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From a lump of coal to net-zero: Morrison’s climate makeover

Four years ago Prime Minister Scott Morrison wielded a lump of coal in the Australian Parliament, demonstrating his commitment to fossil fuels. Now he’s trying to pivot, shifting his government towards a position of supporting net-zero emissions by 2050.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY: 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

Four years ago, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, wielded a lump of coal in the Australian Parliament, demonstrating his commitment to fossil fuels. Now he’s trying to pivot, shifting his government towards a position of supporting net-zero emissions by 2050.

But he’s facing stiff opposition from his Coalition partners in the National party, who have historically been opposed to taking more serious climate action.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno, on Scott Morrison’s newfound enthusiasm for net zero, and whether his own ministers will back him.

It’s Friday, October 15.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Paul, this week, News Corp - who publishes papers like the Daily Telegraph and the Courier Mail and the Herald Sun - they launched a new campaign on climate change. I am sure I wasn't the only one who was surprised to see the slew of front pages, so let's talk about it!

PAUL:
Well, Ruby, on Monday, the News Corp tabloids launched what they called Mission Zero. It was a 16 page wrap-around section of the papers telling readers how Australia could be number one in the new global net zero economy. The editor of the Daily Telegraph, Ben English, wrote that for too long the climate debate has been dominated by ideology and extremism and said it's been used as a political weapon wielded by power players and vested interests and people looking to make a buck. Of course, he completely neglected to mention the fact that his paper and the News Corp stable were more responsible for stymieing action on climate change and using it as a political weapon than anyone else in the country.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“I’ll tell you, I’m so sick of the lies told almost daily by politicians and journalists about global warming. I’m sick of the cowardice of the Liberal politicians who don’t dare argue back with the facts…”

PAUL:
Also absent was any criticism of the likes of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, who are still spouting their climate denialism on News Corp's Sky News channel and to a massive audience on Facebook and throughout regional Australia on the Win and Prime networks.

Archival Tape -- Andrew Bolt:
“No, Australia does not face a death sentence. No, we’re not facing all kinds of climate catastrophes, or no more than humans have always had to face…”

RUBY:
And so, Paul, what do you think is behind this fairly abrupt shift in tone from News Corp? Because you're right, it stands out in comparison to the way that the issue of climate has been covered in the past.

PAUL:
Well, Ruby, there's plenty of evidence that companies realised it's increasingly out of step with the Australian community and probably more importantly, the views of its advertisers. This week, a new survey was released by the Australia Institute, and it demonstrated that it had a big sample of over 2000 voters, and it found 75 per cent of Australians were worried about the climate crisis, and that's the highest figure in this survey's 14 year history. The survey also found 69 per cent of voters want the government to put Australia on a path to net zero. Now, those kind of numbers just aren't influencing the corporate and editorial strategy of News Corp. They're also weighing heavily on Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

RUBY:
And so how is Scott Morrison handling the growing pressure to commit to net zero? Because so far he's resisted endorsing the policy, and that's despite the pressure that we're feeling from international allies as well as his own MPs. And now it's News Corp as well. 

PAUL:
Well, Ruby, you're right. Morrison is facing pressure from all sides. The government is at war with itself. He's got Liberal MPs in city seats pushing him to adopt net zero, including his own Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg:
“The world needs to collectively make an effort, and Australia can't be separate from their collective effort. And when and when it comes to, you're talking about the costs of action. There are also costs of inaction, and this is what I spelt out…” 

PAUL:
And he's up against his coalition partners, the Nationals, who are running a very public campaign against the target and how to reach it.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“I mean, I've stood in every election of the last decade against these sort of policies. We've been elected on that mandate indeed, at the last election, myself and Angus Taylor and Scott Morrison all stood behind economic modelling, which said that a forty-five percent emissions reduction cut would cost three hundred and thirty-six thousand Australian jobs…”

PAUL:
Morrison does seem to be edging closer to a position of embracing net zero, but he's very conscious of the political risks of blowing up his fragile parliamentary majority to get there. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Addressing climate change is a challenge that we must do together.” 

PAUL:
On Monday, he said it was his job to bring people together and meet the challenge of the new energy economy. The Prime Minister said there are big opportunities ahead for Australia if it did so, and there is a way through.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“The world is moving into a new energy economy. We all know that - it's now a question of how, not if, and how we can ensure that those communities right across rural and regional Australia can look at this change and understand that there are big opportunities and there's a way through…”

PAUL:
I've got to say to you, that way looks and sounds eerily like what Bill Shorten and the Labour Party put to the electorate in 2019, a position which Morrison and his business backers, as well as News Corp attacked as ‘economy wrecking’.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“An emissions target of 26 per cent is appropriate and achievable, but a 45 per cent emissions reduction target is an economy wrecking target, Mr Speaker. That is what the Labour Party is proposing…”

PAUL:
And don't forget, Ruby. This is the same PM who famously held up a lump of coal in parliament, now trying to navigate himself to a position of decarbonising the economy. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“This is coal. Don't be afraid!”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“The treasurer knows the rule on props!”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“My government is committed to ensuring that rural and regional Australia transitions to this new energy economy in the future, stronger with their jobs and their communities intact.”

PAUL:
Well, so fraught have negotiations been within the government over the past few months that up until this week, only Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison had seen the working document that lays out what the government's future climate policy might be. On Wednesday, the federal cabinet met to try and resolve the issue, but the real test will be in a few days time when the Nationals party room meets on Sunday to further thrash it out. That's when the question of the Coalition's - and therefore Australia's - climate future under them will be decided.

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Paul, the Nationals are meeting this weekend, their position on climate change will be discussed. Can you tell me about the reservations within the party, the things that are stopping them from adopting a position of net zero emissions?

 

PAUL:

Well, I think we need to remember Ruby, the Nationals and their conservative liberal allies, like Tony Abbott, have traditionally been the wreckers when it comes to climate policy in Australia. Over the years, particularly under the influence and leadership of Barnaby Joyce, they've been complicit in taking down the carbon tax, an emissions trading scheme and the National Energy Guarantee. And on the question of net zero, they say they won't be signing up to a target without a plan. And that plan can't cost any jobs in regional Australia. And it's important to point out that it's a small but vocal rump of nationals, mainly in Queensland who remain opposed to taking any action whatsoever. The rest of the party seems willing to back Morrison's stated preferences for net zero, but they want to be seen extracting a price for that support.

RUBY:
So what is that price? What are the Nationals asking for?

PAUL:
Well, Nationals ministers, rather than pushing government policy, have been out in the media pushing their demands, and some of them are pretty fantastical.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:
“This is an industry in terms of coal specifically that's employing 300,000 Australians. We've seen Australian banks walk away from the sector for, to be honest, no good reason whatsoever. They've included metallurgical coal steelmaking coal in the cabal that's not providing finance. I'd be much happier to see Australian banks financing Australian jobs…”

PAUL:
Resources Minister Keith Pitt, for example, wants a $250 billion line of credit from taxpayers to guarantee coal projects.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:
“If we've got mortgage brokers who can't secure finance for vehicle leases because they work in a coal mine and steelmaking coal, well, where are we going?”

PAUL:
Meanwhile, Bridget McKenzie is campaigning against a rock solid commitment to net zero. Demanding a legislated mechanism that will pause emissions reductions if the transition plan starts costing jobs in regional Australia.

Archival Tape -- Bridget McKenzie:
“This is going to fundamentally change our domestic economy and the global economy. Now what are the implications for regional Australians? That's why they've sent us to Canberra…”

PAUL:
All of this has put Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce in a quandary. He's previously likened climate action to baying at the Moon, and isn't quite able to pivot to supporting net zero as shamelessly as the Prime Minister. This week, he adopted the absurd position of a leader who was really more of a follower.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“As the National Party leader, regardless of how you get there. Do you support a net zero by 2050 target?”

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:
“We'll see. As soon as I say something like that. I've already given endorsement or otherwise to
the decisions, which is my colleagues…”

PAUL:
He said he didn't support a net zero target by 2050 quote “without the support of my colleagues.”

RUBY:
OK, so what is likely to happen now, Paul? Will the Nationals hold out and block climate action again? Or does it seem like some sort of accommodation might be reached that would allow the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to embrace a position of net zero? 

PAUL:
While some of the old hands around the parliament are convinced that all this huffing and puffing coming from the Nationals is political theatre designed to convince its coal backers and resource seat voters, it's in there battling for them. But mitigating against that view is the fact that every indication so far suggests the Prime Minister's been paralysed with fear that one wrong step could see his government implode. However, one well-placed Nationals insider I spoke to is confident Joyce and Morrison will be able to hold the government together. And Joyce will get a majority of the Nationals party room on Sunday to back a deal with the prime minister in supporting net zero. Keith Pitt is not expected to quit the frontbench in protest, as he did against Malcolm Turnbull's National Energy Guarantee. I'm told the difference this time round is that there's an election looming and I'm told there is a clear pathway and those people aren't silly. But of course, Ruby, net zero is just a destination. What's more important is how we get there.

RUBY:
And so, Paul, how is Scott Morrison planning on getting there? 

PAUL:
Well, this is where Morrison's strategy starts to look a little shaky. You know, it's one thing for him to be able to publicly announce a commitment to net zero by 2050 in time for the Glasgow Climate Summit next month. But it's another thing entirely to legislate a serious emissions reduction plan. He only has a majority of one in the House of Representatives in at least three nationals are likely to cross the floor to scupper any legislation. Labour could be convinced to support the Prime Minister's plan. But that would rely on it being a genuine road map with stronger targets than just net zero by 2050. And it's clear Morrison's having a devil of a time trying to get that from the Nationals. And, Ruby, the 2050 target is really the bare minimum we can offer up, and it's much less than what the states and territories are committed to by 2030 to begin seriously cutting emissions. You know, really, the debate globally and nationally has moved to 2030, even if the obdurate nationals can't or don't want to see it. The politics has changed dramatically and Scott Morrison knows it, although he's yet to demonstrate he also really gets what's now needed. A failure here would raise real questions about fitness to govern in Australia's long term and even short term interests.

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

PAUL:
Thank you, Ruby. Bye.

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

Victoria once again broke the national daily record of new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, with 2297 infections reported. However, the Premier, Daniel Andrews, has confirmed that the state is committed to easing restrictions when vaccine targets are reached.

 

And according to new figures provided to the federal government's health department, Australia has almost 200 fewer ICU beds available this year than at the beginning of last year. The Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society found that regional areas were worst affected by the drop in the number of available beds. The main reason given for the reduction was the pandemic’s impact on the healthcare workforce.
 

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. Special thanks to Alex Gow for original compositions on the show this week.

I’m Ruby Jones, see ya next week.

 

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