Let’s start by acknowledging a few things. December, for prime ministers juggling agendas and commitments on multiple fronts, can be trying. Parliament is over for the year and people want things to be quiet, but politics in the run down to Christmas is about as orderly and elegant as a bus hurtling in the direction of a hairpin bend.
So this is my way of saying Scott Morrison is a busy bloke with a lot on his mind. He’s got a minister under police investigation. He’s got the midyear economic forecast next week. On Monday, cabinet was wrestling with big issues, like the location of defence work and the price regulations governing airports – and that was before a volcano eruption in New Zealand loomed shockingly into view.
The prime minister also managed to avert what would have been a full-on brawl in his party room last week by kicking the release of the latest iteration of the government’s religious discrimination bill into this week. The price for deferring an unseemly fight at an inconvenient juncture was coughing up the new version of that proposal, pronto – hence Tuesday’s hey presto press conference.
I mention this final element of the story now not to invoke a gratuitous Nero reference – although that analogy is tempting, if obvious.
I mention it because it’s a fact.
Swathes of the country are burning, and we’ve only just entered summer. While Christian Porter was working through his various concessions on religious discrimination on Tuesday, trying to contain blowback from the churches and from colleagues, dot point by dot point, thick smoke was choking Sydney.
In Canberra, the heat is also blistering, and the smoke from Braidwood rolls in and out, triggering memories of that traumatic January in 2003 that many of us lived through, our treasured possessions tucked in boxes, babies on hips, sheltering friends displaced from the western suburbs of the city; a city ready to flee, watching a red sky, raining ash and burning cinders, houses on fire, trees on fire.
I flew to Brisbane on Sunday. The ground below me was dust for a thousand kilometres and the sky was a milky fog of smoke and heat haze.
Dear prime minister. The country is not parched but desiccated, and it is burning like a tinderbox, and people are frightened.
They are frightened about today and the terrible business of defending property and saving lives, and they are frightened about whether this is what spring and summer in Australia now looks like as droughts lengthen and deepen, and the fire season extends and intensifies because of climate change – which is what scientists have been trying to tell us all these years, so many times, in so many different ways, experts maligned and mangled in a culture war, pleading to be understood.
Fear has accompanied the dry, and the heat and the flames, and that is a difficult and frankly politically unwelcome development for a prime minister who won an election just a few months ago at least in part by telling people to calm down about climate change, because the Coalition had things under control.
It wasn’t true of course. That pitch has no basis in fact because the Coalition has done more than any other political party in Australia to frustrate climate action. If anyone is inclined to think wrecking is behaviour of the past, a vestige of Abbottism rather than behaviour of the present, because Morrison is so much more sensible, just remember this very week, in Madrid, Australian officials are making the case we need to use an accounting loophole to meet our Paris target.
Far from meeting our 2030 target in a canter, Australia will not meet the target at all unless we invoke carryover credits to carry about half the abatement load.
By taking this stance, we not only defer corrective action in our own country that should be happening now, in orderly fashion over this decade, we also validate the inclination of other countries, with higher emissions than us, to hunt for workarounds too. To cut a long story short, we make it less likely that the world will deliver the ambition we need to avert the worst of warming.
So let’s be very clear. On climate action, the Coalition is the party of wreck, defer and obfuscate, the party with a shameful and indefensible record, the party that only last year bundled Malcolm Turnbull out of office in part because of a policy idea that might have settled a decade of partisan warfare that the Coalition believes is helpful to its re-election prospects.
Morrison pursued an electoral strategy in May of telling voters in the cities the Coalition had climate under control, there was no need for hysterics, while in the regions, out of sight of the metro campaigns, the government weaponised climate change against Labor.
So the Coalition in 2019 is the party of placate where necessary and punch on where politically profitable – which feels like the grimmest story of all.
It might be grim, but it will remain the model as long at there’s enough voters in enough regional seats either not buying the science, or more worried about their immediate material circumstances than the science, to swing an election in the Coalition’s favour. As long as the status quo delivers a pathway to victory, the climate war in Australia will go on being an artefact of partisan politics rather than a practical problem to be solved.
It’s hard, that truth, so hard I flinch.
But truth is hard, and it’s past time truth won this argument rather than being obscured in the emoting, and the bobble head ranting, and the posturing, and the dissembling, and the clever strategising.
Now by carrying on resolutely while the country burns, and being seen to carry on while things are being managed, Morrison is not avoiding the issue so much as trying to set the tone.
The prime minister doesn’t want to validate the rising fear in the community by looking perturbed about the disaster currently in progress, because that obviously makes a lie of the Coalition’s “everything is fine” messaging. He wants to be getting on with ordinary business in full public view, not flapping about with special summits with the premiers just because Turnbull said he should do it on Q&A.
If there are conversations to be had – whether more resources are needed to prepare for a longer fire season, whether there is a need in the future to professionalise the workforce of the volunteer fire service – that can all happen iteratively, and offline, not in a way that gives the conversation a focal point, or some political traction.
Now we need to be very clear here too. Ultimately, we get the politics we deserve.
The obfuscation, the false comfort, the changing of the subject, the head-patting, will keep happening as long as we let it.
It will keep happening as long as soft and hard denialism is enabled in mainstream media outlets, as long as journalists prioritise other lines of inquiry over rigorously pursuing accountability on this issue, and as long as Australian voters abdicate responsibility by telling themselves all political parties are as bad as each other so it doesn’t matter who you vote for.
The only way things will change is if we choose, as a country, to do something else.
To take responsibility. To demand something better.
Because, ultimately, this, the future, is on us.