The former federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack says his party has to consider signing up to a commitment to net zero emissions because a flat “no” could threaten Australia’s trade relationships and export income.
McCormack’s public overture ahead of Cop26 in Glasgow comes as the New South Wales minister for energy and the environment, Matt Kean, will also tell an event organised by the British high commission on Wednesday that Scott Morrison has pulled off a “stunning coup” in negotiating a nuclear submarine deal with the US and the UK, but now needs to take the next step.
“In the same way we have a mutual interest with our friends and allies to stand up for our shared freedoms, values and security, we have a mutual interest in jointly taking action to protect our prosperity in a changing climate,” Kean will say.
The NSW Liberal minister will call on Morrison to “join our Aukus friends and lead the world” on climate action, “leaning into the moment to fortify our standing as a good corporate citizen and fuel our economic prospects for the decades ahead”.
The prime minister is in the US this week and officials expect Australia will face pressure from allies, including Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, to increase policy ambition. The government is expected to unveil its pre-Glasgow commitments next month.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, McCormack said it was important during this next phase of climate policy not to “smash our regional economies” or surrender manufacturing opportunities to other countries with high emissions and no appetite for decarbonisation.
But, he said, the global trade environment was changing, and people representing the interests of regional Australians needed to balance all the different imperatives.
“You’ve got to be around the table working out a position that’s going to be in Australia’s national interest,” McCormack said.
“If every other country who are our allies in trade and other things are saying we should be at net zero, then Australia will really need to consider its position – very much so. Net zero is going to be an important threshold question because we have negotiated a number of lucrative trade deals with nations from Europe to the Pacific to the Americas over the course of our government.
“Eventually those trade deals are going to have to be renegotiated and if some of those countries say to us, we are now no longer going to accept your beef … your cotton or whatever the case may be, because you haven’t signed up to net zero, to some sort of national agreement or international consensus, that will be worrying for Australians – for the very people I represent, and others in my party represent.”
McCormack said it was important for the Nationals to ensure there was a pathway forward “for those regional communities which do rely on what would be argued to be high emitting industries”. “There has to be a commitment made to them,” he said.
But the former deputy prime minister said “you can’t just turn your back and say I’m not in favour of net zero, I’m not going to agree with it … that is probably a step too far”.
McCormack said it remained to be seen whether Morrison could land a deal with Joyce allowing “a form of words to be taken to Glasgow or something a bit more firm”.
With the Glasgow conference in sight, metropolitan Liberals have intensified their public signalling about the importance of the government landing a net zero commitment. In a speech on Tuesday, the Liberal member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, also called for an update to Australia’s 2030 target.
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He said Australia’s next nationally determined contribution post-2030 should be a cut of 40-45% below 2005 levels. Sharma said that was achievable “on the technology and policy levers available today and will put us on a managed transition to net zero by 2050”.
Kean – who is a consistent voice in favour of climate action – will tell the climate-focused event organised by the UK high commission on Wednesday that Morrison needs to work with Biden and Johnson to deliver the transition to net zero. The NSW minister will say Australia has the opportunity to form a “coalition of countries for responsible and decisive action on climate change”.
“Doing so will reinforce that free societies are not only the path to individual liberty but the only responsible stewards of prosperity, security and common aspirations,” the NSW environment minister will say.
“Doing so will show that democracy and Australia is up to the challenge of our times.”