While the prime minister is holed up at the Lodge in quarantine, his Coalition partners have been infecting the body politic with a new Delta strain of climate denial by restoring Barnaby Joyce to the second-highest office in the land.
After barely surviving the “G7 plus besties” event in Cornwall with a combination of anti-China bellicose and embarrassed deflection on Australia’s dogged resistance to global action on climate, Scott Morrison returned home to find his country cousins in turmoil. Rediscovering this particular branch of the family was the last thing the PM was banking on as he was fossicking for his roots in his downtime.
There has been an undeniable shift in Morrison’s rhetoric on climate since Christmas. He has softened his support for new coalmines, shifted focus to gas as a transition, and left open the idea of hitting zero emissions at a point that may or may not bear a passing resemblance to 2050. It’s not exactly embracing Greta Thunberg but at least he has stopped fondling lumps of coal in the parliament.
In truth the PM is caught between a rapidly changing political environment as the Biden administration seeks to rebuild international climate consensus and the reality that Australian business and state governments have moved way beyond Canberra in their ambitions and, more pointedly, their behaviour. Where supporting electric vehicles was a woke attack on the weekend 18 months ago, now they are business as usual reform from a centrist conservative government in New South Wales.
It requires deft political skills to remove the barriers to climate action that will damage Australia’s interests while attempting to cling to the decade-long political advantage that turbo-charging fossil fuels into culture war fodder has delivered. But a nuanced disposition that recognises the need to transition the energy market while managing the expectations of rural constituents is not part of Joyce’s DNA.
Joyce is the human foghorn of Australian politics, whose idea of massaging a message is to give it a whack across the head. Whereas Michael McCormack’s ineptitude allowed Morrison to slowly recalibrate with minimal collateral damage, Joyce will dust off his greatest climate hits and turn the vitriol up to 11 just to let us know he’s baaaaaaack.
The quandary for Morrison is that the bulk of the Australian public are right behind him as he slow-walks away from the “Coal Forever” club. While they don’t want to see the coal industry closed down overnight, findings in this week’s Guardian Essential Report suggest they would much rather see a government investing in renewables.
The boosters of new coal can barely muster a quorum, even among voters of the Coalition and the parties to their right, while support for renewables is a unifying call on the progressive side.
The government has been prepared to reject this consensus, by weaponising the prospect of mine closures at a local level, hoping that city voters will be more focused on their negative gearing and franking credits. What is beginning to change is the prospect that the world is moving on without us and that this will carry a long-term economic cost, not just to mining communities but to all export-facing Australian industries.
You can see from the strong reaction to the following statements, that the idea of economic risk from climate is morphing into new and unpredictable strains.
The other complication for the prime minister that this week’s report picks up is the immediate dividend of the Biden win in the presidential election, with a significant shift in relative attitudes towards Washington and Beijing.
While climate denial was a core element of the Trumpian consensus, supporting real action on climate will be the entry price for seriously engaging with an administration that has rapidly restored the goodwill of Australians.
It was only two years ago that China was approaching the United States of Donald as our preferred long-term partner. That party is over for now, and while Joyce continues to run interference for the fossil fuel industry, Morrison will continue to be placed in the naughty corner by the Biden administration, or even worse forced to sit with Boris Johnson.
Lived experience has shown Labor how a bellicose climate outlier can upset broader messaging and force the party to play straight into its wedge. But having fallen for that trick repeatedly over the past decade surely they can will see Joyce coming this time.
To his credit Labor leader Anthony Albanese has managed to take much of the heat of the climate issue from his side, recognising that passionately campaigning against a core constituency will have predictable consequences.
Joyce’s ascension allows Labor to establish its credentials as part of the global consensus while Morrison focuses on his noisy right flank, stymied by the same forces that bought down his predecessor.
The increasingly credible narratives around risk and opportunity provide a platform to recast the jobs narrative, particularly in regional communities undergoing their own economic transformations since the pandemic.
And holding the Morrison government to account for laws that promote labour hire and contracting over secure, stable jobs provides a bridge for workers back to the labour movement.
For Labor, climate change may no longer be Emission Impossible.
• Peter Lewis will discuss the results of this week’s Guardian Essential Report with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday