Hewson's View: Morrison government continues to ignore voter concern on climate

Not happy, Scott: Australians are waiting for the Prime Minister to show leadership on climate. Photo: Rose Makin, Shutterstock

Not happy, Scott: Australians are waiting for the Prime Minister to show leadership on climate. Photo: Rose Makin, Shutterstock

Most Australians, quiet or otherwise, can only be appalled that our federal politicians are at it again, rekindling the "climate wars" that have been so destructive over the last 10-15 years, and resulted in unnecessarily high power prices, and delayed our inevitable transition to a low carbon society by mid-century.

After the losses of life, property and animals, and the trauma and disruption of the bushfires, coming on top of probably our most severe drought, it is reasonable to expect that our political leaders could put their differences and political opportunism aside to focus on the greater national good.

Specifically, how do we prepare better, and manage better, the even more severe and intense bushfires and droughts to come in our increasingly hot and dry continent?

For example, how do we make our soils more drought resistant and resilient? How do we conduct more effective hazard reduction programs? How can we improve and expedite the recovery processes in those towns and regions ravaged by these extreme weather events? How do we co-ordinate better with state governments? How can we develop and implement an effective National Climate Action Plan to mange the inevitable transition over the next three decades?

However, rather than analysis and a mature strategic debate about such questions, we just get more obfuscation and fear-mongering. It is irresponsible to just assert, as Morrison has done, that Albanese's commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 is "uncosted and reckless", that it will cost jobs, further raise electricity prices, and impact negatively on regional Australia.

While Labor should be under scrutiny to provide the transition details, so should the government to demonstrate these "costs". Both should also admit the tremendous opportunities for new industries and jobs from an effective transition.

Unfortunately, probably none of this will happen until the issue is taken out of their hands, and beyond short-term politics, given to an independent Climate Transition Commission, with the power and funding to marshal the best global evidence and experience, setting out effective transition pathways, sector by sector, against which our political parties can then be challenged to declare their policy differences, if any.

Voters know the cost of inaction on climate - they are living it through the drought and bushfires.

Voters know the cost of inaction on climate - they are living it through the drought and bushfires. They have been appalled by the lack of leadership that just left them to endure these extreme weather events, and they are recognising the hollowness and inadequacy of the commitments to manage and fund the "recovery". A recent survey of more than 3000 adult Australians by the Social Research Centre at ANU found that nearly 80 per cent were affected in some way by the bushfires and this affected their confidence in government and their attitudes to key environmental issues.

There has been a significant decline in confidence in the federal government over the past few decades. But rather than this bushfire crisis providing an opportunity to reverse this trend, confidence in the government declined further by some 10.9 percentage points, from 38.2 per cent in the October 2019 survey, to 27.3 per cent in January 2020.

Interestingly, voter support for the Coalition also fell from 40.4 per cent in October 2019 to 34.8 per cent in January, to about the same level of support as for Labor.

In terms of attitudes to the environment, 49.7 per cent reported the environment as one of the top two issues facing our nation in January, compared with 41.5 per cent in October 2019.

There was also a significant increase in the proportion of people who believe climate change will impact their lives - nearly three quarters (72.3 per cent) said global warming was a very serious or fairly serious threat, compared with 56 per cent back in 2008 - with evidence that these views were shared by those who live in capital cities and non-capital cities. There was also a significant drop in support for new coal mines over the last eight months.

Alarmingly, Morrison just doesn't get it. He has yet to fully admit his leadership failures to date, let alone begin to reset and begin to lead, preferring to fall back to the time-wasting rhetoric of the climate wars, both against the opposition and within his Coalition. Morrison has dug a leadership hole, with the bottom nowhere in sight.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.