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Sydney Morning Herald Editorial
By Bevan Shields
That is advice that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should think about as Nationals MPs this week reopen the tortured debate over the policy of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Morrison spent most of last year trying to convince the Liberals’ Coalition partner to accept a commitment to net zero. Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce eventually agreed but he was very explicit that he wanted a lot of money to be spent in regional electorates in exchange for the party’s support. “In any deal I don’t start by saying what I think it’s worth. I start by saying ‘how much do you want it’?” Joyce said in September.
Morrison kept his side of the deal in the March budget offering at least $14 billion of regional funding which was part payment for the Nationals’ support.
The budget included $7.4 billion investment in more dams and water projects, a new $2 billion “regional accelerator” program to invest in skills and supply chain resilience, a $1.3 billion telecommunications package for mobile coverage of country roads and $1.5 billion for country roads including the “Outback Way” from Winton in Central Queensland to Perth across the empty desert.
Many of the projects, such as $433 million for the Dungowan Dam near Tamworth, which has been approved without a business case, are of questionable value. But they bought the support of the Nationals in cabinet, allowing Morrison to take the net zero policy to the Glasgow climate summit last November.
Now in the middle of the election campaign, some Nationals MPs have welched on the deal. Joyce is toeing the line but Senator Matt Canavan has declared that “net zero is dead” and the Nationals candidate for Flynn, Colin Boyce, says the commitment to net zero is “flexible”.
This split in the Coalition puts a question mark over whether the government is truly committed to net zero emissions.
The mixed messaging might be popular in the bush but it is grist to the mill of independent candidates in the inner city seats such as Wentworth, Warringah and North Sydney who say the Nationals are calling the Coalition’s tune on climate change.
The split will remain a problem even if Morrison is re-elected. During the campaign, the Coalition has pretended it can achieve its net zero goal at little cost using “technology not taxes”. It says the ALP’s plan for a safeguard mechanism is a “sneaky carbon tax”.
But if Morrison wants to take stronger climate measures in future, the recalcitrant Nationals will have another chance to demand even more bribes as the price of their support.
The Herald acknowledges that some regional industries, such as coal mining, will be hurt by the target of net zero but this haphazard approach is not the way to help them.
The federal government should offer a fully costed adjustment package to the affected communities. In some cases, they can transition directly into new renewable-energy industries. Morrison campaigned this week in the central Queensland city of Rockhampton spruiking his $275 million pledge to build green hydrogen projects in the area. In other cases, however, people will need help to transition to completely different industries.
The Nationals are right to raise the consequences for regions of action on climate change but they must stop their irresponsible, blackmail tactics.