Scott Morrison – Australia’s pathway on climate change is as subject to global vagaries as COVID — but it never had to be
Scott Morrison likes to talk about pathways. And he has been treading along two pathways of late, as it happens.
He told us this week that one is “achieving a net-zero pathway through technology”, and the other is “the pathway to so many of the other things we wish to achieve this year” that comes in the form of delivering a COVID vaccine to Australia.
Pathways suggest a way forward, and a journey underway. The crucial point of them as language is that they aren’t focused completely on the end goal, but on the twists and turns that might be involved in getting there.
When it comes to a global pandemic, that makes sense, given the speed with which COVID-19 has spread and the adjustments we have all had to make along the way to deal with it.
National Cabinet took a new twist in its path on Friday, recognising that the risk environment of the pandemic is changing, and commissioning federal and state bureaucrats to try to think their way through how all those various different risks — positive and negative — could play out in terms of policy shifts and implications in coming months.
There are clearly strains in the system
In the past month or so, there have been several breakouts from the quarantine system, but they have been dealt with quickly and effectively.
The protocols used in the hotel quarantine system itself have been consistently refined and upgraded.
But at the same time, the virus has become more transmissible, and there is more focus on the fact that the virus can be airborne — raising more questions about ventilation systems in quarantine facilities.
In the next few months, as key workers get vaccinated — including those working in quarantine facilities — that’s also going to change the risk factors in the system, long before the rest of the population gets vaccinated.
And the Government is focusing on the fact that vaccination will reduce the risk of people getting really sick and dying from this virus, which once again changes the risk factors policymakers are considering.
But there are clearly strains in the system — not critical ones, but strains that go to jurisdictional questions, health issues, and capacity issues for the future.
Some states are pressing for more federal involvement in the quarantine system (it is its constitutional responsibility, after all) and it was significant that the Prime Minister on Friday seemed to acknowledge that by talking of ramping up the Commonwealth-run Howard Springs facility, and the possibility of running a bespoke new facility from Toowoomba.
Part of the reason for those pressures is that some states are feeling under strain to deliver the hotel quarantine system.
Other states like NSW are much happier being in control of their own systems, rather than letting a federal bureaucracy they don’t completely trust do the job.
It’s about the pathway and the destination
Underlying all the positions of federal and state governments must be the question of how we transition from a world where our borders are closed — and anyone who is allowed in must quarantine — to a different one.
For example, should there be a case for much larger capacity in the quarantine system, in hotels or elsewhere, if workers in the system are vaccinated?
The Prime Minister did not rule out on Friday the possibility of options like home quarantine, or on-farm quarantine for seasonal workers becoming possibilities as the vaccine is rolled out.
The crossover points between quarantine and vaccination seem so potentially fluid that it may be the case that we just puddle along and at some point, a large enough part of the population is vaccinated, so the quarantine system can be abandoned.
It is hard not to be struck sometimes by the extent to which federal policy is now so driven by the end point of a vaccinated population — that if we can just all get vaccinated, a lot of the issues that currently arise will get sorted too.
The economy will not be so disrupted, for example, and require ongoing government support. The systems in place for trying to keep the virus out of the community at our entry points will not have to be significantly overhauled.
All of that is true. And so much hangs on what the research tells us about whether vaccines will also stop the transmission of the virus.
But the tricky part of building the confidence, which the Prime Minister correctly says is so crucial for the community and the economy, lies with the extent to which you describe the pathway, and describe your destination.
And that’s also true of climate change.
It’s not just going to be about 2050
Scott Morrison doesn’t really want to say how he wants to go about “achieving a net-zero pathway through technology”.
That is, he has resisted and squirmed away, for as long as possible, from actually even saying “net-zero emissions by 2050”. This week he was still only saying “our goal is to reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”.
He told the National Press Club he wouldn’t even commit to that figure until he could tell voters how we would get there. Then there was a straw man put up about having to do it either by increased taxes (not Scott Morrison’s way) or through technology.
But then, confusingly, he did rattle off a whole list of reasons why we were getting there anyway, including “our $18 billion technology investment roadmap”, Snowy 2.0 and various other projects.
We all know that the Prime Minister can’t really mention a target because of the Nationals (on the one hand) and because he wants to beat up Labor if it mentions a target (on the other).
But at some point soon he is going to face as much external pressure to set out a target from other countries as he faces internal pressure to not do so.
For now he’s holding out a soil carbon project in the May budget as yet more signs of the pathway we are on — a project which hopefully buys off the Nats with the idea that farmers can make money out of the scheme (as they did when there was a very similar scheme that the Coalition effectively knocked off a few years ago).
The pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom in particular is not just going to be about 2050, it’s going to be about 2030.
Labor has its own problems with this, of course. Its new climate change spokesman Chris Bowen is selling the idea that Labor is better at providing and funding an economic transition path out of coal for local communities that rely on it.
That’s the message that Joe Biden also delivered last week in the US: that such communities would be looked after and not be left behind.
It’s going to be harder for the Coalition to borrow any technology plays out of the Biden book, like a completely electric Federal Government car fleet, because it has spent so many years taking cheap political points on such ideas that it has constrained its options.
That means our pathway on climate change is just as subject to global vagaries as is our pathway through COVID.
But in the case of the climate change, it never had to be so.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.