Politics Opinion

Barnaby's back — and so are the climate wars

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Since Barnaby Joyce’s sensational return to the leadership of the National Party and consequently the Deputy Prime Ministership, much has been written about what this means for Scott Morrison and the Coalition Government he leads.

The expectation among the Press Gallery and other observers seems to be that Barnaby, with his expertise in political product differentiation, will play hardball with the PM on the Coalition agreement and generally make life difficult for the Prime Minister and those fabled “modern Liberals” in seats being targeted by small-“l” liberal independents through the “Voices Of” movement.

What matters much more, of course, is what Barnaby’s return means for the nation — not what it says about the state of our politics, which is obviously nothing to boast about, but what it means for government policy, particularly on climate change.

The widely held expectation is that Barnaby will insist on an explicit rejection of any commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions as part of the redrawn agreement between the governing parties, or agree to some form of reduction target only if the Government commits to include nuclear power in the nation’s future energy mix.

As a precursor to Barnaby’s triumphant return to the leadership, his key ally and former Deputy Leader, Bridget McKenzie, broke months of relative silence last weekend to warn that, regardless of what Scott Morrison may have told Boris Johnson and Joe Biden at the G7 meeting in Cornwall, “the National Party has not signed up to net-zero anything, at any time”, dismissing the position of the G7 as “all this posturing”.

If anyone was in any doubt that the Barnaby faction of the Nats intends to put a wrecking ball through any attempt by Morrison to creep towards net-zero, Queensland Senator Matt Canavan put paid to that. The day after his old boss took back the reins, Canavan fired off an extraordinary tweet, accusing the Australian Financial Review of ‘melting down about climate policy’ and asking ‘How much money were bankers due to make from net zero?’ Past tense. As far as Canavan is concerned, then, a commitment to reduce carbon emissions in line with the rest of the world is dead and buried now that Barnaby’s back in charge. Talk about posturing.

This would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous. The election of Joe Biden has shifted the global tide on climate change action, with all Australia’s major trading partners now signed up to meaningful commitments to reduce emissions in the years ahead.

In truth, net-zero by 2050 – which is also supported by the Labor Opposition, all state and territory governments, the union movement, the Farmers’ Federation and the Business Council of Australia – is the bare minimum we will need to achieve if we are to address the catastrophic global heating that is already causing extreme climate events like last summer’s bushfires on the east coast and the massive floods that have destroyed livelihoods and taken lives in recent weeks.

Now that the grown-ups are back in charge in America, Australia is the only developed nation whose political leaders are still arguing about whether to act to address the greatest existential threat in the history of humankind. Nowhere else in the world is action on climate change a left/right issue — the G7 meeting included conservative leaders such as Johnson and Angela Merkel, centrists Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, and arguably the most progressive U.S. President since FDR. All agree on the urgent need to decarbonise their economies in order, quite literally, to save the planet. 

Not us. Australia, which is arguably the country most exposed to the early impact of climate change, is burdened with leaders who continue to treat this existential threat as an ideological plaything — a means by which to position against political enemies for short-term electoral gain.

The Nationals and those on the far right of the Liberal Party have weaponised action climate change since the days of the Howard Government, wielding it in the worst kind of identity politics battle with those “inner city” voters upon whom the now-vanquished Michael McCormack wanted to set a plague of mice just last week.

Tony Abbott deliberately dismantled Australia’s world-leading climate action architecture in a move that, as his former henchwoman Peta Credlin later admitted, was an act of brutal retail politics — that is, its sole purpose was to win the Election, environment be damned.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Greens have been equally willing to use the politics of climate change as a form of virtue signalling to left-leaning voters, insisting that nothing but an immediate end to coal mining and other fossil-fuel-based industries, regardless of the social and economic disruption this would cause to some regional communities, is an acceptable policy response. As former public servants including John Menadue and Martin Parkinson have lamented, such intransigence on the Left has prevented Australia’s Parliament from reaching a workable consensus on the pathway to net-zero for well over a decade.

The exasperation with Australia’s lingering denialism was clear among those world leaders in Cornwall last week. Morrison, world-renowned for parading a lump of coal in the Parliament while Treasurer, was unable to resort to his preferred form of transactional politics with no meaningful policy to offer the G7 leaders. Biden’s swift action to move the U.S. to the front of the climate action pack left Morrison looking like yesterday’s man (of titanium).

Yet even this embarrassing display was too much for the coal fetishists in his Coalition Government back home and by the time the PM got back to Australia, his Deputy was toast. Barnaby’s restoration to the leadership can only be understood in this context — it’s the final thrust of a rump of reactionary climate change denialists to try to wrest back control of the policy agenda in the face of overwhelming international pressure to act.

Enough of this madness. We simply do not have time to indulge in posturing on climate change, whether on the Left or the Right. The vast majority of Australians know we must act urgently if we are to leave an inhabitable planet for our children and we have less than a decade to arrest the rise in global temperatures before we enter the era of cascading climate catastrophe.

Barnaby’s return must put an end to the notion that this deeply reactionary Coalition Government will ever put the interests of our children and the environment ahead of their own electoral fortunes. All Australians, regardless of political affiliation, from the Right or Left of the ideological divide, must insist that we stop playing politics with the planet. It’s well past time we simply got on with the shift to a post-carbon world and focused on the opportunities that come with it.

Emma Dawson is an IA columnist and executive director of Per Capita. You can follow Emma on Twitter @DawsonEJ.

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