23/12/2019

(AU) Can Morrison's 'She'll Be Right' Strategy On Climate Work Forever?

The Guardian*

The government has an opportunity to pivot in 2020 – to actually do something rather than pretending to
‘What I don’t know is whether the current community concern will be transient, vanishing once glorious Sydney harbour reverts to sparkling.’ Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images
It’s hot as I write this final column for 2019, the day is creeping towards 40C. It’s dry. The ground is like concrete, and dust is obscuring yellowed grass on my parched suburban block. Bushfire smoke has rolled in and out of Canberra. Smoke is the last thing I smell before going to sleep and the first thing I smell as I wake up.
With the summer stretching out in front of us and no significant rain forecast before April, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, December and January promises extreme weather, burning bushland, eerie blood-red sunsets. Towns are on the brink of running out of water. Instead of resting and recharging with their loved ones, emergency services workers are spending their days toiling in a hellscape.
Long dries are dangerous times for Coalition governments, politically. The public furore over Scott Morrison’s ill judged mini-break in Hawaii while parts of the country were battling a national disaster – and Morrison’s attempt on Friday to clean up the damage – points to the political difficulties the government faces.
Long dries create negative feedback loops for centre-right parties in Australia. The Nationals find themselves besieged by furious constituents. Rural independents position themselves to challenge major party incumbents. Far-right populists preen and circle – Pauline Hanson, the Shooters party. As a consequence of the unwelcome competition, Nationals want to flex their muscle within the government and be seen to be delivering, which can create difficulties for the Liberals in urban areas.
Water politics (as my wise colleague Gabrielle Chan put this, predictively, in August) is in hyperdrive in regional Australia. The irrigators engaged in an existential fight to preserve their livelihoods (like the group that came to Canberra during the final sitting weeks of the parliament and camped outside the main entrance and outside the National Farmers Federation HQ, a protest convoy demanding an audience) – want more of the scarce water. They feel wedged between the ecology, the speculators and a basin plan they evidently associate with misery.
But in cities, progressive Liberal voters fret about persistent government inaction on climate change. Restiveness about a lack of climate action puts pressure on the other arm of the government, the arm inclined to worry the Coalition has lost control of the climate change narrative.
A prelude to this summer nocturne played out during the last federal election, when Nationals found themselves under significant challenge in seats with direct exposure to the Murray-Darling. It gets forgotten, because the government has been entirely successful in projecting the sweetest victory of all post-election narrative, but Sussan Ley, the Liberal member for Farrer, suffered a negative swing on primaries of 7%. A high profile independent contesting the seat got almost 20,000 votes in the seat. National Mark Coultan had a similar experience in Parkes – a negative swing on primaries, and a bump for an independent.
In the cities, climate-related anxiety swung votes too. Tony Abbott lost his seat, Josh Frydenberg suffered a negative swing of over 8% and Tim Wilson a negative swing of 3.66%. In Trent Zimmerman’s seat of North Sydney, the Labor candidate got a positive swing of over 8%, while in Brisbane, Trevor Evans had a negative swing of 2% and the Greens a positive swing of nearly 3%.
While the May election was fought on a range of issues, certainly not climate and environment alone, the election result tells us the Coalition did a better job than Labor of straddling its split constituency, neutralising and weaponising where required; and was more effective in channeling the inevitable protest votes back to the Coalition.
So it is possible – Christmas holiday SNAFU and abject prime ministerial apologies notwithstanding – that Team Morrison will end the year resolved to maintaining the status quo with its actions and messaging. It’s possible the Coalition will try and wait out the backlash. After all, what problem needs to be fixed here? The negative swings in May happened in seats the government holds by a large margin, so what’s the case for a course correction? On this benign view Morrison can go on managing the different aspirations among the Coalition’s supporters by walking every side of every street.
To recap quickly, the Coalition’s formula for neutralising the climate backlash in May was campaign calm down in the cities. Morrison told voters he was not Abbott, and the Coalition would meet its international commitments with sensible practical policies that wouldn’t crash the economy. In the regions, Morrison was also for the coal industry, for the farmers, for everyone immediately in front of him.
The government lost bark, but speaking out all sides of its mouth worked earlier this year. Everyone apart from the unmourned apex wrecker Abbott hung on, and while Labor and the Greens picked up votes on climate change in some parts of the country, a majority of voters either rejected Bill Shorten’s plans to take corrective action, or didn’t particularly but prioritised another set of issues when casting their votes.
So the Morrison et al political strategy prevailed. It absolutely did.
But will it work forever? And by work, I mean continue to command a national majority of 50% plus one.
Will Australians continue to either vote against climate action, or prioritise other things, when they are experiencing the practical consequences of policy failure in their daily lives? To frame this thought another way, if sanguine, or she’ll be right mate (our natural default in Australia), is a piece of string, just how long is that piece of string?
I’m not asking this question rhetorically. I’m asking it because I don’t know the answer.
I do know this. Australia’s climate is changing, there are practical consequences associated with warming and these consequences are now too present to be ignored.
A new authoritative study published this week found that climate change has reduced the average annual profitability of farms by 22% over the past two decades (and yes, I know effective climate action is a global imperative, not just a local one). Cropping farms have been the worst hit, with revenue down 8% or around $82,000 a farm, and profits down 35%, or $70,900 for a typical cropping farm. Regional Australia is well aware it is now engaged in an adaptation exercise, because agribusinesses deal with that reality every day.
One of the small fascinations of the year, certainly for me, and I suspect for a number of us that live outside Sydney, has been watching the perils of climate inaction becoming a major national story largely because Australia’s largest city was inconvenienced by noxious bushfire smoke. All of a sudden, the issue gained traction and surround-sound coverage – television, radio, digital, print – at least in outlets that still perform journalism.
I know the government has just endured a pretty spiky and uncomfortable month. You can only imagine how ropable Morrison would have been when it became obvious he would have to eat humble pie on Friday. You can actually picture that scene, or at least I can, quite vividly.
What I don’t know is whether the current community concern about the lack of leadership will be transient, vanishing once glorious Sydney harbour reverts to sparkling, and people resume bushwalking in the Blue Mountains without masks and asthma inhalers, or whether the summer of 2019 and 2020 will be remembered in the future as an awakening of sorts.
Obviously, I hope it’s the latter. In the spirit of good cheer, generosity and hope, I also hope that Morrison and the government he leads will take the opportunity of shifting on climate policy in 2020, and by shifting I mean actually doing something rather than pretending to be doing something.
The government has an entirely viable opportunity to pivot in 2020, to end the domestic war of political convenience in the new year, because the world will be contemplating what fresh emissions reduction commitments to offer between now and 2050. Opportunity beckons.
I am often tough on this prime minister, because he furnishes plenty of reasons to be. But I’ve said before, and will now say again, I think Morrison is capable of finding a 50% plus one on climate change that is about more than winning a single election at a particular point in time, but about actually trying to fix a problem that requires fixing.
But first he has to make some decisions. Morrison has got to decide whether he covets power for its own sake or whether he wants to use the power Australian voters have given him to do good.
He’s got to decide whether he’s a chess grand master or a prime minister. These are two different callings.
Morrison can be feckless and shallow, possibly without serious negative consequences. It is the political age for feckless and shallow. Populists and charlatans litter the landscape.
So he can do that, and he won’t lack company when he struts and frets on the world stage. Or he can find the courage and the moral purpose to do some good in the world, and leave a legacy that benefits future generations.

*Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia’s political editor

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