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‘The Americans will be watching’: PM wedged between Biden and Barnaby on climate policy for Glasgow

Time before the international climate conference is getting short. The Americans will be watching Australia’s policy progress, and turning the screws.

“The Americans will be watching Australia’s policy progress, and turning the screws.”

Climate was not mentioned in Biden’s phone call to Morrison last week, which was centred on Afghanistan, ANZUS and the coming QUAD meeting. But it is one of the items on the agenda when Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin at next week’s AUSMIN talks in Washington.

The QUAD leaders meeting, also in Washington, involving the US, Australia, Japan and India, is expected to be later this month; the PM’s trip will give Biden an opportunity to talk to him about climate policy.

Morrison is wedged between the strong and increasing US pressure to boost Australia’s ambition on climate and the limited flexibility provided by the Nationals.

Morrison is wedged between US pressure to boost Australia’s ambition on climate and the limited flexibility provided by the Nationals.

Morrison is wedged between US pressure to boost Australia’s ambition on climate and the limited flexibility provided by the Nationals.Credit:Stephen Kiprillis

The Americans are not fooled by the federal government’s oft-repeated narrative that Australia has a good record on climate – that it keeps its word and meets and exceeds targets. The Americans’ response to Australia’s boast about bettering targets is along the lines of, “If you are going to exceed the target, why don’t you set the target higher?”

The US sees Australia as a poor performer and demands more. Firstly, it wants a firm commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, not Morrison’s current fudge of net zero as soon as possible, “preferably” by 2050. Secondly, it wants Australia’s current limited ambition for 2030 to be improved, which is an especially hard ask (although an alternative would be for Australia to talk about some other medium-term target – say 2035).

What Morrison signs up for in his Glasgow policy will come down in large part not just to what Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce is willing to accept but what Joyce is able to deliver.

Sources say Joyce does not want to make Morrison’s position difficult for Glasgow. The two men are pragmatists; they are anxious to avoid friction in this pre-election period. But whether Morrison, who is autocratic by nature, fully understands the situation Joyce finds himself in is less clear.

Joyce won the Nationals leadership in part because his followers liked the way he thumbed his nose at things such as the 2050 target. They thought he was the man to stand up to the Liberals, in contrast to Michael McCormack, the leader he ousted.

Joyce won the Nationals leadership in part because his followers liked the way he thumbed his nose at things such as the 2050 target.

Joyce won the Nationals leadership in part because his followers liked the way he thumbed his nose at things such as the 2050 target.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.

Joyce also won, it should be noted, only narrowly and with a ragbag of followers, including a number who are not on board on climate change. Nor is a sizeable section of the party’s base, notwithstanding the concerns of many farmers and the position of farm organisations, who fully understand the implications of global warming for bushfires, droughts and floods and want robust action. Many of the “base” these days are in the mining areas.

Joyce has authority in his party, but not the near absolute control Morrison currently enjoys over the Liberals.

When Joyce keeps saying he is waiting to see a plan for getting to net zero emissions, the media and others rightly point out he’s sounding as though he’s outside government, rather than at the very heart of it.

What he means, however, is that while he and Morrison have had conversations about their general positions, he is waiting for the expert technical detail, and the costs, to be laid out.

Two pragmatists: Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce.

Two pragmatists: Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The Nationals argue the rural sector carried most of the weight in the earlier cutting of emissions, where a major component was reducing land clearing.

They are insistent the regions should be protected in whatever policy is put forward for Glasgow.

On a more cynical level, there is the prospect of some big financial pay-off for the regions to get the Nationals across the line.

That may work. But from Joyce’s point of view, if fringe parties like One Nation creamed off some Nationals’ votes, particularly in Queensland, on the climate issue, a good financial deal could still be a negative electorally.

The Biden speech was noted in Australian official circles.

The Biden speech was noted in Australian official circles.Credit: Supplied

The Nationals’ Queensland seats are on inflated margins, thanks to a perfect storm of factors in 2019, but Queensland is a state of big swings. Joyce would have to be “adroit” (in the words of one Nationals source) in his campaigning in these areas when defending a firm 2050 target.

Joyce can’t afford to lose seats at the election. Of course a change of Nationals leader would be expected if the Coalition lost office, but even if the government is returned, Joyce’s leadership could be vulnerable if the Nationals’ numbers went backwards.

Some of his supporters (George Christensen, Sam McMahon) will not be in the next parliament, and the competent, smooth-talking David Littleproud, at present deputy leader, would be a very viable alternative, although others could also eye the job.

Michelle Grattan is professorial fellow at the University of Canberra. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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