Up until now, when things have gone wrong, the premiers have suffered. Quarantine has been their issue, as has the debate that always comes next, over lockdowns. Once everyone is vaccinated, lockdowns will be a thing of the past and the premiers will be free. But what about the intervening months, when vaccination has begun but not ended, and a quarantine breach sets the virus loose? What if the vaccination rollout is slow, or slower than it could have been? Who gets the blame if the virus spreads across a state?
The premiers, by now, are hyper-aware of the Morrison government’s ability to take credit for everything good, while dodging everything bad. By trying to force the Prime Minister to share more of the responsibility for quarantine – or at least by putting the issue up in lights – they are sending a message: if the vaccine rollout is slow, and something happens, we are going to make sure you’re in the frame too.
Vaccines weren’t the only example last week of the Prime Minister’s talent for making 10 announcements when one might do. Scott Morrison has been Prime Minister for almost three years now. In that time, very, very little has been done on climate change. The result, one might think, would be scepticism towards the Prime Minister’s commitment. Instead, it seems to have led to a situation in which he is repeatedly given credit, by much of the media, for the tiniest shifts towards a more reasonable position.
And so he was widely praised for quietly shifting his party away from coal, towards a “gas-led recovery”, even though gas is also a huge contributor to global warming. He received attention for his announcement that he might not use a loophole (one that some experts call “cheating”) to deliver the emissions cuts to which Australia committed itself in Paris. But this was such a hollow boast: he was simply saying that he thought it was going to happen anyway, and in that case, he wouldn’t use the loophole. Maybe.
Last week, he announced that his goal was “to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”. The only new word there was “preferably”, but it caused excitement nonetheless. Before he commits to a goal, he said, he wants to see how the technology develops.
There are three problems with treating this as a reasonable statement. The first is that the technologies already exist. Climate scientist Will Steffen, who has advised both Liberal and Labor governments, told me that the Prime Minister’s comment was about five years out of date. “They’re here, they’re viable, and they’re dropping rapidly in price.” Coincidentally, late last week we found out that the world’s largest battery will be built in NSW.
The second problem is that 2050 is likely to be far too late to keep temperatures low. The key, said Steffen, is delivering huge cuts in emissions by 2030 – that is, over the next nine years. I asked Steffen if that was really still plausible. “Absolutely”, he said. In fact, the city where the Prime Minister spends half his time – Canberra – has already achieved the necessary cuts, through a massive shift towards renewable energy. More would be needed in the rest of the country, but it is possible. Steffen worries that the focus on 2050 has become a way of “kicking the can down the road.”
The third problem is that the Prime Minister’s position on 2050 sounds a lot like his position on the Kyoto loophole. If he can be assured that we’re going to get there anyway, then he’s happy to sign up to it. Which is in line with Morrison’s usual approach to governing: he chooses not what is needed, but whatever will present the fewest difficulties.
And why shouldn’t he just keep on like that, if every tiny announcement he makes, every small advance over every small advance that went before, is met with applause and excited headlines?
Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard