Morrison is wedged between Biden and Barnaby in forging climate policy for Glasgow

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce holds the floor in the House of Representatives as Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands up. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce holds the floor in the House of Representatives as Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands up. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"The evidence is clear: climate change poses an existential threat to our lives, to our economy."

Kevin Rudd, circa 2007? No, Joe Biden this week, as he toured areas hit by Hurricane Ida, which cost many lives and left a devastating trail of destruction.

The US President had a sharp message for climate sceptics and laggards. "The people ... who are yelling that we're talking about interfering with free enterprise by doing something about climate change - they don't live there."

In this US summer alone, Biden said, communities with more than 100 million Americans had been struck by extreme weather. Looking to the November Glasgow climate conference, he reiterated that America was determined to deal with climate change and "we've got to move the rest of the world".

The Biden speech was noted in Australian official circles.

Scott Morrison is beset by immediate health and economic issues, with COVID out of control in NSW and Victoria and worse to come as lockdowns are relaxed.

He said on Thursday: "The next stage will be hard ... As [NSW and Victoria] ease up, both states know hospitals will come under pressure, we'll see case numbers rise."

Apart from the continuing COVID crisis, which carries the risk of another technical recession, Morrison in the coming weeks will be focused on recrafting Australia's climate policy ahead of Glasgow.

Time before the international climate conference is getting short. The Americans will be watching Australia's policy progress, and turning the screws.

Climate is one item on the agenda when Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin at next week's AUSMIN talks in Washington.

Then Morrison will be in Washington later this month for the QUAD leaders meeting (involving the US, Japan and India as well as Australia). The PM's trip will give Biden an opportunity to talk to him about climate policy.

Morrison is wedged between the strong and increasing US pressure to boost Australia's ambition and the limited flexibility provided by the Nationals.

The Americans are not fooled by the government's oft-repeated narrative that Australia has a good record on climate. Their response to Australia's boast about bettering targets is along the lines of, "If you are going to exceed the target, why don't you set the target higher?"

The US sees Australia as a poor performer and demands more. Firstly, it wants a firm commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, not Morrison's current fudge of net zero as soon as possible, "preferably" by 2050. Secondly, it wants Australia's present limited ambition for 2030 to be improved, which is an especially hard ask (although an alternative would be for Australia to talk about some other medium-term target - say, 2035).

What Morrison signs up for in his Glasgow policy will come down in large part not just to what Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is willing to accept, but what Joyce is able to deliver.

Sources say Joyce doesn't want to make Morrison's position difficult for Glasgow. The two men are pragmatists; they are anxious to avoid friction in this pre-election period. But whether Morrison, who's autocratic by nature, fully understands the situation Joyce finds himself in is less clear.

Joyce won the Nationals leadership in part because his followers liked the way he thumbed his nose at things such as the 2050 target. They thought he was the man to stand up to the Liberals, in contrast to Michael McCormack, the leader he ousted.

Joyce also won only narrowly, and with a ragbag of followers - including a number who are not on board on climate change. Nor is a sizeable section of the party's base, notwithstanding the concerns of many farmers and the position of farm organisations, who fully understand the implications of global warming for bushfires, droughts and floods and want robust action. Many of the "base" these days are in the mining areas.

Joyce has authority in his party, but not the near-absolute control Morrison currently enjoys over the Liberals.

When Joyce keeps saying he's waiting to see a plan for getting to net-zero emissions, critics rightly point out he sounds as though he's outside government, rather than at the heart of it.


What he means, however, is that while he and Morrison have had conversations about their general positions, he is waiting for the expert technical detail, and the costs, to be laid out.

The Nationals argue the rural sector carried most of the weight in the earlier cutting of emissions, where a major component was reducing land clearing.

They are insistent the regions should be protected in whatever policy is put forward for Glasgow.

On a more cynical level, there is the prospect of some big financial pay-off for the regions to get the Nationals across the line.

That may work. But from Joyce's point of view, if fringe parties like One Nation creamed off some of the Nationals' votes, particularly in Queensland, on the climate issue, a good financial deal could still be a negative electorally.

The Nationals' Queensland seats are on inflated margins, thanks to a perfect storm of factors in 2019, but Queensland is a state of big swings. Joyce would have to be "adroit" (in the words of one Nationals source) in his campaigning in these areas when defending a firm 2050 target.

Joyce can't afford to lose seats at the election. Of course a change of Nationals leader would be expected if the Coalition lost office - but even if the government is returned, Joyce's leadership could be vulnerable if the Nationals' numbers went backwards.

Some of his supporters will not be in the next parliament, and the competent, smooth-talking David Littleproud, at present deputy leader, would be a very viable alternative, although others could also eye the job.

  • Michelle Grattan is a press gallery journalist and former editor of The Canberra Times. She is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and writes for The Conversation, where her columns also appear.


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