The political consensus on climate change is changing – has already changed. Prime Minister Scott Morrison knows it, but is in an awful, strangling bind. He knows he has to adopt policies that recognise climate change and will help alleviate its impact (all the while remaining reluctant to join those countries trying to reduce its seemingly inevitable progress). But he is trapped by his coalition partner and, more important, the baying hounds within the Liberal Party’s parliamentary ranks and their media whippers, who could destroy him if he were to give any significant ground.
The man who devotes so much time and effort to trying to wedge the Labor Party on everything from national security and asylum seekers to union bosses and tax cuts, has himself been excruciatingly and seemingly inescapably wedged by the troglodytes on his own side of politics. [Indeed, while on the subject of wedging, what policies are emerging from the Morrison Government that are not, primarily, intended to wedge his opponents? What positive policies, aimed at promoting the public interest, have emerged since the election? Not of course, that any were promoted during the election campaign. There is one issue, however, that he has been unable to ignore – the economy – but more on that later.
The Prime Minister even finds himself being wedged on his home turf – religion. It was easy enough to go along with the reactionary campaign to secure freedom of religion in the aftermath of the same sex marriage referendum and legislation, but delivering that particular reform has proved far from easy. And then from nowhere comes Israel Folau. Morrison was able to side-step Folau’s epic clash with the Rugby authorities over the evils of homosexuality and same sex marriage, but then Folau goes over the top with a sermon claiming the bushfire disasters were God’s punishment for legalising abortion and same-sex marriage. The best Morrison could say was that the comments were ‘appallingly insensitive’ and not representative of his community.
As for the bushfires, Morrison has spent a fortnight on the defensive, caught between the climate deniers on his own side, and the science (and the experience of the expert firefighters) on the other. He comes across as weak and powerless. The best he could do when the Deputy Prime Minister and National Party Leader, Michael McCormack, blasted away at ‘inner city raving lunatics’, and McCormack’s predecessor Barnaby Joyce made an incoherent statement seeming to belittle two of the fire victims because they might have been Green supporters, was … to say nothing of any consequence. He wanted the inflammatory insults being hurled in both directions between the Nationals and the Greens, to cease. ‘I think it’s important that at moments like this, everybody take it down a few notches,’ Mr Morrison said.
What matters is people who are in need and ensuring the operational support is there for the services they need to ensure that we can address this crisis. There is a time and a place to debate controversial issues and important issues, right now it’s important to focus on the needs of Australians who need our help.
As numerous people have pointed out, it appears there is never a good time or place for Morrison to take up the issues that the fire emergencies have brought into focus. A group calling themselves Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, 21 people who have been in leadership position throughout Australia in fire and emergency services, contacted the Prime Minister in April and then again immediately after the May election to request an emergency meeting, warning about the coming bushfire season. They was fobbed off with a proposal to meet with lesser ministers – meetings which did not happen.
You can understand why. They used the dreaded term, climate action. Not on – go away. And there were no fires in April and May.
No doubt they’ll get a meeting or two now, but they won’t get far on climate action. More money for firefighting, no doubt. Some bigger aircraft.
The fires have prompted others to talk about climate change. A dozen mayors from Queensland and New South Wales took up the cause calling on the government to limit the contribution of climate change to the fire emergencies they have faced and will continue to face. As the Byron Shire mayor put it, ‘
Everybody who’s involved with the bushfires is talking about climate change, the only people who aren’t talking about it are the politicians and their media supporters.
That can’t and won’t continue, no matter how much the Prime Minister wants it to. While some Nationals try to put the blame on greenies, for halting or resisting hazard reduction (primarily, controlled burning) this is rejected by the authorities who say that weather conditions (the unfavourable climate), not political action, reduced their ability to do as much burning as they would have wished.
People in the bush are less convinced than the National Party leadership that climate change isn’t happening. Wine growers in some states, for example, say that in recent years harvesting has been brought forward not by days but by many weeks. In some areas, growers who don’t rely on irrigation are experimenting with planting different grape varieties to meet the challenge of higher temperatures and less rainfall.
Sooner rather than later the Nationals are going to have to face up to the fact that their policies on climate change need to change. But its unlikely to happen with the current leadership.
It will be interesting, though, to see whether McCormack and co. follow the lead of President Trump and try to have Australia withdraw from the Paris agreement. Surely not.
Climate change isn’t just the subject for last week and its bushfires, when the Prime Minister and his colleagues urged everyone to concentrate on more uplifting (and less divisive) subjects, but also for this week and the next and the next. Certainly right through the bushfire season. And then beyond. It won’t stop, unless Mr Morrison’s prayers are answered and climate change is reversed. Unlikely.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister has finally addressed growing concerns about the dismal state of the economy by bring forward infrastructure (mainly road and rail) projects worth $3.8 billion. Typically, in Trumpian fashion, he couldn’t resist attacking his critics, denigrating the ‘panicked reaction’ of those who had cast doubt on whether the government was doing enough to stimulate economic activity. ‘The appetite for crisis popular amongst some these days, on so many issues, reflects an immaturity demanding urgent action regardless of the consequences.’ So much for the Governor of the Reserve Bank and the bank’s Board.
David Solomon was formerly a senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery