As The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed on Monday, the government is planning a “2050 strategy” this year to take to the next United Nations summit on the targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
On any other day, that strategy might gain public support from Liberals who want their government to outline a more convincing plan on climate after the summer bushfires.
Not on Monday. The rivalries within the Nationals force Morrison to move with the utmost caution on the policy his government will take to the UN summit in Glasgow in November.
The mere existence of a 2050 strategy raises expectations among Liberals who answer to city voters worried about climate change. These include Katie Allen in Higgins, Trevor Evans in Brisbane, Jason Falinski in Mackellar, Andrew Laming in Bowman, Fiona Martin in Reid, Tim Wilson in Goldstein, Dave Sharma in Wentworth and Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney.
The government is a long way from being ready to talk about a 2050 target for emissions, let alone the net zero target embraced by other nations, but Morrison has a framework to have the debate and take a policy to cabinet.
This may not need legislation and may not trigger an opportunity for Joyce and O’Brien to cross the floor with allies such as George Christensen, David Gillespie and Ken O’Dowd, not to mention conservative Liberals as well.
The government’s existing target, to cut emissions by 26 per cent by 2030 on 2005 levels, was never legislated because to do so would have inflamed the Coalition party room when the former leader, Malcolm Turnbull, could not risk a revolt.
The strategy for 2050 is a matter for cabinet in consultation with the party room, which would expect to have a discussion even if there was no bill to require a formal vote.
Australians who want greater action on climate change expect Morrison to be more ambitious on emissions, but this is dangerous to the point of explosive when the Nationals are in such a state of unrest.
Voters saw this toxic dynamic during the Coalition revolt over the National Energy Guarantee under Malcolm Turnbull.
The same dynamic was at work in the Monday vote on the deputy speaker’s position.
Labor gave Joyce an opportunity to rebel by promising 64 votes for O’Brien as deputy speaker. Most of the crossbenchers backed this tactical ploy to test the government. Joyce did not pass up the chance to humiliate his primary target, Nationals leader Michael McCormack, and to fire a warning shot at Morrison.
It only took a handful of disaffected Nationals to make their presence felt. It is not their numbers that set them apart. It is their sheer political aggression. Monday offered a small demonstration.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.