News Paul Bongiorno: Hot air and slogans are masking a government falling apart

Paul Bongiorno: Hot air and slogans are masking a government falling apart

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is yet to decide about attending the Glasgow climate summit as he treads carefully on commitments.
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Scott Morrison is giving every impression he is paralysed by the fear his government is disintegrating.

With three weeks to go to the Glasgow climate summit attended by more than 100 world leaders, he cannot make a decision on whether to attend or not because he is not sure if his one-seat majority government will still exist.

Two National Party cabinet ministers are running open defiance of the Prime Minister’s stated preferred position to start doing something real to achieve a net-zero emission target by 2050.

Nobody is sure if the current Resources Minister Keith Pitt will repeat his 2018 protest against Malcolm Turnbull and quit the ministry if he doesn’t like what the government comes up with, but more to the point, would he vote against measures in Parliament to implement a road map to net zero?

Treasurer Scott Morrison hands Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce a lump of coal during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Scott Morrison will have to convince Barnaby Joyce and the Nationals of his proposed plan’s merits. Photo: AAP

And Mr Pitt is not alone. His cabinet colleague Bridget McKenzie is openly campaigning against a rock-solid commitment to net zero, suggesting a legislated mechanism to pause emissions reductions if they begin costing regional Australian jobs.

Senator McKenzie’s refusal to vote support in Parliament would be less problematic because she is in the Upper House. But her continuing position in cabinet would surely be untenable – if it is not already in her case as well as Pitt’s.

Cabinet solidarity apparently is a foreign concept for these Nationals. At least Matt Canavan understood his responsibilities and quit the top table to run his strident campaign against doing anything meaningful on emissions reduction.

Senator Canavan and his Queensland colleague George Christensen would have no hesitation crossing the floor in defence of their coal industry backers.

matt canavan astrazeneca
Senator Matt Canavan continues to defend his coal industry backers. Photo: AAP

So fraught is the situation Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says he can’t share Mr Morrison’s proposals because they are confidential.

A well-placed Nationals’ source says the fact of the matter is the Prime Minister has not landed on a final position and there is nothing to show anybody – maybe next week.

Even then Mr Joyce has no illusions he can bring his entire party room to any deal he reaches with Mr Morrison – he says there’s “not a chance” he can corral them all.

That has led some backbench Liberals to speculate Mr Morrison won’t dare bring a package into the Parliament but rather will unveil his path to net zero and call an election to let the people decide.

But unless the government goes to that election with one voice on climate, convincing voters it is fair dinkum will be an almost impossible task.

It is hardly governing in the interests of the entire nation. Despite all of Mr Morrison’s marketing skills, it is sure to leave cold an increasing majority of voters who see climate change as an existential threat demanding real action.

An assessment of Boris Johnson’s government in Britain by the Financial Times’ Camilla Cavendish seems hauntingly applicable to our own.

She writes “much of the time it feels more like a hard-bitten campaign group, turning on a dime, lashing out at critics, seeking headlines”.

Mr Morrison may be able to turn on a dime and come up with slogans like “technology, not taxes” but his colleagues are finding it much harder to pivot from a decade of denialism and fearmongering about genuine solutions.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor is complicating the situation with his claim the Business Council wants a carbon tax.

A case in point is Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Rather than seizing on the Business Council’s conversion to targets just three years ago it claimed would “wreck the economy”, he accused it of wanting to introduce a carbon tax.

Never mind that the BCA was merely urging the government to boost the safeguard mechanism it had legislated to pay companies to reduce their emissions.

Barnaby Joyce, after calling on his own government to come up with a costed plan, scoffed at the Business Council for its detailed work.

He said the “modelling is credit-card economics – desire now and hope you can pay later”.

How will Mr Morrison’s modelling – assuming he has asked for some – be any more credible for Mr Joyce?

This is a government at war with itself going through incredible contortions to come up with something that creates a headline with no guarantees what it comes up with would survive beyond the election.

If Angus Taylor couldn’t embrace the help on offer from the Business Council and Barnaby Joyce scoffs at it, how are they coping with Murdoch’s tabloids embracing “mission zero” with a week-long campaign spelling out how Australia could be No.1 in the new global economy.

“Green and Gold” has a ring to it, but how believable is it from a media conglomerate that has spent the past decade helping to destroy governments and prime ministers who have attempted to get to the very place it now says we need to go.

Mr Morrison on Monday said the “world is moving into a new energy economy. We all know that. It is now a question of how not if”.

In his government’s regard that is certainly true.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics