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How Scott Morrison turned Australia into a climate pariah

Paul Bongiorno on the climate policy paralysis plaguing the Morrison government, and what it means for Australia’s international reputation.

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has returned from his trip to Washington, and is spending the next couple of weeks in quarantine at The Lodge in Canberra.

But he’s already facing pressure over another international summit - the UN climate change conference in Glasgow next month.

Scott Morrison is under criticism from the UK government, the hosts of the summit, over his unwillingness to confirm his attendance. 

But what’s really driving the Prime Minister’s reluctance to participate in the most important international climate event in years?

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on the climate policy paralysis plaguing the Morrison government, and what it means for Australia’s international reputation.

 

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno.

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

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

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has returned from his trip to Washington, and is spending the next couple of weeks in quarantine at The Lodge in Canberra.

But he’s already facing pressure over another international summit - the UN climate change conference in Glasgow next month.

Scott Morrison is under criticism from the UK government, the hosts of the summit, over his unwillingness to confirm his attendance. 

But what’s really driving the Prime Minister’s reluctance to participate in the most important international climate event in years?

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno on the climate policy paralysis plaguing the Morrison government… and what it means for Australia’s international reputation.

It’s Friday, October 1

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Paul, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, recently went to the United States. His trip was focussed on this new U.S., U.K. alliance AUKUS. But the issue of climate change did also come up. What was discussed?

PAUL:
Well, Ruby, publicly, at least, it was all smiles with Scott Morrison insisting that his government was in the same place as that of U.S. President Joe Biden when it came to the issue of how urgently to tackle climate change.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I think we are both seeking to get to the same place, which is and I think we've always been seeking to get to the same place. We are going to see the most profound transition of the global energy economy that we have seen in a very long time…”

PAUL:
While Biden implored every country to go deeper and faster in their commitments to reduce emissions, while Morrison was keen to shift the emphasis away from developed nations like Australia, he said that if we want to make a difference on climate change, we've got to make a difference everywhere, not just the advanced economies, adding that Australia will certainly do our bit. 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Unless we can put developing countries and developed countries on the path to net zero...well, the world just gets hotter. And we're very practical people and we need a plan that's going to work…”

PAUL:
And it's because of Australia's relatively lacklustre approach to climate change that things behind the scenes were a bit more tense over there in Washington, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson privately urged Morrison to come up with stronger commitments on emissions reductions, as did Biden, special envoy on climate John Kerry.

And Ruby, even though Morrison is now back from Washington, this climate diplomacy is only going to ratchet up in the lead up to the Glasgow Climate Change Conference later this year, which is the most important climate meeting since Paris in 2015 and really more critical for the planet.

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:
“The global climate talks to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November are now less than two months away--...”

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“The world's leaders are coming to this. You know, Joe Biden will be here, it's being hosted by Boris Johnson--..."

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
“The UK is hoping to welcome world leaders to what they're billing as the last chance to save the planet. COP26, the UN climate change summit…”

RUBY:
So the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, it’s coming up, as you say, Paul, this November. So why is this summit in particular so important?

PAUL:
Well Ruby, about 100 World leaders have said they will attend the meeting, including Presidents Biden and Macron, to discuss plans to cut emissions by 2030 and to make new and more ambitious reduction targets. The talks are seen as the last chance for the world to come to an agreement on emissions reductions that may put it on track to hold warming to 1.5 degrees. The United Kingdom is leading the pack with a pledge to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030. The EU has pledged a 55 per cent reduction and the United States 52 per cent, but Australia hasn't made any commitments as of now. And on top of that, there remains a serious question as to whether or not Scott Morrison will even attend. 

RUBY:
Right. So our Prime Minister might not attend the most important international climate meeting since 2015. Why not? What's he said?

PAUL:
Well, that's a very real possibility. In the boardroom of his VIP jet on his way back from Washington, Scott Morrison was asked a straightforward question by the West Australian Newspapers, Lanai Scarr, about the climate conference. Are you going to be going? She asked.  The Prime Minister, using the royal plural, said “we” haven't made any final decisions about that.

That uncertainty has sparked a backlash from the United Kingdom's high commissioner to Australia, Vicki Treadell. 

Archival tape -- Reporter 4:
“Victoria Treadell is the British High Commissioner to Australia, she joins us from Canberra. High Commissioner, welcome back to breakfast!”

Archival tape -- Vicki Treadell:
“Good morning, Fran. Good to be back.”

PAUL:
She said this week that the UK will be very disappointed if Morrison doesn't attend.

Archival tape -- Vicki Treadell:
“Whatever the level of participation, we would still be asking the same requirement of Australia for yet more ambitious position on climate action.” 

PAUL:
She also said that Australia risks being left behind if it doesn't embrace the target of net zero emissions by 2050 and even more ambitious interim targets.

Archival tape -- Vicki Treadell:
“We’ve been clear all along that we would like all countries to commit, clearly and firmly, to net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s great that Prime Minister Morrison says ‘preferably’, but we would like ‘preferably to be converted to a firm commitment’...”

PAUL:
And then on Wednesday, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined in and added to the pressure facing Morrison, calling on him to commit to going to Glasgow at the National Press Club. Turnbull, who attended the climate conference in Paris when he was PM, launched a blistering attack on Morrison and declared that history was made by those who turn up. 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

[Advertisement]

Archival tape -- Laura Tingle:
“Malcolm Turnbull, welcome to the virtual National Press Club.”

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“Well thank you very much, Laura - it’s great to be with you all, albeit virtually.”

RUBY:
Paul, let's go into former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's National Press Club address on Wednesday. It sounds like he was fairly loud in his criticism of Scott Morrison. So what did Turnbull say exactly?

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“Mr Morrison has not acted in good faith. He deliberately deceived France. He makes no defence of his conduct other than to say it was in Australia's national interest.” 

PAUL:
Well, Ruby, Turnbull used much of his address to criticise the submarine deal that the Morrison government recently made with the US and UK accusing the Prime Minister of damaging Australia's national security. 

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“What seems to have been overlooked is that one of our national security assets is trust; trustworthiness. And Mr Morrison has behaved clearly- I mean he doesn't even argue with it, he's sort of his acolytes and admirers have since praised him for his clever sneakiness…”

PAUL:
He called the decision to cancel the 90 billion dollar French submarine contract in favour of the nuclear submarine deal with the US ‘deceitful and damaging’.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“Australia's reputation as a trusted and reliable partner has been an enormous asset to us on the international stage, just as a trustworthy reputation is an enormous asset to someone in business.” 

PAUL:
He went on to criticise Scott Morrison's absence from the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, saying it would send a strong message about his priorities.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:
“Well, history is made by those who turn up. So if Mr Morrison decides not to go to Glasgow, you know, he's sending a message. I’ll be going to Glasgow, and I’ll be speaking there with lots of-- as many people as I can, I hope…”

PAUL:
Turnbull wrapped up his speech by confirming he would personally be attending Glasgow for the meeting.

RUBY:
Right. So the current Prime Minister might not go, but the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says that he is?

PAUL:
Well, it seems that way. And the optics of that would be quite something, of course, for Malcolm Turnbull, who's attending through his leadership positions with Fortescue Future Industries, the Green Hydrogen Organisation and the International Hydro Power Association. This is an opportunity to also wedge his successor and wedge him on the issue of climate, no less the issue that's made and unmade Prime Ministers in Australia for the past 10 years. Turnbull knows that Morrison is facing pressure from all sides at home, from Metropolitan Liberals facing challenges from cashed up pro climate independents to right wing nationals who barely believe climate change exists. 

RUBY:
Right. And so is that what is really driving Scott Morrison's indecision on attending the climate summit in Glasgow? Is it because he doesn't actually know what position he would be taking to the summit? 

PAUL:
Well, that certainly has to be a factor, Ruby. The government is clearly tying itself up in knots trying to resolve this issue, although Morrison keeps repeating he will have a firm plan ahead of the conference, which he's even going to announce. 

But there is a view that he won't be attending because he's seriously considering a late November or December election. But the public reason Morrison gave for not yet locking in his attendance is logistics. He said ‘it would be another overseas trip, and I've been on several this year and spent a lot of time in quarantine’. 

Well, the last few times Morrison has travelled, he hasn't returned to Sydney, where his wife and children are, but had to fly to Canberra because that's where the government is actually run from. And he's currently serving out his 14 days quarantine at the Lodge following his latest trip to Washington.

And the prime minister also says that the country will need him in November, as that's when Australia will be opening up. His presence will apparently be required to manage the process. What exactly that means is far from clear in terms of priorities, I have to say. 

RUBY:
OK, so if Scott Morrison doesn't end up attending, how will that make Australia look on the international stage? Paul, because it seems like a no show would send a fairly clear signal about Australia's priorities when it comes to climate action.

PAUL:
Well, it certainly will. There'll be more than 100 world leaders there. So it'll be noticed if our Prime Minister isn't. It sends a signal that despite his beefed up climate rhetoric on his US trip, it really is a second order issue for him. Australia is becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage when it comes to climate action. And a no show at Glasgow would really cement our status as climate pariahs.

And Ruby, Scott Morrison's excuses about the logistics of travel just aren't going to cut it. The inconvenience of him having to spend 14 days isolation in the lodge again is surely a very small price to pay for such a critical summit of world leaders.

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

PAUL:
Thank you, Ruby, bye.

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

Victoria recorded its highest daily number of Covid-19 cases in the entire pandemic, with 1,438 new cases and five deaths reported on Thursday. 

 

The state government blamed the rise in case numbers on a spike in illegal gatherings over the AFL grand final weekend. 

 

In response to the escalation, the recommended interval between Pfizer doses will be reduced from six weeks to three weeks. 

 

And YouTube has announced it will introduce new measures to remove content that spreads misinformation about approved vaccines.

 

The company said that any videos that say approved vaccines are dangerous and cause autism, cancer or infertility will be taken down. 

 

The new policy, which includes terminating anti-vaccine accounts, comes after the company faced increased criticism for not doing enough to counter false health information.

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. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

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

I’m Ruby Jones, see ya next week.

[Theme Music Ends]

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