“The world has moved past Matt Canavan,” Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud declared on Wednesday, tossing his party colleague and former resources minister firmly under the bus as the “climate wars” exploded within the Coalition.
These wars have damaged Coalition leaders for decades (right back to John Howard). Now they’ve erupted again close to the election, they threaten to burn both Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce. And that’s just when Morrison wants to turn the issue against Labor.
The outbreak was predicable – the issue has been smouldering ever since Morrison had the government sign up to the net zero 2050 target ahead of the Glasgow climate conference. But perhaps Morrison felt he could keep the fire smothered. If so, that underestimated Nationals maverick Queensland senator Matt Canavan.
Last year Morrison decided his government had to adopt the 2050 target. It was a pragmatic judgment driven by pressure from moderate Liberals facing threats in their city seats and strong external urgings from the Biden and Johnson administrations.
That meant getting the Nationals on board – via cajoling Joyce with huge amounts of money (for projects being rolled out in this campaign) and having the Nationals leader carry the policy within his party room.
Ironically, fearful their previous leader Michael McCormack might sell out on climate policy under Morrison’s pressure, the Nationals had reinstalled Joyce, one of whose strongest supporters was Canavan.
But then a reluctant Joyce was co-opted by the PM. He took a majority of his split party along with a deal he negotiated with Morrison, though telling his party room he was personally against the change in policy.
Joyce gave in but Canavan never did. He has been indefatigable in his scepticism about the 2050 target. This week said: “the net zero thing is all sort of dead anyway.
"Boris Johnson said he is pausing the net zero commitment, Germany is building coal and gas infrastructure, Italy’s reopening coal-fired power plants. It’s all over. It’s all over bar the shouting here.”
The trouble for government leaders, who are publicly treating Canavan as an outlier, is that they know he speaks for quite a few in the Coalition’s base in the deep north, and that he’ll continue to prosecute his case.
His latest statements came after Colin Boyce, the Liberal National Party’s candidate for the marginal seat of Flynn, which the Nationals fear losing, said earlier in the week that Morrison’s 2050 policy was “a flexible plan that leaves us wiggle room”. What precisely he meant was disputed but it was clear he is not a fan of the target, which he has rejected before.
Morrison on Wednesday reaffirmed the (unlegislated) policy: “We did the hard yards to get everyone together. And of course there’ll be some who disagreed with it at the time, and I suspect they still will, but that doesn’t change the government’s policy”.
Josh Frydenberg – who is under a lot pressure from a “teal” candidate in his seat of Kooyong – said the target was clear, firm and non-negotiable.
Joyce said: “We’ve made an agreement. We’re going to honour that agreement.”
Joyce and Morrison were both at the same function in Rockhampton on Wednesday but (probably wisely) held separate news conferences. As the deputy PM put it, “we don’t have to be in each other’s pockets.”
The imbroglio feeds right into the hands of the teals. They have been saying for months that the Liberals in their sights might be moderate in name but they vote with Barnaby Joyce.
Now they can claim that in a re-elected government the Nationals could revert to their old policy and press Morrison to ditch the target. As Nationals frontbencher Bridget McKenzie said on Wednesday, while insisting the party is united, “there is a very broad range of views on climate change within the National Party party room, from net zero never, to net zero yesterday”.
It mightn’t matter what assurances the government gives – the teal argument could likely resonate in the leafy seats (where Joyce is a trigger point).
We saw another version of this movie in 2019, when Labor had different slants on its climate policy in the north and the south of the country.
Even while it eats itself again on climate, the government is trying to conjure up a scare that Labor would bring in a “sneaky carbon tax”.
Labor’s emissions reduction policy has solid belts and braces this election compared to 2019. Over the past week, however, the opposition has left itself open to the inevitable Coalition attacks by its various spokespeople sounding all over the place on the impact of the policy on coal mines.
Although it has muddled its explanation of its plan’s precise working, Labor’s reply to the government is that its policy would simply use (robustly) the safeguards mechanism that was put in place by the Coalition.
How the conflicting climate policy arguments work out in the coal areas we’ve yet to see.
But it seems clear that in the leafy suburbs the latest outbreak of the climate wars within Coalition ranks is another blow for embattled sitting Liberals.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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