Scott Morrison walking a clever highwire on climate change
Scott Morrison is tilling the political soil for a climate change pivot that will see him take a 2050 net-zero target to next year’s election.
This is the subtext to his subtle rhetorical shift this week, and it will require a highwire act by the Prime Minister to keep the Coalition show on the road.
It also presents a fatal proposition for Labor.
Morrison knows how precarious the journey will be — he has to take the party with him, slowly and without fanfare.
As one Liberal MP said: “He is boiling the frog.”
Morrison made a very powerful argument on Tuesday to a Liberal partyroom meeting.
He told colleagues that as Prime Minister he had to be able to say the same thing on climate change in Melbourne as he would in north Queensland.
This is diabolical for Anthony Albanese and Labor — these competing constituencies are at the heart of their electoral dilemma.
So far, Morrison has kept both conservatives and moderates largely in the tent.
In a perverse way, the pandemic has given him time to develop a narrative and policy framework that has ended the ideological battle that dogged his predecessors.
In his National Press Club speech, he threw enough red meat to the Liberal base with his technology-not-tax commitment and kept the left happy enough with his commitment to a goal of 2050.
Morrison’s view is unencumbered by ideology. If technology ends up saying Australia can reach net-zero by 2050, why would he not sign up?
And it is increasingly likely that it will, and even perhaps sooner. As one senior Liberal said, if science can work out how to stop cows farting, Australia will reach net-zero by 2030.
Underpinning Morrison’s argument is the economic imperative, not the climate emergency.
The pay-off from a technology approach is two-fold.
Morrison is seeking to position the country as a first mover on technology such as hydrogen while reducing the risk of businesses being punished in the future by customers wanting carbon offset power. This is the driving principle of the Morrison plan, more than the shifting sands of global state-sponsored political activism.
Those close to Morrison say it would be wrong to assume he is dancing to the tune of “Boris and Biden” — he remains firm there is no way Australia would sign up to a target if it can’t be achieved through technological solutions.
Of the 120 or so countries that have so far signed up, only 16 have submitted any sort of plan on how to get there. Many of them have nuclear power. Very few of them will even meet their Kyoto targets, unlike Australia.
Nevertheless, with Donald Trump gone and Boris Johnson having repositioned the British Conservatives, Morrison knows he has to start moving.
A decade ago, it was considered impossible we would reach our Kyoto targets without a price on carbon. That’s why Labor imposed a carbon tax.
No one foresaw how rapidly technology would advance, and it is advancing ever more apace.
This is where the great wedge is coming for Labor. It has signed up to the binary argument that the 2050 target is a “for or against” debate.
Without a policy yet on how to achieve it, people can only assume it will have to involve a tax. This is the weakness Morrison will be able to successfully exploit — as long as he keeps his party with him.