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Coalition Government's $2 billion climate fund could attract more problems

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $2 billion recovery fund to rebuild areas devastated by the bushfires

Scott Morrison's $2 billion bushfires and climate fund set the Government up against a mountain of knowledge and expertise demanding much harder action, writes Lee Duffield.

IT BECOMES A CHOICE between a government PR campaign with $2 billion to spend and serious decision-making about the dangerous and endangered environment.

Scott Morrison as Prime Minister is acting the frontman for a huge relief and reconstruction program and, make no mistake, the nation-wide disaster response has become exemplary worldwide with all branches of society demonstrating dedication, ability, courage, humanity — making the best of a very bad situation.

However, the Government’s rhetoric and politicking must be raising doubts about its competence and sincerity, as it rejects urgent demands for a national attack on the menaces of climate change.

DECLARATION  ON THE RADIO

Morrison himself is a tarnished brand due to his past efforts to get votes out of climate change denial: taking the mining industry’s lump of coal into Parliament; pretending electric cars would compulsorily replace 4WDs and spoil your weekend; refusing to see the former fire chiefs worried about this summer; and sneaking off to Hawaii in disregard of their explicit warnings.

On Monday, after some weeks of over-talking, Scott Morrison distilled it into a few clear sentences on what needs to be done on ABC’s AM: first level, emergency action on a big scale; second level, “hazard reduction preparedness”; and third, the “longer-term climate adaptation issues”. That list would be understood and accepted widely across Australia, but he immediately backed away from the full commitment. 

CAMPAIGNING ALL THE TIME

Consider the first level, the full-scale rescue and relief, compensation payments schemes and the huge benefit of site clean-ups by volunteers and soldiers. Announcing payments for it as a drip-feed of media stunts by Morrison and ministers might seem a bit cynical to some, but standard operating procedure for his government — always up for a campaign.

The campaigning, in fact, started as soon as the holidaying PM could get off the plane from Hawaii and deduct funds from the well-known budget surplus — the announcement immediately splashed in Liberal Party ads.

This is thinking almost exclusively in terms of party politics and campaigns. He tried giving a few nods towards tree clearing when bushfire amelioration schemes were mentioned in interviews — exciting for National Party partners, always keen on some tree clearing. When the cash distributions started, the first mention went to grants and cheap loans for the self-employed and small business. That’s a preferred election constituency, not necessarily one that wants him, but the move might help normalise the general design on giving business subsidies, especially if through the tax system.

“I WANT…”

The man’s preferred role and posture is to be in sole charge, a doer, on level one, like running the church working bee big-scale: “I want the cheques in people’s hands, I want the money flowing in the community, I want..., I want..., I want to focus on the implementation,” he said. 

Independent Australia did anticipate that on the flight back from Honolulu he’d be working up some kind of surprise campaign. A marketing man under fire has to think of something quickly. Might that something be a big program against climate change? Step up with a new plan for emissions and offer some money.

RUNNING INTO GLITCHES

The big program did not go quite so far, as will be seen, meantime the man has run into unexpected side-issues.

The first side-issue: What about the state governments actually being the ones legally in charge of bushfire emergencies? The answer, to consult and coordinate, is not this Prime Minister’s strong suit. His first response was going to Hawaii and letting them carry it, no different governments “climbing over one another”. His second response was to declare he was moving in uninvited to climb over the states with the $2 billion. They jostled back and organised good coordination on the ground to make use of the money. Consider the contest mentality – either they do it, or he does it – as a factor in the country’s leadership.

The second side-issue: How to get in charge of the fires and the climate change issue that most of Australia reckoned was behind the crisis. This could be done with a royal commission where Scott Morrison might write the terms of reference. It could mostly deal with how the bushfires were handled and block off any full-scale attack on climate. But that had to go on the backburner while the states insisted bushfire royal commissions were their call — requiring a deal.

Cooperativeness on the climate menace is no strange idea. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, showing a better grasp of statecraft and a different breed of ego, suggested in November to call the states and Commonwealth together as COAG — the Council of Australian Governments.

Politics apart, the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) has assembled 170 governmental, research and private organisations, with 24 main university participants and agencies like the fire services, Red Cross or RSPCA. The combined expertise is being put up as a good beginning for a national plan on beating climate change.

“MATT KEAN DOESN’T KNOW WHAT HE IS TALKING ABOUT”

The third side-issue is Liberalism (big ‘L’). Everybody sees the reactionary tail, the climate deniers’ end, the coal industry end, wagging the Liberal Party dog. The Environment Minister in the New South Wales Liberal Government, Matt Kean, has been advising to run a hard policy against climate change without counting in the Kyoto credits — and he says Federal Government members agree.

Morrison flared up over that:

“Matt Kean doesn't know what he's talking about. He doesn't know what's going on in the Federal Cabinet. Most of the Federal Cabinet wouldn't even know who Matt Kean was.”

They do now.

The fourth side-issue is neoliberalism. Where is the $2 billion coming from? Morrison says the Government’s ideology is “dry”, last year telling citizens taxation was their money he’d give back as tax cuts. It meant no revenue-raising to fund “big government” — stand back while the states try to handle bushfires. It was supposed to mean business competition, not hand-outs for businesses of any size, balanced budgets and no public debt, versus doling out $2 billion not costed in advance.

Paying big money to hold Australia together challenges the prime doctrine from Margaret Thatcher:

“...there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

Will spending $2 billion that certain people think of as theirs bring on trouble in the Government?

DETERMINED TO HOLD OUT ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Monday’s pronouncement on the second level of action – “hazard reduction preparedness” – and the third, the “longer-term climate adaptation issues”, both demanded an answer on whether there’d be a big-scale attack on climate change in Australia.

The Prime Ministerial statement indicated not, if we can decode these “exceptions”:

“We're carrying our weight. But… I’m not going to put a carbon tax on people. I’m not going to increase their electricity prices and cost of living. And I’m not going to wipe out resources industries upon which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, depend on for their livelihood.”

“Carrying the weight” meant a strong national uptake of renewables for energy and managing the books to factor in carbon credits from the 2005 Kyoto climate change agreement. “Carbon tax” is code for emissions trading carried out by overseas authorities like the European Union and State of California. The reference to electricity prices goes back to voters being told no actions like closing coal-fired power plants would be allowed to affect electricity bills.

As for “resources industries”, coal has been so good for creating wealth in Australia, people wanted to hear the good times cannot stop. Yet coal has started to look like bad business where resources companies and banks are getting out of it. Where world demand for coal goes off, how much will remaining buyers want it discounted? Maybe a tough rearguard fight for Australia.

URGENT APPEALS

The Morrison case contrasts with increasingly urgent appeals from bodies like the Bushfires CRC, or the scientists’ group, the Climate Council, the former federal agency closed down by the present government.

In November, the Climate Council declared, as the fires encircled Sydney and holiday-makers prepared to ship out, that the bushfire catastrophe has been aggravated by climate change, bushfires are more dangerous than in the past, lengthening of the fire season is preventing fuel reduction burning, costs are increasing and so:

‘The Government must develop an urgent plan to (1) prepare Australian communities, health and emergency services for escalating fire danger; and (2) rapidly phase out the burning of coal oil and gas which is driving more dangerous fires.’

The scientists’ professional plan would not be simple, having to assemble all knowledge of the problem and resources for managing it. A case for consolidating knowledge is made by Tasmania’s prominent bushfires authority, Professor David Bowman, among many others. He studies fire ecology (plant biology and its relationship with fire), pyrogeography (impacts of human burning), carbon dynamics (fire's relationship with carbon storage and global warming) and biomass burning and impacts on human health.

He says:

“We need to bring all of these elements together… It is a big question and we need to throw everything in the toolbox at it.”

THIS IS SERIOUS

Serious voices are being heard, wanting to defend the continent’s natural system, including the human population, but not really heard by the Government who are prepared to ignore quality thought. Government at this time, coming over as a one-man band, has drawn a line against such a defence, partly out of myth, that the worst never happens, partly in obedience to vested interests. Is the Australian Prime Minister a serious man?

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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