When Scott Morrison arrives home from his week in Washington, the prime minister needs to deal with two pressing problems – replacing Christian Porter and getting some material in front of the Nationals about net zero.
When it comes to the reshuffle, colleagues think the prime minister will keep changes surgical. People speculate the he will replace the departing Porter with another Western Australian – Ben Morton. Morrison is close enough to Morton to call him “the apprentice”.
Morton is currently a parliamentary secretary so it’s unlikely he would be elevated straight to cabinet. But there’s a potential fix if the prime minister wants it. Morrison could hand Angus Taylor responsibility for industry, while creating a science and technology portfolio for Morton in the outer ministry.
Invoking Taylor brings us back to net zero. Taylor is in cabinet, and is the minister for energy and emissions reduction. Right at the moment, Taylor is pulling together a new technology roadmap with input from across the government.
Think of this exercise as being like a proof of concept – this work is supposed to demonstrate that various technologies can produce emissions reduction consistent with Australia achieving a net zero commitment by 2050.
The primary target audience for all this work (apart from the voters, of course) is the National party. Morrison has been signalling for months he wants to land a net zero commitment in the run-up to the Cop26 in Glasgow. But the prime minister’s problem is not everyone in the National’s party room is prepared to sign up.
Opposition to climate action brings us to Barnaby Joyce. Joyce blasted his way back to leading the National party in the middle of this year, in part by projecting opposition to Morrison signing up to net zero.
Some of Joyce’s key backers, including Matt Canavan and George Christensen, are opposed to net zero. Keith Pitt, the resources minister, isn’t a Joyce backer, but he’s projecting a hard no as well.
Now let’s be honest. The bulk of what Joyce says on a daily basis is absolutely incomprehensible.
But one thing is very clear. When Joyce ran Michael McCormack out of the leadership, he signalled the Nationals were a hard no on net zero.
But Joyce has softened that messaging more recently. That’s because several colleagues told their resurrected leader in forceful terms he would not be making a captain’s call on this issue. The party room would decide.
In addition to the climate jostling, there is also significant internal tension about Joyce failing to rebuke his favourites when they say stupid or ugly things. MPs brawled earlier this week on their encrypted group chat about Christensen supporting violent protests in Melbourne. Things got so heated that the Victorian National Darren Chester (who supports net zero) quit the group chat, and then on Sunday, announced he was stepping back from the Nationals for a few weeks.
So, given his internals are a tinderbox, Joyce has stopped saying no to net zero.
Instead of no, we are treated to a word salad.
On Sunday morning, the deputy prime minister told the ABC no coal jobs should be lost “by reason of domestic policy”. But shortly after that declaration, he said protecting coal jobs was “not the bottom line”. He thought he’d quote Voltaire, but then he remembered he wasn’t quoting Voltaire but someone Voltaire adjacent.
You could call this stumbling. But what it actually is is stalling.
The Nationals need to see the finalised roadmap before they can determine whether or not net zero is something they can support.
Politically, it’s difficult, because a number of Queensland Nationals told voters during the 2019 election that coal was good for humanity and nothing needed to change. This was weapons-grade bollocks of course. Change is coming whether or not this government adopts a net zero commitment. Change is already here.
But in order to acknowledge that change, and give it policy shape, these same MPs will need to be able to show their communities they won’t be decimated during the transition.
If Taylor’s roadmap shows a technologically driven transition can happen without significant economic dislocation, then senior players believe that a majority of Nationals MPs will support the commitment.
They say the implacable noes are currently in the minority; that the bulk of Nationals MPs are pragmatic on the question.
But given all the huffing and puffing, government sources say Taylor has been floating an option privately where the government would sign up to the roadmap he is coordinating but remain artfully nonspecific about supporting a net zero target.
Presumably this idea genuflects to the hardline no faction in the Nationals party room. But that particular landing point would be totally unacceptable to Liberal MPs in city electorates.
Senior figures also insist that Morrison – who is under considerable diplomatic pressure from important allies – wants to be able to adopt the target ahead of the Cop26 in Glasgow, not just a roadmap.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, evidently feel the same, because they were out in force last week making the economic case for net zero.
At one level all this fuss is absolutely ridiculous.
Morrison has made it clear that, in the event the government is able to reach consensus and adopt net zero ahead of Glasgow, the target won’t be legislated.
Morrison won’t have to wear the faux leadership test of government MPs crossing the floor. It will just be situation normal: Joyce rambling on several ABC programs each day, Christensen in high dudgeon on Facebook, and Canavan in high-vis in front of his tool collection talking to Steve Bannon.
There could be a risk of flight to the crossbench. But conventional wisdom about election timing says there’s not that much parliament left.
It would be tempting to write off the whole thing as performative.
But recent history tells us formulating climate policy is dangerous for leaders.
In many instances, it is lethal.
Hence all the tiptoeing.