If you happened to catch Scott Morrison’s press conference on Friday afternoon, you might have detected a two-speed affair.
The prime minister appeared, just before the rain, to give New Boy from Macquarie Street a sharp dig in the ribs. Morrison, who loves a preemption game when he’s playing it – which is much of the time in the federation and the government – informed Dominic Perrottet what would be happening with overseas arrivals after New Boy got uppity and preempted the end of the hermit kingdom.
But when it came to the Nationals, the prime minister retracted his sharp elbow and walked on eggshells.
Morrison finally confirmed he would be going to the Cop26 in Glasgow, which suggested a certain amount of confidence that a sufficient number of Nationals will generously permit Australia’s prime minister to confirm a rhetorical commitment to net zero emissions.
After all, it would be odd to take yourself off to Scotland with Joe and Boris and Emmanuel (too soon?) and have nothing to say apart from technology not taxes when you have the robotic Angus Taylor to do that – although let’s be honest, weirder things have happened.
But lest anybody take Morrison’s confirmation of imminent northern hemisphere travel plans as typical triumphalism, or importune foreshadowing, the prime minister was at pains on Friday not to swagger, or assume, or front-run.
Morrison has been working to a timetable of landing his net zero deal with the Nationals in the first half of next week. This planning has been as obvious as the nose on your face. But when he appeared on Friday, Morrison pushed the timing back. He said the current discussions might span the coming parliamentary sitting fortnight.
Why did he do that, you ask? The simple answer is Nationals are in a mood.
For the past week or so, the Nationals have watched powerful institutional forces line up for a mini-crusade. The business council, suddenly renouncing the slander of “economy wrecking” targets. Even more portentously, News Corp – the cacophonous propaganda machine for Tony Abbott’s “axe the tax” bollocks and the ruinous aftermath – launched its Mission Zero project with comedic piety.
Before anyone could decide whether or not to laugh at the volte face or weep or rage for the lost decade – “Twiggy” Forrest turned up on his way to Glasgow. Mr Iron Ore, now the evangelist of green hydrogen, got on the beers with Barnaby (Joyce), breakfasted with Bridget (McKenzie), and then advised Scott (Morrison) to blow up the Coalition if that’s what it takes for Australia to land a next zero commitment, and, preferably, a higher 2030 emissions reduction target.
Forrest has a valid point, of course.
It is past time for any leader worthy of the title to consciously uncouple from the self-generated insanity of the climate wars.
But this was all about as subtle as a meat axe.
Nationals feel managed, because that is exactly what is happening.
The past week has been an orchestrated, institutional, full court press to isolate the intractable laggards and press the undecideds into action.
The organising psychology here is primitive. We enlightened net zero people are all over here now, are you bumpkins really going to keep standing over there, mumbling the talking points that campaign headquarters sent out in 2019, back when there was a war on the weekend, and coal was for keeps?
Now this is politics – the only ecosystem more brutal than a primary school playground.
Brutal power plays can certainly work – and this one just might.
But the thing people need to understand about the Nationals is they chafe when leashed. This is a cohort of parliamentarians sufficiently fond of the sound of their own voices to very much prefer being on send and not receive. Nationals react very poorly to being told what to think, what to support, and what to say.
So Nationals across the board – supporters of net zero, opponents of net zero, and people yet to declare – got grumpier through the week as this very obvious management exercise got more assertive.
Teeth were duly gritted. People got anxious about the plethora of landmines that some idiot might be about to step on. There was daily meta-analysis of the tone of the Australian, which much of the government assumes is the stenographic arm of the prime minister’s office.
There was grumbling about the Liberal Andrew Bragg, who made a speech to an investor group enthusing about the opportunities associated with the transition, and about Josh Frydenberg, who is continuing to insist that global capital has made a choice about decarbonisation and if Australia knows what’s good for us, as a net importer of foreign capital, we’ll just get on with it.
Party room opponents of net zero, predictably, used the encroachment to style themselves as plucky outsiders, pushing back against a bunch of smug elites engaged in another round of thought policing. A five second perusal of Matt Canavan’s social media accounts shows you just how keen he is to stoke that particular fight.
Fellow Queenslander Keith Pitt has positioned himself in adjacent territory, not because he’s a mate or natural ally of Canavan, but because the resources minister believes he knows about energy policy, and will also be wondering whether it is possible for Nationals to hold Flynn, Dawson and Capricornia if the government adopts net zero, or a more ambitious 2030 target.
Remember in 2019 the Nationals told locals, hand on heart, nothing needed to change. Now the script will be things will change but not for a while, and don’t worry, we’ll set up jobs in the new energy economy – a more complicated story (truth generally is more complicated) that One Nation, the shooters, the Liberal Democrats, and probably Clive Palmer will be only too happy to blast holes in.
I mention Canavan and Pitt because another contributing factor to the passive aggressive dynamic we are seeing in the preliminary rumbles around net zero is a proxy battle over leadership succession in the Nationals.
Pitt believes he can lead, Canavan is frequently mooted to be on the brink of a lower house shift and inexorable greatness, and the other significant player on the field is David Littleproud, who has been a cautiously constructive force on climate action, and believe it or not, there is a constituency for that in regional Australia. (Yes, that is irony, don’t fret).
So it’s fair to say things are complicated.
I obviously know what should happen.
Australia should go to Glasgow with a more ambitious 2030 target and a mid-century commitment. Of equal importance – and often neglected in the theatre criticism and Kremlinology that constitutes a lot of climate politics coverage – the Morrison government should also develop some credible policy that ensures these commitments are actually met. Anything short of that is just pre-election greenwashing.
But while I’m very clear about what should happen, I’m not entirely sure how this story ends.
Colleagues say Barnaby Joyce doesn’t care about net zero – whether that lands or whether it doesn’t – but he does care about a whopping bucket of money he might be able to extract for regional revitalisation on the way through.
Nationals who want Morrison’s climate pivot to land are encouraging their colleagues to start thinking about what they might like to extract from a prime minister who has every reason to be generous in order to avoid a crippling blow to his authority, a significant rupture in the Coalition, and a rancorous boilover inside the Liberal party.
Also, on the plus side, the Victorian Darren Chester – a persuasive adult who thinks the transition is opportunity rather than End Times – is very likely to rejoin his colleagues for Sunday’s party room meeting after a period of estrangement. This week, Chester put the odds of a net zero deal at 95%.
Probably, this lands.
But this is climate policy, and this is Australia.
So who can be certain?