They say you don’t negotiate with terrorists. Doing so gives them legitimacy; it legitimises their tactics and only encourages them to incite further chaos.
Yet, prime minister Scott Morrison is effectively doing just that with the Nationals over Australia’s future climate change policies. No longer can Australia’s climate policies be said to be informed on the best available science or the advice of independent experts – they are being formed through hostile negotiations with the Liberal party’s junior coalition partner.
Nationals MPs, led by deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, have delivered their list of demands – a three-page list of conditions that they say are designed to shield rural and regional communities from the impacts of a net zero target, including an inevitable decline in the production of coal and gas.
The Nationals are expected to meet again on Sunday – a week after receiving a briefing from federal energy minister Angus Taylor on a proposed climate policy package – and just a week before Morrison will attend the COP26 talks in Glasgow.
Having seen where the Morrison cabinet stood at the start of the week – which has apparently endorsed a policy package that would include a 2050 net zero target but rules out any changes to the current 2030 goal – the Nationals have spent the last week leveraging their position within the Coalition to eke out concessions.
Vocal members of the Nationals party room, particularly Matt Canavan and Bridget McKenzie, have spent the last week ramping up the stakes for a deal to be struck.
If you believe them, there is no way the Nationals will back a target for net zero emissions by 2050. Its a threat of rebellion from enough Nationals to deprive the Morrison government of a majority on the floor of parliament should they ultimately decide to cross the floor on any legislation implementing the target.
It is a form of brinkmanship that is likely to secure the Nationals a range of concessions that they can sell to their electorates. While the Nations deny that their demands include a specific price tag, the costs of the concessions they will win will almost certainly run into the billions, and already includes a commitment to a $3 billion extension of a planned inland rail link into North Queensland.
But it is also a conflict predicated entirely on the Nationals desire to lock in some promises that it can take to the next election, buttressing their support ahead of yet another federal election where climate change is set to be a divisive factor, and Scott Morrison’s desire to avoid international embarrassment by turning up to COP26 without a commitment to the bare minimum target of net zero by 2050.
It is not a reasonable basis on which to design sound public policy.
The deal is supposedly informed by updated projections for Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, expected to show that Australia will to outperform the current 2030 emissions target – and economic modelling that is understood to show that the Australian economic will grow in a scenario where it pivots from fossil fuel exports to become a leading global supplier of zero emissions fuels, including hydrogen and ammonia.
Neither of these assessments has been released publicly, with Taylor defying an order of the senate to table the government’s modelling and providing the excuse that the government needed more time given the “sensitivities” around the release of cabinet documents.
Any eventual deal will probably include some form of financing guarantee for new resources projects and technologies designed to delay the demise of coal and gas – namely carbon capture and storage.
It will also likely seek to ‘ring-fence’ the coal and gas export sectors, as Joyce told the ABC on Friday, based on an argument that because coal and gas currently rank amongst Australia’s most valuable exports, and the emissions from their use occur overseas, they deserve protection.
We could even see a rival of Matt Canavan’s pet project, the proposed construction of a new coal-fired generator in Collinsville, that the former resources minister has been demanding since before the last election.
But the Nationals’ claims that they are standing up for regional communities and the resources stand in defiance of the commitments already made by groups representing those industries. The National Farmers Federation, Meat and Livestock Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia, Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue – among others – have all made commitments to net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.
National Farmers Federation chief Fiona Simpson, said that a national commitment to net zero emissions would ultimately benefit regional communities, rather than imposing a burden given both the local and international recognition of the need to act on climate change.
“The NFF has been crystal clear and steadfast in our discussions with the Government: climate change policy must chart a course for agriculture and the bush to not only survive but thrive in a reduced emissions future,” Simpson said.
“The outcome of these negotiations should represent a major reset and an unmistakable opportunity to back in Australian farmers and the rural and regional communities they support.”
“It’s time to position Australia as leaders on climate change, with a policy and commitment farmers and all Australians can be proud of,” Simpson added.
We’ll find out next week whether Morrison and Joyce can deliver on this opportunity.