Scott Morrison is racing against the future. He’s trying to thread the needle of re-election before Australia is forced to do the one thing his government has been studiously, stubbornly, avoiding since the pandemic reset the global order: take climate change seriously. George Megalogenis specially for The Sydney Morning Herald.
The Prime Minister understands that American President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are growing weary of his domestic excuses. But he is gambling that our allies won’t want to make an example of him, either at the G7 meeting in Cornwall next month or at the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow in November.
No Australian leader since Billy Hughes at Versailles has been this brazen before, demanding special treatment for our privileged people while the US and Britain try to build a new international order. Johnson was on the phone again on Friday, May 15, to press the case for an active Australian contribution at the G7 next month. According to Downing Street’s version of the conversation, Johnson “emphasised the importance of all countries setting ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions, and encouraged Australia to commit to reaching net zero by 2050 which will deliver clean jobs and economic growth”.
A good-faith ally would not have quibbled with these words. But Morrison’s office wanted Australians to believe that the call proceeded on his ambivalent terms: “They discussed efforts to address climate change and pathways towards net zero, including reducing emissions through technology.”
There is, of course, a difference between a commitment to reaching net zero and a pathway with the magic-pudding slogan “technology, not taxes”. Johnson has pulled Morrison up on this point before.
Morrison would be hoping that Johnson overlooks the public commitment he made this week to build a Commonwealth-owned gas-fired power plant in NSW’s Hunter Valley, at a cost to taxpayers of $600 million.
The timing of Tuesday’s announcement was awkward given that the International Energy Agency released its roadmap to net zero by 2050 on the very same day. The IEA stated bluntly that there should be “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects”.
Both the US and Britain have already taken the trouble to snub the Australian Prime Minister at gatherings of world leaders. Biden placed Morrison 22nd on the list of speakers at his virtual climate summit last month, behind Bhutan, the world’s first carbon-negative country, and the recalcitrant Brazil. Johnson didn’t even bother with a B-listing. He simply denied Morrison a speaking slot at the summit he hosted last December.
The letter Johnson wrote to Morrison on December 8 sympathised with his political plight, but did not let him off the hook. “I welcome your personal commitment to net zero, and I look forward to Australia setting a time bound commitment and an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution next year (2021). I recognise how complex these are domestically, and your own personal stake in this.”
You could almost hear Morrison’s side of that exchange, coal-splaining to Johnson: Just give me another year to wedge Labor in its mining heartland before I come on board.
It raises the intriguing question of whether Morrison provided Johnson with a heads-up on his post-election agenda, when he expects to have a majority large enough to nudge the Coalition partyroom into the 21st century. The idea that our Prime Minister would share his “personal commitment” with his British counterpart, but not his own people, is bizarre. But how do you read Johnson’s letter?
This week felt like the dry run for an early poll. The promise of a gas plant that no one in the private sector wants, or is prepared to build, and no expert believes is necessary to secure NSW’s energy supply, reeks of pork-barreling. It is the sort of decision governments make when they start with the electoral pendulum and work their way backwards to find an appropriate project on which to spend money.
The incentive for an early election is in the illusion of control it gives Morrison. He can make a powerful case for the status quo while Australia is virus free, and riding the wave of a homegrown recovery. The longer he leaves it, the greater the risk that the virus escapes into the community again, forcing another lockdown, or the sugar hit of stimulus wears off, or he is humiliated on the global stage.
An election in 2021 might not be so easy to fight if Morrison returns from Glasgow a pariah or, heaven forbid, we have another black summer of fires to remind us that he leads a divided government that still can’t chose between action and denial on climate change.
But there is also a strong political argument for serving a full three-year term. Voters don’t like prime ministers taking them from granted. Bob Hawke went to an early election in 1984 hoping to convert his high approval rating into a landslide for his government. The two-party swing against Labor was 1.5 per cent. John Howard called an early election in 1998, and the swing against the Coalition was 4.6 per cent. Morrison starts with a majority of one, and the likelihood that seats will change hands in both directions. A small swing against his government, because he was too smart by half, would be fatal.
The time bomb ticking in last week’s budget was the date Morrison set for Australia re-opening its borders to the rest of the world. He pushed back that schedule from the end of this year to the middle of 2022.
It makes sense for a politician hardwired for deflection to pretend that a longer period of self-isolation for Australia was the plan all along, when, in fact, it was the failure of his vaccination rollout that drove this decision. The delay will make the economy smaller, and accelerate the ageing process, because we won’t have overseas migration to fill the gaps. The Treasury’s revised forecasts now show 174,000 people are expected to leave Australia in net terms between July 2020 and June 2022. Last year’s budget had that figure at 93,200.
“This is an area in which Australia has experienced one of the largest changes compared to other advanced economies, through lower net overseas migration,” Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy said this week. “While this downward revision to population growth will affect the size of the economy, it need not impact GDP per capita if the pandemic and economic consequences of the pandemic are well managed.”
All of the above might still tempt Morrison to go early – notwithstanding the warnings of 1984 and 1998 – because his best chance of re-election is in the whiter, older parts of the electoral map. But it would be the first time a postwar leader went to the people on the explicit assumption of a little Australia.