Was there ever a more shameful or shocking sight in Australian history than the auction of the past few weeks at which Prime Minister Scott Morrison bartered away to the National Party bits of Australia's national interest, its international and regional interests, its standing as a citizen of the world, and the future of Australian children and the children of the world.
It will not be until Sunday that ordinary and decent Australians will know exactly what Morrison put up for ransom to Australian coal interests (as represented by a gaggle of National Party members) or whether they will be enough to allow Australia to pretend it has a plan to reach zero emissions by 2050 at the COP26 Global Climate Change summit in Glasgow at the end of the month.
We already know enough however to know that what the Australian government will put up will be the least it thinks that it can get away with, that what it claims to be generous concessions will contain any number of accounting tricks, hopeful speculations (for example about the prospects of "clean coal") and public relations gestures, incapable of being properly assessed for actual effect. And the cynic will rightly suspect that efforts to divert attention away from the lack of serious intent to take any sort of quick action capable of significantly reducing Australian emissions during the period leading up to 2030.
It is, of course, perfectly true that what Australia can do by itself, even with the best will in the world, can make only a minor difference to the desperate need for major reductions in greenhouse emissions before global temperatures rise significantly. But the need for Australia to be seen to be doing its utmost is amplified by the fact that Australia is the most significant laggard of western industrialised countries in committing itself to serious climate change action, and that our very recalcitrance in taking any serious initiative has already raised the spectre of united world action against us. Thus we have Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (a very late convert to the idea of doing anything beyond wringing his hands at Nationals intransigence) warning that the perception of our inaction will drive away international investment and trade. Frydenberg tries to pretend that the perception is wrong, but exists anyway, and that we need a serious marketing strategy to cope with it before negativity in the international finance community slows investment and growth, even as we are trying to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have also had some leading nations, such as those of the European Community, discuss sanctions against nations like Australia if we fail to price carbon in our exports, or, like the United States, take other sanctions against countries not doing their bit. Neither Joe Biden nor Kamala Harris, each with skin in the Glasgow summit, is as dumb, or easy to con, as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who appears to think Morrison a hero of climate change action.
The Reserve Bank is rather more blunt, and doesn't see the issue as one of mistaken perceptions. Global investors will significantly divest from Australia if they see it as being a slow-coach on climate change action, it says. That will not be because they are sincere if deluded in their judgment that serious action is necessary, but because they will judge that Australia is hurting both itself and the wider world in failing to galvanise itself towards a new economy - one that relies much less on coal and hydrocarbons. Our attachment to old energy, and our refusal to plan past it, is painting us as reactionary, off the ball, and not one of the big-thinking economies planning an entirely new energy future.
The villain of the piece? It is all too easy to say that it is the diehard section of the National Party, utterly opposed to any disinvestment in coal, and determined as well to sell their consent for the highest possible price for significant National Party constituencies. The Nationals have always been a transactional party, not one which has ever been focused on the national interest, the long term, or even the sustainability of environmental and resource factors which have made Australian regions very prosperous, particularly at the moment. If one listen to National Party ministers and backbenchers, one would think that virtually every single rural or regional industry had been doing it tough, and paying the lion's share of the cost (particularly as against the cities) of the fairly pathetic measures so far put in place. Accordingly, National Party consent to fresh measures has been made to be contingent on generous compensation to most of the economic interests which contribute generously to the party's treasure chest and its votes.
In fact most of the traditional constituencies, such as farmers and graziers and regional economies, as well as manufacturing interests and even most non-hydrocarbon or coal miners actually want climate change action, and have for some time. Nor are they being shy about saying so -- because farmers, or most miners and many of the industries of the regions have seen climate change in action and have been adjusting to it for years. But the Nationals, or the rump of them in the thrall of big coal interests (most of which are not even Australian owned) need to lump coal in with the other interests to make it appear to have a case. The continuing power of the coal lobby, even at a time when one might have thought it strategic to have its head down, can be demonstrated by the continuing eagerness of Barnaby Joyce to have his internal railway line extend beyond Brisbane up to the coal-rich Galilee Basin (at a probable cost of more than $1 billion, with no chance ever of being recovered) and the belief of some Nationals that a 2050 "carbon-neutral" target can be reached even with massive continuing subsidies for coal, and continued coal exports.
Climate change policy is no mere matter of opinion
Politicians can differ about the need for action, and the priority it ought to be accorded. Honest men and women in all parties can hold different views without their integrity being impugned. But the National position on climate change cannot easily be counted as an example. First, Kevin Rudd in Australia, and any number of practical politicians and activists all over the world have been insisting for several decades, the earth's warming has become a moral issue - the moral issue of our time - affecting as it does the economic, social and cultural prospects of future generations. There is simply no doubt - even possibly within the head of Mathew Canavan of what is happening.
Equally important, however, is the fact, known by all of the players, that sooner or later the Nationals will make a deal. They are for sale. After the grandstanding, it's about the price. That will cost the government - which is to say the men and women of Australia, including future generations - billions of dollars, money that the Nationals will more or less demand can be spent however they wish. They alone, it seems, will be the sole judges of when is enough. If Morrison has some bottom line - a point at which he will set policy without them, he has not taken the electorate into his thinking.
And, as we are well aware the standard operating procedures whenever money is doled out to the Nationals, (or at election time, to the Liberals) lacks any accountability, even or fair distribution, or transparent systems of judgment. Some of the money in question will return, under the lap, to the very industries that the world - and ostensibly the Australian government - is trying to shut down.
That is to say the National Party is not defending some principle they regard as sacred, but extorting the government for money and favours as the price of its not blocking what even an irresolute and diminished prime minister now sees as necessary. What will be particularly disappointing is that thousands of regional Australians who have been adapting their practices to their existing experience of climate change, staying up with the science and often showing great ingenuity and foresight will not be the beneficiaries of the ransom claimed by the Nationals. Even if it is dedicated to those most affected by change (and, given the Nationals' record it won't be) it will reward lack of initiative, failure to adapt, and continuing cloddishness in innovation, re-investment, job creation and lateral thinking.
The National Party rewards failure, not success - a reason why farmers are well ahead of National Party thinking, with boosted productivity as a result.
But while the National Party cannot be forgiven its banditry simply on the basis that it is, after all, the National Party, to which rorting and cheating, and turning of public dollars into private account comes naturally, it cannot be given most of the blame. National Party venality is learned behaviour, and it is the modern Liberal Party, particularly under Scott Morrison, which has created the conditions by which it can threaten the coalition at any time in pursuit of one or another of the bees in the bonnet of Barnaby Joyce, or some of the other National Party robber barons, some on the backbench, who have prospered from the party's indiscipline and disloyalty. No longer, indeed, does the party act collectively with a pre-caucused will; now any number of "characters" - some of whom are ministers - can try it on at any time. Indeed, it has been made clear this week - as the Nationals have effectively walked out of the coalition - that even the leader of the party cannot assert that he represents the views of a majority of his party. Nor can he pretend to his own party, in attempting to push some cohesion behind the Morrison plan, that he can deliver on any part of the deal that he subsequently wants to reinterpret.
The Liberal Party might also be said to have wished some of the pestilence upon itself. There were powerbrokers in the Liberal side of the ministry - some, oddly, close to Morrison and Frydenberg, who were, at that time, affecting to be "right behind" Malcolm Turnbull - who encouraged National Party dissenters as a way of ultimately bringing down Turnbull. Turnbull had worked himself into an awful lather, first by performing every moral and mental gymnastic to accommodate the doubters behind him, then, later, in pretending to the world that his solution was the appropriate one. Now that Turnbull is right out of elective politics - indeed has become fiercely opposed to the Morrison government - he has become pure again. He denounces every concession, and points, accurately enough, to attempts to present the worst possible proposals at Glasgow, or, worse, to have COP26 participants think Australia regards them as fools.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
The real villains are in the Liberal Party leadership, and their failure to stand up to the Nationals, or to use evidence as the basis of policy necessary in Australia's long-term interests.
Morrison, by contrast, has never been much of a climate change action enthusiast, even if he has affirmed that he understands climate change science and believes it is happening. But he has long pandered to sections of the party that have opposed much in the way of action - witness his intervention in parliament with a lump of coal, and he has kept a close eye on internal opponents (Peter Dutton, for example) with no great enthusiasm for comprehensive action. He has been entirely guided by pragmatics, and short-term political advantage, and his failure, for so long, to act in Australia's interests reflects seriously on his moral, mental and practical fitness for the highest office in the land. All the more so his flat refusal to use any of the political opportunities he has had to build a better, more robust and strong economy. All the more so given his strange aversion to manifesting any sort of vision, and his preference that the fiscal opportunities created by massive borrowing be dedicated to restoring things to the way they were, rather than as a springboard to what could be.
Here in Australia, most likely, much of the debate will involve petty point-scoring, claims of virtue-signalling and dedicated parsing of slogans, and positioning for an election soon. There's a very good chance that most of the mass media platforms will swing behind Morrison and declare his Glasgow mission a great success, with the years of inaction redeemed by a few marketing phrases suggesting that Australia is now to the fore on one of the world's most pressing problems. Don't believe it. The leaders of most nations will not, even if some, for their own purposes, may mute their criticism for the time being. The divides at Glasgow will not be between Left and Right, or political philosophy, but about responding to deep global challenges with action rather than talk.
Australians have a wistful view of the proceedings. For more than a decade, Australia, like the United States, has been walking away from the company and parliament of the world. We have heavily cut aid. We have repudiated treaties and other obligations we once freely embraced as a good world citizen. We have busied ourselves in the affairs of China, but been all too remote from international crises in our own backyard, and on other sides of the Indian Ocean. Our prime minister has arrogated to himself the right to declare that our failure to be a leading citizen of the world - as our standard of living suggests - is a matter of our sovereignty. Actually, it's a matter for the almost unlimited sense of shame most Australians will feel as the prime minister and his colleagues trash our international reputation, belittle our friends and irritate others. At the climate change summit, we could do the hard thing, the right thing, and the things within our power that could make a difference. But not, I fear from these moral pigmies.
- Jack Waterford is a regular commentator and former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org.