Opinion: Australia's third-rate leaders are failing the climate Test

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay
Saturday 19 December 2020

By Mark Kenny

This article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

It seemed entirely appropriate that the final set-piece of the parliamentary year, the MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook), was discharged just hours before the Test cricket season commenced.

Not only is the first ball of the series regarded by many as the real start of the Australian summer, but the see-sawing five-day game and parliamentary politics are uncannily analogous.

Both are nationally defining contests, yet are too slow and arcane for all but the on-field players and die-hard aficionados to follow completely. And both are characterised by ebbs and flows, failed ploys, and fluctuating fortunes.

Like parliamentary performance, it doesn't much matter who appears to be in front so much as what brings the whole show to a close.

The game-altering significance of a dropped catch or a badly timed declaration might only become obvious once it's over.

The 45th parliament, which culminated in the 2019 election, demonstrated this point dramatically.

Success for Bill Shorten's poll-dominant opposition was such a formality that bookies paid out early.

But an entirely routine week-two doorstop press conference in suburban Adelaide signalled trouble. 

It came in the form of a pretty orthodox delivery by a reporter merely asking - albeit persistently - what Labor's 45 per cent cut on emissions by 2030 meant for future economic growth.

On the back foot, Shorten misread the flight and was trapped plumb in front, his feet never moving. 

The presumptive prime minister looked unprepared - or worse, devious - both confidence shakers, and especially so for oppositions.

Not for the first time, the deceptively slow ball of climate and energy policy had proved unplayable for an Australian political leader. 

It was a gift to Scott Morrison, who hammered Labor's climate plan relentlessly as uncosted, ideological and a threat to jobs.

Labor's timidity on boldly owning the opportunities of a 21st-century low-carbon economy, much less explaining the crippling costs of inaction - the real danger - magnified a sense of risk for voters, right when they were weighing unknowns such as curbs on franking credits, capital gains tax concessions, and negative gearing.

The beneficiaries of Labor's clay feet would soon emerge. For Scott Morrison, unloved but safe, the prize was the prime ministership of Australia, this time off his own bat.

For Anthony Albanese, darling of Labor's progressively minded rank-and-file when he had faced off against Shorten in 2013 (the latter winning via the caucus), it was the long-coveted leadership.

Yet jilted Ol' Climey, who'd helped dispatch John Howard in 2007, Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 (ETS), Kevin Rudd in 2010 (CPRS), Julia Gillard in 2013 (carbon tax), and Turnbull again in 2018 (NEG), wasn't finished yet.

Heading into 2021, ethereal climate dynamics are again in play, with the perverse effect that Labor is being pulled to the right and the Coalition, arguably, to the left.

Albanese faces increasingly brazen public pressure from a newly bellicose Right faction which says the "crazy" 45 per cent pledge from 2019 was anti-worker madness.

Alive to the danger, Albanese would now rather skip forward to a 2035 target, viewing 2030 as too close.

Yet the real problem is that a restated 2030 target risks either mimicking the government's inadequate 26 per cent commitment, or being seen as more ambitious, inviting the same cost-to-growth furphy.

In recent days, freshly resigned former frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon has stepped up his extraordinary public war against the Left's Mark Butler, an Albanese confidant and Labor's spokesman on climate and energy. 

In a direct repudiation of Butler - and by extension, Albanese - Fitzgibbon advocates a net-zero target for 2050 - i.e. the easy bit - but says interim targets, as set to be endorsed at Labor's March 2021 national conference, should be left to the government alone.

This is a serious split, and comes as Right-faction figures privately warn that losing the next election is likely, and going further backwards is probable too - a message calculated to stoke leadership discussion.

Morrison and his ministers have been happy enough to kick all this along, but the PM knows the Coalition has its own burgeoning climate dilemma.

Since the "miracle" election, the worst drought-turned-bushfire crisis on record has caused a palpable shift in public opinion.

With every state and territory regardless of political stripe committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, the pressure on the federal government to similarly commit is intensifying.

Those governments have been joined by major employer groups, virtually every company of any scale, the major banks, big insurers, and financial institutions, and by most significant economies.

Model for the world in its COVID-19 response, Australia is a pariah on emissions, its myopic third-rate leaders locked in a self-referential struggle for marginal advantage. Wilful negligence on a national scale.

Add to this that even former international laggards such as the US, Japan and China are joining the global climate push, and Australia is increasingly being depicted as an outlier, an international ne'er-do-well.

Known for his "flexibility", Morrison might want to embrace the 2050 pledge but lacks the two things necessary to bring it off: first, the conviction (and credibility) to carry such a dramatic volte face within his party room and beyond, and second, the courage needed to square up to his party's deliberate coal-brandishing intransigence.

Skiting that Australia will "meet and exceed" its Paris pledge without resorting to Kyoto carryover credits has simply not cut it.

Such sophistry was exposed when Australia's performance was judged too weak to even warrant a speaking slot at last weekend's UN conference.

Puffed up by Australia's solid performance on the pandemic, Morrison had forgotten the basic principle of politics and sport: the game is always moving.

That's the other similarity between politics and cricket: both can be seriously affected by the weather.

But there's one important difference too. Only one is actually a game.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the Australian Studies Institute, ANU and hosts the politics podcast Democracy Sausage.

Updated:  22 December 2020/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager