Politics Analysis

The Liberals must call Nationals' bluff on climate

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Scott Morrison infamously brought a piece of coal into the parliament, to Barnaby Joyce's amazement (image via YouTube)

The Morrison Government is widely understood to be held hostage on climate targets by National Party politicians in its ranks.

The situation is fluid, but at the time of writing, the Nats have only offered "in principle support" for a net zero 2050 target and will not publicly reveal the price required for them to actually support the target.

Furthermore, and most crucially, the Nats continue to oppose any reform of Australia’s very low 2030 climate targets. Morrison, it seems, is being diabolically done over by his coalitional colleagues.

It would appear that we are now waiting for the hostage-takers to get sufficiently organised to specify a ransom amount, all of which will be paid for by Australian taxpayers.

The problem with this story is that it is only as true as Scott Morrison wants it to be. 

Morrison does not need to put any legislation before parliament. At worst, he might simply need to propose better targets to a combined Coalition party room vote and get a 50 per cent plus one majority via a show of hands. There is no reason why such a combined Liberal-Nationals vote could not be organised almost immediately.

Various members of the National Party may noisily object to the deployment of a basic democratic process. They might even threaten to retaliate in some way or another. Yet their threats are hollow.

Accordingly, Morrison can and should call the Nats bluff — consider what might then happen.

The Nationals are no more likely than usual to block supply or support no-confidence motions as they have at least as much to lose as their Liberal Party colleagues. The Morrison Government is around six points behind in the opinion polls. If these polls are accurate, it not only means the Coalition would lose government, but many Nats will lose their seats. This is particularly true if voters view them as being directly responsible for precipitating an early election in the tail end of the pandemic.

Even Nationals who are not seeking another term are highly unlikely to prematurely give up a level of salary, status and power that they have little chance of ever seeing again. For example, George Christensen would be the best part of a $100,000 out of pocket and Keith Pitt would immediately take a large pay cut and lose his seat in cabinet.

The Nationals are also no more likely than usual to cross the floor on any legislation. The Nats are rarely out of sync with their Liberal colleagues. If they are, they whinge mightily and usually get the trade-offs and pays-offs they want.

Furthermore, the Government seldom introduces legislation into the parliament unless it knows it has the numbers, so it ultimately has a high degree of control over whether its members cross the floor. The challenge is to nominate any issue that would be an exception to these established processes.

The last and final option is for the Nationals to regularly threaten their Liberal colleagues, mouth-off in an ill-disciplined and incoherent way, embarrassing the Government. However, this is just business as usual.

Matt Canavan recently made the statement that "he hasn’t even started fighting" on the issue of net-zero emissions by 2050. That sounds ominous but for the fact that he conspicuously neglected to say what he might actually do. In reality, Canavan will do no more or less than what he has always done.

PM Morrison may feel that his best option is to play along to a narrative that paints him as the unfortunate victim of a situation where his only recourse is to send more taxpayers funds the Nationals way and to wait and hope on their deliberations. This makes him look extraordinarily weak and passive in the eyes of many electors. By calling the Nats’ bluff on climate targets, Morrison may restore his standing inside and outside the Government. 

The nation’s taxpayers look set to be shaken down for an eye-watering amount of money, much of which will be directed towards wasteful and often appalling purposes. However, this can easily be avoided if Morrison stopped behaving like he is cowed by a bunch of blowhards that don’t have the power to stop him acting and who have nothing in reserve with which to retaliate if he does act.

Dr Tim Thornton is Director of School of Political Economy in Melbourne and a Senior Research Fellow with the Economics in Context Initiative at Boston University.

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