If Scott Morrison doesn’t go to the Glasgow climate conference, “his absence will send a pretty strong message about his priorities”, Malcolm Turnbull said during his general excoriation of the prime minister this week.
Absolutely, it will. And Morrison’s priorities are clear. At the top of the list is political survival at next year’s election. Whether his political career lives or dies at that election will depend, in good part, on how he manages the issues of COVID and climate in the coming weeks and months.
The course of COVID from now on is unpredictable. Despite general (and politically fanned) excitement at the prospect of restrictions lifting or easing in NSW and Victoria, what happens then is highly uncertain, at least for the short term. And Queensland is suddenly a worry.
He might be PM but COVID management is always only partly in his hands (except the vaccine rollout, and we know the story there). The premiers will continue to flex their muscles.
Nor is climate policy, even at the federal level, under Morrison’s full control. He is determined to land that 2050 net-zero target for Glasgow, but can’t do it without the Nationals signing up.
We’re being reminded how differently the Nationals operate from Morrison’s preferred way of doing things. The PM likes secrecy, strict adherence to talking points, then everything put in place before the curtain is pulled aside to reveal an outcome trumpeted as ground-breaking. When it comes, the climate package will have plenty of tinsel.
In contrast the Nationals, as the minor partner in the Coalition, reckon they have to play loud and rough to get what they want. Also these days the party has a fair sprinkling of bomb throwers in its ranks who do what they like.
Any notion of cabinet solidarity is out the window, as we saw when Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie had a public go at Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review this week.
McKenzie wrote: “It is easy for the Member for Kooyong [Frydenberg] or the Member for Wentworth [Dave Sharma] to publicly embrace net zero before the government has a position, because there would be next to zero real impact on the way of life of their affluent constituents.”
The following day, at a (virtual) joint news conference with McKenzie called on another matter, Frydenberg countered with “climate change has no postcode”. Scientifically he’s right. But, politically, one challenge for both Coalition and Labor in the climate debate is that it is often seen variously according to voters’ postcodes. Hence Labor’s past problems in trying to deliver separate messages in coal and inner-city electorates.
It is said by insiders that McKenzie was helping Joyce by making it clear the Nats can’t be taken for granted, although the impression to the casual observer was she added to the chaos.
The mood of Morrison, locked in The Lodge in quarantine, must be mixed. He’s buoyed by his US trip, with its AUKUS agreement and the promise of nuclear-powered submarines, even if by their delivery time he’ll be in his 70s (perhaps critiquing his successors, as has become the ex-prime ministerial fashion). But he must also be frustrated that the policy and political difficulties of reaching a climate agreement within the Coalition make the road to AUKUS start to look like a walk in the park.
The bar keeps being raised too, as it was this week by the NSW Coalition government increasing its ambition to a 50% emissions cut by 2030.
Nevertheless, Liberal backbenchers who’d sought a virtual meeting with Morrison to put their views ahead of Glasgow were reassured by his feedback, including his indication he’d found his discussions with Joyce constructive. Many of the Liberals on the Tuesday call spoke about the local political contexts they faced.
It’s not just Glasgow and pressure from Joe Biden and Boris Johnson that’s making it imperative for Morrison to secure agreement on 2050. A number of Liberals in safe seats will face well-organised and cashed-up challenges from independent candidates campaigning on climate change. Climate 200’s Simon Holmes a Court says there’s already more than $1.5 million in the kitty.
The independents will also be preoccupied with another issue that’s a weak point for Morrison – integrity. The rorting (sports grants, car parks) is a touchy point with voters, tapping into their distrust of politicians, and the government still has not set up an integrity commission (it promises to introduce legislation before Christmas).
It’s very hard for independents to win seats in the House of Representatives, given the electoral system. Recently their chances have been best where the incumbent has been weakened (this helped deliver victories in Indi, Mayo and Warringah), or has departed (Wentworth after Turnbull resigned, although the seat is now back in Liberal hands).
So no one should anticipate an influx of new independents next year. But the possibility of even one managing to get through, adding to the several expected to be re-elected, would concern Morrison. Especially if the election happened to produce a hung parliament, which is not out of the question, with voters disillusioned with both sides.
Whatever Morrison announces on climate is unlikely to be enough because, even with a firm 2050 target and something for the medium term, the government can expect to be widely criticised for failing to have sufficient medium-term ambition.
Morrison raised the prospect of not attending the Glasgow summit in an interview with the West Australian while he was abroad, saying he hadn’t finally decided. “It’s another trip overseas … and I’ve spent a lot of time in quarantine.”
The Glasgow conference comes immediately after the G20; Morrison couldn’t go to one without the other.
While there would be much criticism of his failure to be at Glasgow, the hard-headed counter argument would be that leaving the country during a time of high COVID uncertainty could backfire.
Unlike the US trip, Morrison would get no plaudits at Glasgow. He’d be seen, as best, as the under-performer who, facing enormous pressure, had lifted his game to a greater or lesser degree.
Morrison’s absence from Glasgow would give his opponents, and those independent candidates, ammunition. The more substantial issue, however, is the quality of the policy he unveils, on home soil, before the summit.
Beyond that, whether he travels can reasonably be left to a judgment on how the COVID situation is looking, although one cynic suggests he might have been wiser to stay silent on the possibility of cancelling until a decision had to be finalised.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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