It seemed remarkable chutzpah that Scott Morrison, back from Glasgow where Australia remains a criticised laggard despite its embrace of a 2050 target, would hit the trail to campaign on climate policy.
Alternatively, as some suggest, perhaps the prime minister just wanted to tick that box early, before moving onto more congenial issues.
Either way, it didn’t turn out well.
His policy to promote electric cars, which contained minimal substance, backfired. And he wedged himself with a too-smart-by-half attempt to wedge Labor on carbon capture and storage.
Morrison surely must have seen the dangers of exposing himself on electric cars, after all he’d said in denouncing Bill Shorten’s policy in 2019.
The quotes from then were grenades for the throwing. Shorten wanted to end the Aussie weekend, Morrison declared; such a vehicle “won’t tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.”
How did Morrison believe he could execute a turnaround in the harsh political spotlight without being called to account? Especially when his political honesty is under the most intense questioning.
Sean Kelly, columnist and former staffer for Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, writes in his just-published The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison that the PM, “never feels, in himself, insincere or untruthful, because he always means exactly what he says; it is just that he means it only in the moment he is saying it. Past and future disappear.”
Unfortunately for Morrison, the electronic clips don’t disappear. Those on electric cars were there to be played again and again.
Morrison himself explained his about-face by claiming it was a “Labor lie” that he had campaigned against EVs in 2019. “I didn’t. […] I was against Bill Shorten’s mandate policy, trying to tell people what to do with their lives, what cars they were supposed to drive and where they could drive.”
There was another problem with Morrison’s decision to climb into a hydrogen-fuelled car during his first visit to Melbourne in a very long time.
His policy – $178 million for charging and refuelling infrastructure and the like – lacked substance. It had no subsidies, with the government claiming they would not be a good use of taxpayers’ money.
Within hours of the announcement, a devastating critique of the policy came from his own side of politics, delivered by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean.
Speaking to ABC 7.30, Kean contrasted Morrison’s weak policy with NSW’s robust approach and spelled out how Morrison should be acting.
“I would encourage the federal government to be looking at doing things like providing direct support for people who want to purchase an EV. There are a range of taxes and charges that could be waived,” Kean said.
“We want to see things like the federal government investing more heavily in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The funding that they’ve put on the table doesn’t even match the funding that we’ve put here just for the state of New South Wales.
"But the biggest thing the federal government can do is deal with the issue of fuel standards. Australia has some of the worst fuel standards anywhere in the world”, which meant it “is becoming the dumping ground for the vehicles the rest of the world doesn’t want”.
The NSW government is forward-leaning on climate issues, and Kean and Morrison have some interesting history. The PM sledged him spectacularly last year after Kean said “some of the most senior members” of the Morrison government were concerned about its climate change policies.
In one of those “in the moment” prime ministerial statements, Morrison responded that Kean “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and declared “most of the federal cabinet wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was”.
They certainly know now. Kean is treasurer as well as environment minister in the Perrottet government, and that government is willing to chivvy the Feds when it feels like it.
In another climate announcement this week, Morrison said the government would contribute $500 million for a new $1 billion fund, administered by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, to help small companies commercialise low-emissions technology.
The legislation will contain a provision widening the remit of the CEFC to allow it to invest in carbon capture and storage, which it is banned from doing at present.
Labor has consistently opposed such a widening, so the government briefed that this would put pressure on the opposition. But Labor took one look at the trap and seems determined to avoid it. It indicated it might support the change, given the $500 million would be “new money” for the CEFC rather than a redirection of existing funds. In the meantime, a couple of renegade Queensland Coalition senators, Matt Canavan and Gerard Rennick, flagged they’d vote against the fund.
More generally, Morrison this week sharpened the Coalition-Labor contrast he has set up on climate policy, between a government that encourages and supports and an opposition that would regulate and tax.
He encapsulated his desired dichotomy by saying that “we believe climate change will ultimately be solved by ‘can do’ capitalism, not ‘don’t do’ governments seeking to control people’s lives and tell them what to do, with interventionist regulation and taxes that just force up your cost of living and force businesses to close”.
Indeed, he seeks to use the contrast broadly. “I think that’s a good motto for us to follow not just in this area, but right across the spectrum of economic policy in this country,” he told a business audience. “We’ve got a bit used to governments telling us what to do over the last couple of years. I think we have to break that habit.”
This reverts to Liberal Party “free enterprise” ideology, which has had to take a battering in the pandemic as the government spent wildly to keep things afloat. It also taps into the post-lockdown sentiment of those exhausted by restrictions and orders and welcoming “freedom” again.
But in terms of climate policy, the reality is far from so simple.
The point has been made many times that “taxes” – taxpayers’ money – are financing the multiple billions the Morrison government has committed to encouraging “capitalist” solutions.
While expounding “can do capitalism”, the government is in fact pursuing an interventionist approach by putting all its eggs in the technology-support basket and not enough in the market-creation one.
“Scotty from Marketing” likes slogans, but “can do capitalism” doesn’t ring like one with a future. “Capitalism” works as an economic system (with more than a little help from governments), but it is beyond clunky as part of a sound bite.