Surveying the Australian political landscape ahead of the country’s 2019 election, one pollster asked: “Living in one of the most affluent nations on Earth at the wealthiest time in human history, are we, as a nation, happy to just keep staring into our devices and maintain the status quo?” The journalist and former adviser Sean Kelly cites the question in The Game, his newly published biography of Scott Morrison, Australia’s right-wing prime minister. “Morrison’s campaign was built around this hope,” Kelly writes. “He didn’t upset anyone. He achieved this by doing not much at all.”
Morrison’s formula comprises two essential parts, Kelly tells me from Sydney: “His promise to maintain Australia’s affluence by opposing change” and his straight-talking, Rugby League-watching, “suburban dad” image. In a country that has enjoyed fair economic winds over the past two decades, that sort of content-free conservatism has proved electorally successful. Internationally, it has made him something of a pin-up for British Tories who seek post-Brexit allies but turned off by the extremes of Trumpism in the US. “His is not an angry populism like Trump’s,” says Kelly, “his politics speak to an Australia that says ‘we’re fine as we are, thanks’.”
Nothing captures this political formula better than Morrison’s record on climate policy. In 2017, as treasurer (finance minister) he brought a lump of coal to parliament and gestured at opposition benches: “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.” The following year he became prime minister when his more moderate party colleague Malcolm Turnbull was ousted by the right, partly for seeking mildly more ambitious climate targets. Morrison suspended any such aims in favour of his new mantle as the guardian of the suburban Australian status quo. In the 2019 election campaign, for example, he claimed that an opposition policy to boost electric car sales would deprive people of their 4x4s and mean “the end of the weekend”, since electric vehicles “won’t tow that boat, won’t tow that trailer”.
When, only months later, Australia experienced its most extreme bushfire season on record, “ScoMo” adjusted his language, but not his policies. “Morrison has changed his tone on climate change but does not seem to think his voters will tolerate real change in order to combat it,” notes Kelly. When, over the course of 2020, a succession of countries including Japan, South Korea and even China set goals to achieve carbon neutrality, Morrison plodded on heedless. Only on 26 October this year, after months of haranguing from other leaders and with the start of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow looming, did his government reluctantly pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Morrison may not share Donald Trump’s lurid style, but with Joe Biden in the White House, the Australian prime minister’s political formula has resulted in his country replacing the US as the standout climate laggard of the rich world. That it took one of the world’s most affluent democracies – and the Western country with the highest carbon emissions per capita – so long to commit to net zero makes a mockery of international efforts to share the burden of decarbonisation justly. Vietnam, despite its poor economic status, made the same commitment recently.
It gets worse. The “plan” for net zero published by Morrison is a joke. “It has nothing in it at all,” says Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab: “It really just is ‘some technology will come along’. I can’t think of many political leaders who would be comfortable with such emptiness.” At the time of writing, the Australian government is still sticking to a goal of reducing emissions merely by 26-28 per cent under 2005 levels by 2030, far below equivalent targets set by the US, UK or EU.
“He is defined more by absence than by presence,” says Kelly of Morrison’s record. That absence – of ambition, of action, of urgency – defines Australia’s climate policies. This absence also slows wider global efforts to combat climate change. At the G20 summit on 31 October it was Morrison who pushed to dilute language in the communiqué pledging to phase out coal power. When the Cop26 summit enters its final stages next week, Australia’s foot-dragging will be a standing rebuke to wider rich-world efforts to persuade developing economies that it is fair for them also to contribute to faster emissions reductions. Australia is the weakest link in those collective efforts.
This is not the only example of Australia under Morrison acting as something of a global village lout. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has branded its unilateralist deportation policies “corrosive” and a “test” of the friendship between the two countries. The Morrison government’s “Aukus” deal, ditching a contract to buy French submarines in favour of a new collaboration with the UK and US, did not have to be another fracture in the Western alliance. But by misleading Emmanuel Macron and leaking the French president’s texts, the Australians turned it into one. And Australia’s draconian stance on migration by Pacific islanders looks yet worse in a time of rising sea levels.
Through all this, Morrison retains the Pooterish demeanour that helped him win the election in 2019. None of these transgressions, on the climate or other issues, are accompanied by the lurid “fire and fury” or nationalist nightmare-scapes of Trump. But they are a reminder that in an age of crisis, danger lies in the hollow preachers of “we’re OK as we are, thanks”, too.
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained