From the Borat Tax to a net zero ‘plan’, the Morrison government has come a long way on climate policy

From the Borat Tax to a net zero 'plan', the Morrison government has come a long way on climate policy

By David Speers

It was one of those memorable Morrison moments of the last parliament. Not quite as memorable as the lump of coal in parliament, but up there. 

Just a week before calling the election, the Prime Minister delivered an impersonation of Borat across the dispatch box, complete with accent and hand gestures.

The point of the exercise was to ridicule Labor’s plan to rely in part on international carbon permits to achieve its emissions target. “I call it the Borat Tax,” Scott Morrison began, “with carbon credits for Kazakhstan.”

Then came the punchline. “I know what Borat would think of the Labor Party’s policies on emissions reduction: Very nice, very nice.” The final words were delivered with two thumbs up and a seedy grin. It went global.

Fast forward to the long-anticipated net zero “plan” unveiled this week and the Morrison government is now relying on “a high-quality carbon credit scheme in the Indo-Pacific” to achieve its 2050 target. This will presumably mean “carbon credits for Cambodia” rather than Kazakhstan, and only of a “high quality”, of course (details yet to come). 

The point is, the Coalition has come a long way. Tony Abbott hated offshore carbon credits. He didn’t want Australia “shovelling our money to foreign carbon traders” and labelled any trading in such permits “a carbon tax under a different name”.

Now, buried on page 104 of the Morrison Government’s net zero plan, is an acknowledgement “the benefit to the climate of an avoided tonne of emissions is the same wherever it occurs”.

Morrison has been forced to shift

It’s just one example of how this week’s long-anticipated net zero “plan” from the Morrison government may be slender on new policy ideas, but still represents a significant departure from the Coalition’s pre-election posture.

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The Prime Minister is at pains to portray his plan as a sensible “middle way” between the extremes of the climate debate and emphasises to conservative audiences that “we haven’t changed our plan” for 2030. But on a range of fronts, there’s significant change. 

Morrison has been forced to shift by the election of Joe Biden in the United States accelerating global momentum on climate change, investor pressure on Australian businesses to step up and the demands of the electorate for action.

Offshore permits are now in vogue. Electric vehicles will no longer ruin the weekend. Coal workers may have to find jobs in new industries, but such transition, according to the Prime Minister, “happens every month. The Australian economy is always changing.” 

Most importantly, the government now accepts the cost of inaction is very real.

The net zero “plan” is so far short on details, but the one thing it makes clear is that the government now believes it is possible to boost jobs and incomes while reducing emissions. Doing nothing will cost more. When Bill Shorten tried to suggest this before the last election, the Coalition cut him no slack.

From the Borat Tax to a net zero 'plan', the Morrison government has come a long way on climate policy
This week’s long-anticipated net zero “plan” represents a significant departure from the Coalition’s pre-election posture.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

The secret modelling is yet to be released

Labor, of course, didn’t have the modelling to back up its claims. It promised to sort out the details of its plans — some quite vague — in government. The Coalition, by contrast, does have the modelling. The “plan” is based on the modelling. Curiously though, the government has decided not to release these important details yet.

This is presumably because it doesn’t want to blow up a tenuous Coalition agreement on the eve of Glasgow.

The 129-page plan released this week repeatedly boasts of “more than 100,000 new jobs” being created in clean hydrogen, renewable and green steel industries. The plan is silent on the number of jobs that will be lost in the coal and gas sectors, beyond opaque references to “long-term impacts”. These numbers are surely there in the secret modelling.

More importantly, the modelling may also shine a light on whether the government’s plan is the best we can do. Would a more ambitious 2030 target deliver a bigger windfall? Is there a risk Australia will miss out on investment in hydrogen, electric vehicles, battery development and more over the next eight years by low-balling its 2030 target?

The Business Council of Australia certainly thinks so; so does the NSW Liberal Treasurer and Environment Minister Matt Kean.

The BCA’s modelling, conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, shows a 50 per cent by 2030 emissions target would boost incomes by $5,000 per person by 2050. That’s compared to the more meagre $2,000 promised under the government’s plan. 

The Deloitte modelling also shows far more jobs would be created under its plan. Have we been short-changed by the government’s need to keep the Nationals on board?

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has already dismissed the BCA modelling. Whether he commissioned his own work on a 50 per cent by 2030 target is unclear. If the government has those numbers, they should be released along with the rest of the modelling. 

If it genuinely didn’t conduct any modelling on a higher 2030 target, we can only assume it didn’t want to know the answer.

*David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.

*This article first appeared on the website

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