The Politics    Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Race against time

By Rachel Withers

Race against time
The IPCC report makes clear that the clock is ticking on climate, but the government still can’t hear it

This year has contained a series of hard lessons for Scott Morrison on the urgency of action and the cost of delay. After spending the first few months of the vaccine rollout repeating that it was “not a race”, and after playing games with the public on borders while claiming there was “no rush”, the prime minister now has egg on his face. The rollout is obviously a race, and it always was. No one would now dare to say otherwise (and the PM now denies saying so at all). These are hard lessons, and yet Morrison appears to have learnt nothing from them. Responding defensively to the UN’s devastating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report today, the PM appeared to have returned to that message: it’s not a race. The Morrison government won’t be taking any further action in response to a report that has been described as a “code red for humanity”, which found that warming is likely to exceed the 1.5 degrees threshold within the next two decades (and potentially by 2030), bringing widespread devastation (particularly for Australia). But it will be taking strong action against protesters crying out for this to be taken seriously. It won’t be setting a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, but claims we will achieve that “as soon as possible”, through “technology not taxes”. It won’t be strengthening its clearly insufficient 2030 targets, continuing to profess we are “on track” to “meet and beat” them. This government, which has consistently acted too late throughout the pandemic, throwing its hands in the air and blaming hindsight, was eventually forced to accept that the rollout is a race, now that rolling lockdowns are costing the economy $1 billion a week and NSW is facing avoidable deaths every day. So what will it take for the government to act with urgency on climate change, if not this landmark IPCC report? How many people need to be dying, how great must the economic costs be and how bad the polls before the inevitable game of catch-up begins? And will it even be possible to play catch-up on this global crisis?

If anyone expected Morrison to come forward today and take seriously the existential threat laid out by the IPCC, they were sorely disappointed. In an afternoon press conference, the prime minister and Energy Minister Angus Taylor appeared mainly interested in attacking those calling for them to listen to it – whether Extinction Rebellion protestors, who were responsible for the words “Duty of care” being spray-painted on the front of Parliament House, or Labor, which is demanding more from the government, despite the fact the ALP’s own pledges would not do enough to ward off the kind of devastation described in the report.

Morrison, as usual, spoke at length about how his government was acting through “technology, not taxes” (never mind the fact that adequate technology has not yet been found to address the crisis), while implicitly attacking Labor for its uncosted plans, claiming his method wouldn’t put an undue burden on regional citizens (except, of course, by exposing them to worsening extreme weather events). “Australians deserve to know the cost,” he said. “I won’t be signing a blank cheque on behalf of Australians.” But when asked by Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy about the cost of inaction, Morrison rejected the idea that his actions had consequences, arguing that Australia couldn’t control the temperature in Australia. The PM gave plenty of attention to this morning’s protesters, declaring their “vandalism” to be not “the Australian way”, and saying that action would be taken against them. “I think Australians, regardless of their position on this issue, would agree with that,” he added. Morrison continued to insist his government was taking the threat seriously, throwing out a line so meaningless that a parody Scott Morrison Twitter account has tweeted it out verbatim without comment: “What I’m saying today is what I have been consistently saying for a very long time. Australia under my government will have a plan to achieve what we are setting out.”

The government’s lazy shrug of a response to the IPCC warning resumed in Question Time, where Morrison and his energy minister continued trotting out the usual lines about technology and targets as if they hadn’t seen the report at all. This came after Labor Senate leader Penny Wong attempted to move a motion acknowledging the report and calling on the government to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, only to be shut down. Shadow minister for climate change and energy Chris Bowen’s question – about why Morrison once said that “electric vehicles would end the weekend” if he so keenly believed in renewables-based technology – elicited a shameless lie from the prime minister, who denied he’d said it. (There are many reports recording the fact that Morrison had made the comment.) Independent MP Helen Haines’ question about Morrison’s claim that regional communities should not carry the national burden elicited more deflective comments about the “unfunded, unplanned commitments that others would seek to make”, rather than an acceptance of the unfairness of the situation being put to him. Environment Minister Sussan Ley continued boasting about the Great Barrier Reef’s dodging of an “in danger” listing, through lobbying efforts that look even more ridiculous in light of the new report.

Anyone rational can see that the IPCC report demands an urgent response, just as anyone rational could see earlier this year, without the need of “hindsight”, that Australians had to be vaccinated as quickly as possible. But for some reason the prime minister, time and again, fails to grasp the urgency of the situation at hand. Morrison has been trying out a new response to the criticism of his comments lately, claiming, in light of the Olympics, that what matters most in a race is the ending, as if that will absolve him of the fact that half the nation is currently in lockdown. He repeated that line in Question Time today: “It doesn’t matter how you start the race, it is how you finish the race … We are going to finish this race and we are going to race all the way to the finish line but we are going to do it as Team Australia.” Morrison may be hoping for a strong finish to the rollout that wasn’t a race. He may even get away with it if he can vaccinate a sufficient percentage of Australians before next year’s election. But, as the IPCC report makes abundantly clear, time is strictly limited to avoid catastrophic warming – even for someone who prefers playing catch-up.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

“Transparency to Scott Morrison is like kryptonite to Superman.”

Independent senator Rex Patrick rejects the idea that the car parks spreadsheets are confidential cabinet documents, after Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher claimed they couldn’t be released for 20 years.

“People at home don’t like it when you do that.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian continues to find ways to criticise those who ask difficult questions, as several journalists try to seek an answer from the state’s chief health officer on whether she had advised against further lockdown restrictions.

Does Australia have a pandemic ‘Freedom Day’?
Eighteen months into the pandemic, the prime minister announced a plan for the way out. The plan itself is based on vaccination rates, and predicts we could be living almost as normal when we reach 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. But how likely are we to reach that target, and when?

The amount the federal government has demanded be paid back by people it claims were overpaid under the JobKeeper scheme. That’s 0.26 per cent of the $12.5 billion received by companies that did not meet the required fall in turnover, who have not been asked to pay the money back.

“NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro has warned a Coalition colleague’s push to block mandatory vaccinations for construction workers is dangerously irresponsible and will threaten lives.”

John Barilaro has denounced a bill being proposed by western Sydney MP Tanya Davies in a reply-all email to Coalition MPs. At a federal level, the government is currently finalising guidance allowing employers to ask staff if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The list

“Researchers around the world have been trialling high doses of powerful psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin and ayahuasca on patients with a range of psychological ailments, with often startling results. For now these therapies remain illegal in Australia, the substances used in them banned alongside addictive and dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Yet while legal access to these medicines is still impossible, a thriving underground scene already exists for people who are curious, or in need of what they may offer … Before I go back on antidepressants I want to try illegal psychedelic therapy for myself, to find out whether it can help me crawl out of the hole I have been in for the past five months.”

“Ulman’s video art, sculpture, installations and PowerPoint lectures have made her a fixture of the millennial net-art scene, with exhibitions at Tate Modern and the New Museum. Her most recent staged production – El Planeta, her directorial feature debut, which makes its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival – is tantalisingly on theme. The sly comedy stars Ulman and her mother as two petty scam artists facing eviction.”

“The Morrison government has held talks with major gambling company Tabcorp on designing a lottery open only to those vaccinated against COVID-19. The Saturday Paper has confirmed the government sought advice from Tabcorp on how a lottery could be designed to encourage vaccination, after the company indicated in July that it supported the idea … It comes as Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese proposes a more direct alternative – $300 cash handouts to those already vaccinated or who get vaccinated by December 1, at a cost of $6 billion.” 

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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