Morrison Government perpetuates national self-harm

Morrison government perpetuates national self-harm

Climate change is an issue of national and global significance that demands a meaningful government response. So, when we as leaders of businesses, industry groups, public sector agencies or in local communities contemplate “what action should we take to address climate risks?”, it’s important to understand the actions and intentions of our governments. Unfortunately, on face value, it appears the government is perpetuating national self-harm.

In all likelihood, you’re one of the majority of Australians that want meaningful action on climate change now. Discussions over a cuppa, and around the BBQ and the boardroom table are not about whether our climate is changing; rather, it’s about what must be done to protect our country, our businesses, our kids and our way of life.

Unfortunately, climate change has polarised politics in Australia for over a decade, crippling efforts to achieve coherent and effective policies on energy and climate. It has thwarted clarity and certainty in policy and, in turn, diminished investment and action. What, if anything, is likely to change under our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison?

Does Scott Morrison accept the climate science? What does he believe Australians are capable of achieving? And what does he stand for? What are his core values and how does that shape his leadership? In some respects, it’s hard to get an authentic handle on the “man from marketing”.

An interview

What our Prime Minister says and does can provide some answers. If, for example, I interviewed the PM his well-documented answers might go like this:

NF: The fires across Australia have crystallised people’s fears about climate change. As NSW’s Minister for Environment1 said about the drought and fire conditions, “If this is not climate change then what the hell’s going to happen when it does hit?” Does the federal government share his views?

PM: As I’ve said recently, many factors have contributed to the fires including climate change2.

NF: What are those factors?

PM: Well, unfortunately, some people like to light fires. In other instances, they’ve been triggered by lightning strikes. Obviously, the drought and dryness of the bush hasn’t helped, nor the high temperatures and strong winds. It’s also clear that some areas, perhaps too few, have been subject to hazard reduction burns. Of course, we mustn’t forget that Australia has always had bushfires.

NF: Other than arsonists, most of the factors you’ve identified are climate related. Most are made worse by climate change. Experts are also emphasising that fewer opportunities exist to safely conduct hazard reduction burns in our drier climate. Even then, they do little to mitigate extreme fires3. Extraordinarily, fires have started in winter and even some of our rainforests are burning4. So, isn’t it true that our changing climate is a key factor in our fire situation?

PM: First and foremost, we need to help the people in the midst of the fire crisis. That is my government’s first priority. But as I’ve said, we also need to deal with climate change, and we are. We need to reduce emissions and that’s what my government is achieving.

NF: So, are you saying that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are reducing?

PM: Yes, we are investing in emissions reduction and getting great results very cost effectively5.

NF: Okay, just to be clear, you’re not saying that total emissions are reducing, are you? Your own government’s report shows Australia’s actual emissions have been rising since 20136.

PM: The important thing here is that Australia is on track to meet and beat the Kyoto target we agreed to. That’s a 5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020. And then we’ll meet our Paris agreement in 2030.

NF: That might seem confusing to some people. You’re saying that can meet our emissions reduction target when our emissions are actually rising. How can that be?

PM: We had a total amount of emissions – a budget if you like – that we could emit during the period 2000 to 2020. While there have been some ups and downs over the years, our total emissions have remained within that budget.

NF: So, the Paris agreement requires us to move from a 5 percent reduction to a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions – albeit from a higher initial starting point in 2005 – by 20307. You say we’ll achieve this “in a canter”8. But again, if our emissions are rising, how can you be so confident. Indeed, don’t rising emissions suggest the government’s climate policies are failing?

PM: Australians can be assured that our policy settings are where we need them to be. Remember this is a global issue requiring a global response. Australia is doing its bit9.

NF: Yes, but Prime Minister, our emissions are rising. The United Nations are saying publicly that with current policy settings we will fall well short of our binding Paris emissions reduction target. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that this concerns many Australians.

PM: Those reports aren’t credible. We are on track to meet our 2020 and 2030 targets.

NF: Are you saying the United Nations is issuing “fake news”?

PM: What I’m saying is that Australia is on track to meet our obligations. It’s what Australians do. We stick to our agreements.

NF: But how?

PM: We will use credits from our past achievements.

NF: Does this really past the “pub test”? It feels deceptive, papering over the cracks so to speak. It’s like a farmer arguing that because he didn’t pump much water from the river before the drought that he can be recognised for that and do so now. It might look okay on paper, but the reality would be that causes harm to the river and communities downstream.

PM: We don’t share that view.

NF: Okay, well perhaps the more important question we should explore is whether our commitments are consistent with our longer-term national interest? How much do you think we need to reduce our emissions and by when?

PM: Our policy on that is very clear. We are committed to reducing emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030.

NF: Yes, we understand that. Do we ultimately need to reduce our greenhouse emissions to zero? The clear scientific consensus is that net global emissions must be zero by 2050 if we want to avoid tipping into dangerous climate change10. That means effectively halving global emissions every decade. Are you saying something less than that is desirable?

PM: Australia has and always will do its bit to achieve the goals we sign up to. I must say, however, that Australia is only a small nation and emits 1.3 percent of global emissions11. What we do ultimately makes very little difference.

NF: Is this a philosophy the government is applying to other areas of policy?

PM: What do you mean?

NF: Well, if Australia is so insignificant, why not pull out of other treaties and initiatives? And by the same logic, so should the 171 other countries12 that emit less than Australia? Indeed, perhaps you might permit me to apply the same principle to my tax affairs? I must contribute a vanishingly small fraction of government revenue. You won’t miss it if I stop paying, will you?

PM: Nice try! Of course, we all need to pay our fair share of taxes that fund our national defences, secure our borders and equip our excellent health services. On the international stage, Australia does its fair share too. We’ve got nothing to apologise for.

NF: How does the government judge what’s fair? Plenty would suggest that Australia’s a “leaner” not a “lifter” when it comes to climate change.

PM: Well it’s a complicated question. What’s clearly not fair is Australia acting when other countries aren’t.

NF: Which countries?

PM: I’m not going to start listing countries. The point is that each country needs to do its fair share. We’re not going to put jobs at risk here in Australia while other countries watch from the sidelines.

NF: Well, let me list some countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA13. These are the countries that join Australia at the bottom of the pack when it comes to climate action. That’s according to a recent evidence-based report. Australia, the USA and Saudi Arabia are some of the wealthiest countries in the world, technologically advanced and in Australia’s case with much to gain and lose from tackling climate change. So how is being at the bottom of the pack fair or sensible?

PM: Look, what we need now are not more reports but practical solutions. That what Australians want – not to be lectured and dictated to by others overseas. It’s the “negative globalism” I spoke about recently14. We won’t have international institutions imposing conditions that conflict with our electoral mandates. We will determine what is good for Australia. We will decide our interests and how to pursue them.

NF: So, if the government is genuine in accepting the science of climate change and the need to tackle what you’ve described as “the world’s greatest environmental challenge”15 then surely we need global cooperation. It’s the “rules-based international order” we advocate16 for when it comes to situations like freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? Surely, if we want this cooperation then we need to be embracing some global rules and leading by example?

PM: We just need to play a bigger role in defining the rules than we have previously to ensure they operate in our national interest14, in line with our electoral mandate.

NF: Do you think you’d gain the electoral mandate for bolder climate action if you took it to the electorate? After all, surveys reveal that over 60% Australians reckon that Australia is not doing enough and is not doing its fair share to address our changing climate17,18. Not all of these people can be latte-sipping, raving lunatics as the Deputy Prime Minister called them19. Farmers are clearly in the tent20.

PM: Look, we believe we have the balance on climate action right. Clearly, some people want to close down coal but we have no intentions of putting people in the coal industry into unemployment.

NF: I’m sure no-one wants people in the coal industry to be without a job. They just want them to be supported to transition to different jobs that have a secure future. People want an orderly transition from carbon-intensive energy to low-emissions energy. And isn’t this – structural reform – precisely the role of government?

PM: We’re not about to close legally-operating businesses selling commodities to global customers that represents a quarter of Australia’s exports by value21 and 54,000 direct jobs19. And if we don’t sell our coal then our global customers will buy it elsewhere – and that’ll be a bad outcome for jobs and the climate.

NF: So what do you want the school kids that were protesting the perceived lack of action on climate change to know?

PM: I welcome their passion, particularly for the environment. But I don’t want them not to worry. Enjoy their childhoods, and focus on learning more about science, technology, engineering and maths15 because they’re the skills required to practically manage our environmental challenges in future.

NF: And your message to the people still fighting the fires?

PM: As always, they are in our thoughts and prayers22.

What is revealed?

Objectively, on face value, what does this reveal about our PM’s intentions? What do the apparent contradictions in values and policies suggest?

It would appear to be ill-informed at best, dishonest at worst, to diminish the driving force that climate change has been in our drought, fires and now floods and their consequential impacts on communities, their economies and the bush. It causes harm to the community’s understanding of climate risks and our readiness for mitigation and adaptation.

It would seem deceptive and disingenuous to tell Australians we will meet our 2030 emissions reductions targets “in a canter”. Creative (and disputed)23,24 accounting to achieve our target on paper is not the same as the real reductions in emissions that citizens expect and climate stability demands. It also harms our national standing and trust in our government and public institutions.

The absence of a plan to support industries and dependent communities to transition off fossil-fuels also ignores reality and diverts attention from real solutions. Money is moving out of coal and gas toward renewables, leaving those resisting the change increasingly vulnerable25. The pain and cost of adjustment only escalates with each passing day of inaction. Furthermore, substantial economic opportunities are also being missed. It is nationally-sanctioned economic self-harm.

What people do, not what they say, is often most telling. So, consider this: every Australian state has committed to net zero emissions by 205026. In effect, Australia has committed to be carbon neutral. Instead of supporting the States and leveraging the situation internationally to argue for more robust international action, his government undermines global accords23 and thus global emissions reduction. Perhaps more than anything this demonstrates the depth of disinterest in any meaningful action and how captive the Coalition government has become to vested interests.

We may never really know the real Scott Morrison and what he thinks can and should be done about climate change. And, perhaps, this is a flawed analysis of his comments and actions. Indeed, I hope to see deeds, not words, very soon that prove our government is committed to meaningful action on climate risks … and opportunities. It would be a very happy day indeed.

In the meantime, we should look much closer to home for real leadership.


A future article will provide suggestions about important, practical actions that can be taken to address climate risks and opportunities at scale and with pace. Insights to the role that engineers can play can be found here.

  1. Hannah Higgins (2019) Energy minister says climate a ‘matter of science’, Australian Financial Review, 11 Dec 2019
  2. Tom Stayner (2019) Scott Morrison says climate change is contributing to ‘deeply distressing’ fires, SBS News (online), 13 Dec 2019
  3. Trent Penman, Kate Parkins, Sarah McColl-Gausden (2019) A surprising answer to a hot question: controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire, The Conversation, 15 November 2019
  4. Trent Penman (2019) Why are our rainforests burning? In: Pursuit, 12 Sept 2019, University of Melbourne.
  5. Climate Change Authority (2017) Review of the Emissions Reduction Fund, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra
  6. Department of the Environment and Energy (2019) Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: June 2019, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra
  7. Department of the Environment and Energy (2019) Australia’s emissions projections 2019, Australian Government, Canberra.
  8. AAP (2018) PM rejects report showing Australia will not meet Paris target, SBS News, 21 Dec 2018.
  9. Michelle Grattan (2019) Defiant Scott Morrison tells the world Australia is ‘doing our bit’ on climate change, The Conversation, 26 September 2019
  10. World Meteorological Organization (2019) United in Science: High-level synthesis report of latest climate science information convened by the Science Advisory Group of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019, 22 Sept 2019, United Nations, New York.
  11. Australian Government (2015) Australia’s 2030 climate change target, Canberra.
  12. World Resources Institute (2014) Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, Version 2, Washington.
  13. Jan Burck et al (2019) Climate Change Performance Index: Results 2020, Germanwatch, NewClimate Institute and Climate Action Network International, Berlin.
  14. Phillip Coorey (2019) Unchecked globalism a threat to Australia’s sovereignty: Morrison, Australian Financial Review, Friday 4 Oct 2019
  15. Michelle Grattan (2019) Defiant Scott Morrison tells the world Australia is ‘doing out bit’ on climate change, The Conversation, 26 Sept 2019
  16. Australian Government (2017) Foreign Policy White Paper, Canberra.
  17. Nick Kilvert (2019) Climate change survey shows Australians want action on emissions, but are divided on nuclear, ABC News (Science), 10 Sept 2019
  18. Ipsos (2019) The Ipsos Climate Change Report 2018, Sydney.
  19. David Crowe (2019) Deputy PM slams people raising climate change in relation to NSW bushfires, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Nov 2019
  20. Nick Baker (2019) ‘Beyond time for action’: Australian farmers call for climate change plan, SBS News, 16 Sept 2019.
  21. Michelle Cunningham et al (2019) The Changing Global Market for Australian Coal, Bulletin, 19 September 2019, Reserve Bank of Australia, Sydney.
  22. Nick Baker (2019) NSW mayor slams deputy PM’s ‘insulting’ climate change attack during bushfires, SBS News, 11 November 2019
  23. Adam Morton (2019) UN climate talks: Australia accused of ‘cheating’ and thwarting global deal, The Guardian, 15 December.
  24. James Fernyhough, Elouise Fowler (2019) Country looks alone on Kyoto credits, Australian Financial Review, 17 December.
  25. Alan Livsey (2020) The $1.3 trillion cost of ‘stranded energy assets’, Australian Financial Review, 6 Feb 2020.
  26. See