One could always rent the Nationals. A generation ago the process was called “churching the old whore”, but now you can buy them freehold

Aug 18, 2021

Many of the Nationals’ representatives, from Joyce down, would give no better service if they were actually openly on the payroll.  The hydrocarbon energy lobbies are of course, as much international as they are Australian-owned and controlled.

The scripts that their servants and propagandists use are international ones, with only a tiny bow to supposed Australian national interests. Most of the industries involved are not large employers of Australians, nor are they known for tender concerns for the rights or expectations of local communities or economies. But the international scripts from the lobbies seem often to pretend both that local interests are the primary ones being served, and that their local champions, such as National Party politicians are the ones keeping them honest.

Joyce and the Nationals are not to be swayed by rational calls about Australia’s reputation, economic arguments about higher costs of exports, or emotional calls about the nature of the society, the economy and the environment that young Australians will inherit. They know all of these arguments through and through. They have heard them repeatedly. If they occasionally misstate, or over-simplify them, it is not because they are confused, but because they have learnt the skills of obfuscation, false and circular arguments, the introduction of red herrings and phoney considerations. They have also rehearsed phrases used by Scott Morrison — another firm obstacle to climate change action — about how Australia will determine its policies from the point of view of Australia’s interests, and not be bossed and bullied by foreigners and aliens, whether they are right or not.

Barnaby Joyce, who on a good day can raise incoherence to levels never achieved by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, sometimes appears to be laughing to himself as he dodges a point, or takes a wrong turning to completely avoid the point. For him not getting trapped by the media or anyone else trying to catch him out gives him pleasure. He glories in seeming to outwit an interviewer, particularly an earnest one, and pretends to do it in the same way that a rural yokel can sometimes make a fool of a city sophisticate. The sunburn, the skin cancers and the Sheik from Scrubby Creek mannerisms belie a top private school education, a PhD in political craft and rat-cunning enough to outwit almost all of his enemies, in and out of the party.

For Joyce, it is not really a game, in the sense that the interests for whom he operates quite seriously want him to prevent anything happening. 

Those interests understand perfectly well that they will lose in the long term, in just the same way that the tobacco lobbies knew they were engaged primarily in fighting retreat. But every hour and year of delay in establishing effective programs of mitigation and adaptation is, for them, a matter of trillions of dollars. Which is one of the reason why so many of those dollars are invested in lobbying, in party donations, and in the placement of energy-lobby people in the higher councils of party machines and parliamentary caucuses. It’s also a reason why these lobbies spread their political bets, and why a high proportion of the coalition minder class, senior party cronies (and beneficiaries of government largesse)  and not a few individuals in the Liberal Party (and even the Labor Party) are deeply attentive to their interests.

There are, naturally, always some individuals who appear to mouth the lines without necessarily having been bought. The modern-day appetite, in politics as well as wider public life, for conspiracy theories, seriously nutty notions about imagined constitutional rights, health, religions, and the end of days is often enough by itself to explain the activities of the odd eccentric. But their presence still serves the purposes of helping frustrate change. It also provides cover for some politicians from whom better is expected, since inaction  can be explained or rationalised (as, for example, by Malcolm Turnbull) as desperately wanting to do something but unable to do it because the government would lose its majority.

A good many Liberals believe in the need for urgent climate-change action.  They are persuaded by the science. They are satisfied by the practical cases put forward about transition away to sustainable and renewable energy. They understand very well the moral case for urgent action, and honestly worry about the state of the environment modern-day Australians will bequeath to the next generations. They also understand that Australia’s international reputation and standing, as well as our status as a good international citizen, is being trashed, and this will, in the long and medium-term hurt Australia and Australians, economically as much as socially. Most understand perfectly well that it is a more urgent and critical problem than conquering Covid-19, important as that is.

Alas, most of these Liberals can hide behind the resistance of the Nationals, pretending that they would like to do more but can’t because decisive action is opposed by their stablemates and would threaten the coalition and the fate of a minority government. Or pretending, against all the evidence, that what has been done, or is proposed to be done, amounts to effective action, a worthy Australian contribution and one which will make a difference.

For Scott Morrison, it appears to be only a political problem. He has never subscribed to the rhetoric, and does not use it even when he is pretending to be doing something. He has never formally disputed the science, or the need to do something, but has always resisted any idea that Australia ought to take a lead, or even that it ought to be proactive in devising a new high-tech economy which takes advantage of renewable and sustainable energy to build a new and smarter economy. He consciously eschewed the opportunity, when splashing billions of pandemic cash about last year, to invest in a new energy economy — instead lending himself, and the Cabinet, to a paid lobby of  gas producers whose entirely disinterested advice was to give them extra billions. A man who thinks in empty and meaningless slogans has coined a new one about change coming from technology rather than taxes, as though we must sit around until a scientist with a patent arrives.

It is all of a one with the fact, as well as the impression, of a government entirely in the doldrums over the pandemic, seemingly unable to get fresh wind,  a break or a bit of luck. A government barely going through the motions of defending itself, or reforming itself, over the corrupt way in which it has been misappropriating money, with a prime minister content to make himself look silly with misleading circular arguments about rorting being OK because the minister thought it was. The question the government ought to be asking itself is how much longer it can stagger on in this way, and whether anything on the horizon — such as the expectation of supplies of fresh vaccines — promises a new energy in the ministry, a purpose in government, a reason for being there.

At its core is a question of leadership and fitness for office. The public, and the Liberal Party, have long tolerated a corrupted National Party focused on redistributing as much of the spoils of government to its own as possible. But the Liberals, and their leaders, were supposed to be above that. To be in office for an articulated purpose. To be accountable and transparent. To prefer the national interest to its own. To be focused especially on public safety and the public interest — which is what is threatened by climate change.

Scott Morrison is not doing that. He does not hold the hose, it’s not a race, and he’s not leading on climate change. Nor are the Liberals. Indeed Morrison gives every appearance of relishing the way in which the straight bat and the mangled sentences of the deputy prime minister require the lowest common denominator. His colleagues ought to be tearing his, or their own, hair out. Down the track they will not be able to explain their inaction, and their subservience to his judgment, as a mere matter of preferring loyalty ahead of duty.

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