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Hot air: Why Morrison's plan for net-zero emissions is all destination and no map


Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been talking a good game about his intentions for the Glasgow climate change summit, but the style far outweighs the substance, writes Dennis Atkins

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Here’s a dinner party or cafe catch-up conversation starter: has Scott Morrison ever taken the Australian public into his confidence about the climate and environmental imperatives needed for the kind of targets being negotiated at Glasgow in a fortnight?

Spoiler alert – the answer is no.

Morrison was all talk when he demolished Labor’s plan for bold action on climate three years ago.

He charged into the parliament waving a lump of coal like kryptonite towards the Labor benches.

“This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared.”

A few months later, during the election campaign he was expected to lose, Morrison called Labor’s renewables targets crazy, said the ALP policies would add costs to everything in the economy and predicted virtual Armageddon for towns and cities in resource regions. He claimed the weekend barbecue and the big ute were headed for the dustbin of history.

Now he’s all the way with net zero by 2050. He says we’re on the way, we’re going to get there anyway and he thought of it first.

As they say in the front bar of the Grand on Goondoon Street in Gladstone, pass the beer and stop the bullshit.

The interesting thing about where we’ve got to in the debate over emissions reductions, tackling climate change and moving from fossil fuels to renewables, is how it’s become an economic conversation which has bypassed the stop called “climate emergency” completely.

If we get to the kind of action needed to shift the Australian economy to a net zero emissions position by 2050 and an even bolder target by 2030 or ‘35 that’s good.

However, might not it have been a good idea to have a serious conversation about why fossil fuels are bad, why the economic bases of places like Gladstone, the Bowen Basin and the Hunter Valley need radical transformation and exactly what the “jobs of the future” are going to be?

Of course it would. The problem is, that’s not Morrison’s style.

He’s not a big picture guy. He likens policy reform to “vanity” projects. He loves the gesture – whether it’s wrapping up the purchase of submarines, championing the manufacture of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 or pretending to be part of a moon mission – but shuns anything beyond boiler plate slogans about where we’re going rather than how we’re getting there.

There has been no major speech on the new Australia/United States/Great Britain “alliance” despite it being touted as the greatest foreign policy move since 1949. He used less than 200 words to describe it during his virtual address to the United Nations general assembly (weirdly from one part of New York to another) but didn’t offer any strategic or philosophical framework or justification. Nothing.

Morrison jumps to mention sovereignty whether it’s in relation to vaccines, confronting a resurgent China or building big defence things. We might even hear about the sovereign risks involved in not aiming for 2050 net zero emissions in the coming weeks.

Don’t go looking for a coherent, joined-up explanation about why this is needed, what it’s going to cost and who is going to pay for it all. You won’t find it. This kind of hard, detailed policy work is either not done, left to the big consulting firms like Boston or McKinsey’s, or cut and pasted from the working papers of favoured think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs or the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The Financial Times’ columnist Robert Shrimsley made a telling comment in early October when discussing the superficial nature of the agenda of British prime minister Boris Johnson, saying “voters may conclude he is all destination and no map”. The same could easily be said about Morrison but whether the voters are awake to it is open to doubt.

Australia is headed to a set of national elections which will determine the next federal government. We survived the SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic as well as, if not better, than almost every nation. We can be thankful for strong, sensible health advice and some sane direction from what’s left of the Treasury in Canberra which saved the Morrison Government from its animal instincts.

We are a few weeks away from one of the most critical international meetings in modern politics and global relations – the COP 26 gathering in Glasgow where we might well be confronting the last roll of the dice before far too much of this planet becomes uninhabitable.

The stakes couldn’t be greater but Australia is caught up in a shadow play of gesture politics pretending we are in the genius class for reaching a place that more than 90 percent of the other nations who signed up to the Paris agreement in 2015 long since put their signatures to.

Everything is reduced to transactional deals – giving this vested interest a few billion, slinging some more money at the usual rent seekers and just opening sluice gates of pork to fill as many barrels as are needed.

It’s all in the interests of bribing a bunch of politicians who don’t even believe climate change is real. They just see it as a slot machine for useless railway lines and double dipping on things like compensation for not cutting down trees.

This is government by the greedy, for the greedy and of the greedy.

It’s such a shocking failure of leadership, such a waste of time and energy that it would make us ashamed if we weren’t busy weeping into our cups.

The old Australian Curse – to be the Lucky Country, as Donald Horne dubbed us with a slather of irony 57 years ago – is back. We are blowing our advantages, resting on our bed of lazy achievement and hoping for the best.

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