Scott Morrison has spent months crafting his message on climate change and energy, but conservative Nationals MPs have made it clear that they will not stand by quietly as he shifts his language and policy in an ever-so-slightly more progressive direction.
There are Nationals who are unafraid to bend the Coalition until it breaks, and part of their drive is fuelled by fears they are on the nose in electorates where coal means jobs and environmental green tape drives people to distraction.
The two Coalition partners met for a joint party room meeting soon after the Nationals had dealt with their leadership saga.
Nationals MP George Christensen took that opportunity to speak out against climate change policy and talk up the importance of coal, particularly in the context of the Government’s prospects in northern Queensland.
The ABC understands he was slapped down by moderate Liberals who are frustrated and fed up with the endless debate. Liberal MP Trent Zimmermann said climate change was a big issue in his North Sydney electorate and the party needed to take it seriously.
The Liberal Party lost Warringah at the last election to independent Zali Stegall, who fought a strong campaign on climate action, while Wentworth briefly fell to another climate-focused independent in 2018.
In what was described by one MP as a “surprising intervention”, Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming told colleagues today that the science was overwhelming, and the Government’s policy was settled. His message? Stop cherry-picking the data and move on.
But Queenslanders such as Nationals senator Matt Canavan might disagree. He spectacularly resigned from Cabinet on Monday night to support Barnaby Joyce in his tilt for the Nationals leadership. He claimed the Nationals needed to be more forceful on “energy issues”, in particular, its “spiralling cost” and the effect it was having on regional manufacturing industries.
Coal and energy are subjects close to Joyce’s heart too, as are issues such as clearing native vegetation, prescribed burning in national parks, building dams and giving irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin a better deal.
Even though he was unsuccessful in Tuesday’s leadership ballot, Joyce has laid the groundwork to challenge McCormack again if he so desires.
The saga has further exposed the factional divide in a party of just 21 members and highlighted the policy areas where Joyce and his backers will disagree with their Government. They will be vehemently opposed to any bold moves on climate change policy, such as increasing Australia’s emissions reduction target.
Liberals themselves remain divided on that topic. You only had to watch the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday to see that. Under questioning, Liberal senator Jim Molan was jeered by the crowd when he declared “I’m not relying on evidence” when he makes up his mind about climate change.
NSW Liberal Craig Kelly (who some colleagues say spends more time on Sky News than in his electorate) spent the summer blaming arsonists for the bushfires, not the hotter drier climate.
After interviews with British media, he earned a special mention on a phone hook-up with the Prime Minister who told all backbenchers there was absolutely no reason why they should be agreeing to interviews on international media outlets.
Amid the debate in yesterday’s party-room meeting, one NSW MP apparently said “no-one” in her electorate talked to her about climate change but was forced to concede “some” had when challenged by colleagues.
Morrison has been clear in his language, linking the bushfire crisis to climate change and talking about the need to “transition” away from fossil fuels to energy sources such as gas and renewables.
Somehow, he has to navigate this toxic issue that has become a leadership death warrant for prime ministers over the past decade.
The question is whether catastrophic bushfires and ongoing, unprecedented drought will force the Coalition to finally reach a consensus.