Scott Morrison says drought the Coalition's 'first call' – but makes no mention of climate

Ben Doherty
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Scott Morrison has indicated the federal government might be prepared to commit extra relief funding to drought-stricken communities, reaffirming the drought is the government’s top priority.

In a triumphal speech to the Liberal party’s federal council in Canberra on Saturday, Morrison again said the drought was “the most pressing and biggest call on our budget”.

“It is the first cab off the rank, the first thing we sit together and say, ‘Once we have done everything we can in this area, then we can consider other priorities’.

“It is the biggest call on the budget because it is the most pressing, the rock I’m going to put in the jar first. It is the first call because that is what is needed in our rural and regional communities. They know we cannot make it rain and they know we cannot make it like it was before the drought.”

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The prime minister did not mention the climate crisis while detailing the government’s three-phase drought response package thus far: the farm household allowance for eligible farming families; the drought communities program dedicating $100m to councils affected by the drought; and long-term drought resilience plans, including money for new dams and the drought future fund.

“That is what we are doing on drought and we will keep responding,” Morrison said. “We will keep going and delivering. That is why you need resilient and strong budget. That is why we will not walk away.”

But the budget is coming under significant pressure, with a sharp downturn in the economic outlook. The IMF this week forecast a global “synchronised slowdown” of world economies, and a “precarious outlook” for recovery. Australia is forecast to grow more slowly than Greece, with 1.7% growth in 2019, a full percentage point below 2018’s 2.7%.

But the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg – currently at the G20 – has said additional drought support would not sacrifice the surplus, saying natural disasters had been taken into account when the Coalition made its pre-election pledge to return the budget to balance and then surplus next year. The midyear economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO) will come out before Christmas. Any additional drought spending is likely to be detailed there.

The government has been criticised by Labor for moving too slowly on the drought. Accusing the government of “six years of inaction”, Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon has called for a bipartisan drought war cabinet to be established.

“What began as crisis for our farmers fast moved to a crisis for our rural townships, which are literally running out of water,” he said. “And I fear that we now are fast approaching a threat to our food security … We need to sit the major parties down together and to start making some pretty significant decisions.”

The drought response has also been questioned by some councils, including Moyne shire in south-west Victoria, which was given $1m despite not being in drought and whose mayor said he wanted to refuse it.

“Our council has never applied for funding under this drought package or any other similar program of drought-assistance funding,” Moyne shire council mayor Mick Wolfe said.

Morrison’s speech to the party faithful in Canberra was a triumphal affair, given the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the party’s founding by Robert Menzies, the Coalition’s unexpected election win in May and his own rise to unchallenged authority within the party.

He condemned the Labor party for what he described as its “panic in a crisis” and “politics of envy”, in particular highlighting the party’s current corruption issues in NSW.

The Liberal party federal council will also debate a series of motions from various branches of the party.

The Young Liberals called on the party to “reaffirm its strong support for freedom of speech and the rule of law around the world and supports the right of the people of Hong Kong to protests peacefully in defence of those freedoms”.

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The Morrison government’s rhetoric towards China has become increasingly bellicose in recent weeks: the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, accused the Chinese Communist Party of political repression, intellectual property theft and cyber hacking; the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has been forthright in her demands over detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun; while Morrison has taken an uncompromising position on China’s “developing nation” status at the WTO.

However, it’s unclear whether an overtly political motion such as the Young Liberals’ support for Hong Kong will win broader party support.

The ACT branch of the Liberal party has called on the government to “prioritise a free trade agreement with the UK over the European Union” and also wants the government to reject European demands for “geographic indicators” on food products in Australia, such as on feta, gruyere and gorgonzola cheeses.

The ACT Liberals also want investigation of “innovative financing options” for a high-speed rail linking Australia’s east-coast capitals.

And the West Australian branch want legislation mandating that public funding for both “yes” and “no” campaigns be equal at all future constitutional referenda, a legacy of the marriage equality campaign.