take longer. Agriculture has already done a lot of the heavy lifting.”
Morrison pointed out that Australian emissions were now nearly 17 per cent below 2005 levels compared with 9 per cent average reductions across the OECD nations, and with the New Zealand and Canadian figures around 1 per cent.
It was, however, the vaccination issue — not just climate change — that revealed this week, yet again, the re-occurring trouble Morrison faces from the party’s populist conservatives in the form of renegade Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly. While not an anti-vaxxer, Kelly has been a constant critic of the government’s health advisers and raised serious doubts over whether the vaccine process could be trusted.
He embodies why the conservatives typically lose debate after debate — this time taking an indefensible stance on the vaccine rollout. With his Trump-like techniques, Kelly has become a menace for the government and Liberal Party. His vaccine campaign may yet trigger, one way or another, his political demise in the preselection process.
In the end, Morrison had no option but to issue a firm though measured admonition to Kelly. The PM spoke to Kelly on Tuesday, then called him into a discussion on Wednesday and subsequently made a statement to the parliament. The upshot is that Kelly released a statement saying he had “agreed” to support the government’s vaccine agenda and also agreed that misinformation would undermine it.
If you want to grasp the stakes involved, refer to this week’s Newspoll on vaccination. While 75 per cent of people reported they would definitely or probably be vaccinated, 17 per cent, equating to 4.25 million people, said “no” and another 8 per cent didn’t know. The government needs a better response.
Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt are campaigning to build maximum public confidence in the vaccine rollout. The aim, as Hunt said, is to ensure “that everybody who’s on Australian soil is safe”. Yet extremists from both sides of the political spectrum are running disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 and getting huge traction on social media.
Morrison would have preferred not to intervene because it merely draws more attention to Kelly and his conspiratorial views. Moreover, with such a narrow majority, Morrison needs to be careful. Asked about Kelly during his Monday speech at the National Press Club, Morrison said: “He’s not my doctor and he’s not yours. But he does a great job in Hughes.”
But Kelly wouldn’t shut up; he was his own worst enemy. The Australian reported Kelly last Tuesday, after Morrison’s speech and exposition on the vaccine, saying: “I’m going to tell people to make up their own mind. The government has not made it mandatory.” He declined to commit to getting the vaccine himself. He declined to support the government policy. He declined to support the official medical advice.
The Guardian reported Kelly saying he would “wait to see the evidence” because he wanted to “weigh up the benefits versus any adverse outcomes”. He specifically raised the prospect of dangers in the vaccine. He urged people “to sit back and see if there are any issues that crop up with the vaccines”. This plays to the natural fears of the public. But if everybody holds back, nobody gets vaccinated.
In January, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly felt obliged to rebuke Kelly over his views. About the same time, the Australian Medical Association called on politicians to honour the foundations of science and community health.
Kelly’s supporters have invoked the spurious defence of free speech on his behalf. Free speech is important but in this instance it doesn’t hold. Kelly, like all MPs, must meet the test of whether his comments damage the public health interests of the community and his electorate. If they do, then he should refrain.
Any balanced conclusion is that Kelly seeks to deepen public anxiety and distrust of the vaccination process, and whether he sticks by the promises he made to Morrison remain to be seen. Claiming Kelly must be defended because Labor and the Greens are trying to silence him is the classic false argument designed to dodge the issue.
The same false argument is recruited in the opposition to “net zero” at 2050. It runs as follows: this is bad because it is a green-left crusade; it’s bad because many nations are hypocrites and sign up without any plan; it’s bad because for many people this is meaningless-gesture politics.
The truth of these propositions, however, cannot suffice as arguments not to commit. There are always valid arguments for an unsound proposition.
The key to Morrison’s position is that he wants to govern from the centre but with global warming that means a change agenda because the centre is constantly shifting. By the time of the 2022 election the centre will have moved on from the 2019 election.
The challenge for Morrison is immense. He needs to embrace a 2050 goal while keeping the government relatively united and reconciled. This defies the experience of the past decade. It constitutes a threshold transition for the conservative side of politics. It cannot be achieved trouble-free.
If Morrison gets there, the pressure will intensify on Labor. It will be trapped between being too similar to the government or provoked into being too different at the cost of traditional ALP votes.
Morrison cannot ignore the global dynamic. Describing his opening phone call on Thursday with Biden, who aspires to transform global climate change results, Morrison said there was “an absolute affirmation and understanding that we are in this together”. He specified the areas — economy, democracy, security, supply chains, COVID responses and, on climate change, “a net-zero pathway through technology”.
After the carnage of Donald Trump, the message from Biden is rebuilding multilateral co-operation and strategic alliances. Morrison wants to commit to this process in full. And Biden’s first foreign policy speech underlined the centrality of climate change.
“America must lead in the face of this existential threat,” Biden said of global warming. “And just as with the pandemic, it requires global co-operation.” His plan involves the integration of climate objectives “across all of our diplomacy”, the purpose being to raise the “ambition of our climate targets” and challenge the major emitters “to up the ante on their own commitments”.
In his speech Biden said: “Over the past two weeks I’ve spoken with the leaders of many of our closest friends — Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia — to begin reforming the habits of co-operation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.”
This is the Biden framework. Morrison made clear that Biden didn’t press him in their conversation on the net-zero 2050 goal. But Biden will host a climate leaders’ summit in April and Morrison will need to be there. That means offering a credible Australian position as well as advancing our technology agenda that Energy Minister Angus Taylor has canvassed with US Special Envoy John Kerry.
Time is short and the Australian domestic ramifications will be long. Morrison has a lot to sort during 2021 — the economy’s recovery, the vaccine rollout and the climate change re-positioning.
Any notion that he will comfortably squeeze an election into the mix is distinctly remote.