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Can Scott Morrison seize this watershed moment for climate policy?

A discussion followed that if the government was not going to dramatically change its policies, it needed to better communicate what it doing to lower emissions and that it was taking the issue seriously.

Almost eight months on from Hirst’s warning to ministers, the government is again confronting its climate divisions following devastating bushfires across Victoria and NSW.

Andrew Hirst, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff to then-prime minister Tony Abbott, warned the election win was based on economics and wasn't a referendum on climate change.

Andrew Hirst, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff to then-prime minister Tony Abbott, warned the election win was based on economics and wasn’t a referendum on climate change.Credit:Andrew Meares

Images of the nation’s capital, its Parliament obscured by smoke, has put Australia at the centre of a new global debate on the issue.

Pictures of Scott Morrison, then treasurer, holding a lump of coal in February 2017 have often accompanied footage of razed towns and charred rain forests.

And like leaders before him, Morrison is attempting to deal with the fallout, while trying to balance the party’s “broad church” of moderates and conservatives, believers and deniers, and the voters from inner-city Higgins to regional Herbert.

But Liberal MPs in the cities and the bush are now reporting their offices have been bombarded with correspondence with complaints of government inaction during the past month. Many believe the expectation of climate action is now a concern of Morrison’s own “quiet Australians”.

Then-treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal in Parliament in February 2017.

Then-treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal in Parliament in February 2017.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“These are not the usual mass produced template emails from activists,” one MP remarked.

“These are from mainstream mums who are anxious about the smoke and fearful about their kids’ futures.”

So like commentators and lobby groups, MPs are watching their prime minister’s reaction as he deals with the biggest crisis since coming to power.

They, like the commentariat, are second-guessing every public comment and attempting to read between the lines. Will this be a watershed moment for climate policy? Or just a PR exercise?

In a series of interviews since the devastation, Morrison has stressed there is “no dispute” climate change was causing “longer, hotter, drier, summer seasons”.

And at every opportunity he has been at pains to stress the government would “meet and beat” its Paris target of reducing emissions by 26-28 per cent compared with 2005 levels by 2030.

“We want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it. I want to do that with a balanced policy which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interests and social interest,” he told the ABC’s David Speers on Sunday.

“In the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area to reduce emissions even further and we’re going to do it without a carbon tax, without putting up electricity prices, and without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend for their very livelihood.”

But while Morrison talks up his intention to act on climate change and support new renewable technologies, colleagues wonder whether his rhetoric is being seen as empty while a handful of backbenchers continue to mouth their objections or publicly question the science of climate change.

The conundrum facing Morrison and his Cabinet was on show through the pages of the national papers this week.

In a show of support for Andrews, the following day six Liberals – Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Dave Sharma, Hollie Hughes, Andrew Bragg and Fiona Martin backed her up in the pages of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Bragg, who at 35 represents the Gen Y voter group, took to his Instagram with a simple message:

“Climate change is not a belief. It is based on a science. We have no time for conspiracy theories when there is so much to be done.”

Hughes backed her colleague having lived much of her life near Moree, a drought-ridden town in western NSW.

“Karen is correct when she says every second spent discussing whether the climate is changing is wasted time – it’s time that would be much better spent on mitigation and adaption strategy development,” she said.

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But on the same day an unnamed cabinet minister fired a warning shot on the front page of The Australian urging Morrison to maintain Coalition unity on climate and emissions targets.

“If we go back to talking about climate or targets or anything, the only climate that will change will be the climate in the party room. It’ll blow the place up,” the senior MP said.

The comments were backed up by Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who had already nailed his colours to the mast on Christmas Eve when he said Australians would be “fools” who’d “get nailed” unless they acknowledge there’s a “higher authority” that needs to be respected.

“Single crusades in Australia will have absolutely zero effect on the climate or future bushfires. It’ll only have an effect on the economy of Australia,” Joyce said in the same front-page article.

This is the political reality Morrison, like Malcolm Turnbull before him, faces. One unnamed quote or rogue interview from a backbencher is enough to distract, discredit and derail any climate policy advancement.

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As one cabinet minister told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald: “What can he possibly do? Increase the emissions targets? The Right won’t let him do that and neither will the Nats. No way. And despite the election win, I don’t think he has the authority to do that.”

Last month the Australian Election Study, produced by the Australian National University, found the proportion of voters nominating global warming and the environment as their top issue was at an all-time high.

While 93 per cent of Labor voters thought the issue to be important, two-thirds of Coalition voters considered the issue to be either quite important or very important.

Inner-city MPs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have been awake to this for some time. They observed the swings against them in May and worry what another year of bushfires will do to their election hopes.

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Treasurer Josh Frydenberg makes it known he drives an electric car in his seat of Kooyong, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, for a reason.

South Australian senator Simon Birmingham was also keen to point out it was in important issue to him in his Alfred Deakin Institute Oration last September.

“It would be a mistake for anyone to try to claim an ideological mandate from this year’s federal election beyond the majority-building commitments our parties made in areas of economic and national security,” he said.

“In areas like protection from religious discrimination or much-needed commitments to emissions reduction, we must govern from the sensible centre, taking actions that are responsible and meaningful but in ways that are respectful to the diverse constituencies we represent.”

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It is why in the past two weeks Morrison and his cabinet ministers have rushed to spruik investment in renewables, emerging technologies such as hydrogen, carbon capture use and storage, biofuels, lithium production and waste-to-energy.

Some have taken heart from Morrison’s indication the government could stop claiming Kyoto carry-over credits to meet its 26-28 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030, “if we are in a position where we don’t need them”.

But others believe the time for talk is now over.

“We say emissions are going down and they are going up. We say investment in renewables is higher than ever but it’s falling because of the policy mess we have created,” one Liberal MP said.

“At the moment they are running around like headless chooks, throwing money here, there and everywhere without any thought.

“It is little wonder we have no credibility on this issue.”

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