The key to Morrison’s appeal is to persuade the community that Australia is “carrying its load and more” and that its efforts are comparable to countries like Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
But that his speech was in a national capital being buffeted once again by a terrifying new fire emergency will only exacerbate community sentiment the government needs to do much more. The Prime Minister is no longer reluctant to put climate change and bushfires in the same sentence.
He is full of rational explanations about the importance of building practical resilience to cope with hotter drier summers through better hazard reduction measures, management of native vegetation, clearing of protection zones and different building materials and standards.
“All these considerations have a direct impact on the safety of Australians living in this climate, and in this bush environment,” he said.
“Building dams, developing new crop varieties, improving planning for natural disasters is climate action now.”
Testing people’s patience
But he will never tell Australians, he insists, that their power prices or taxes or jobs are “collateral damage” from a global movement.
“This is important as there are real weaknesses in the current global action frameworks on emissions reduction,” he said.
“Current frameworks and agreements globally actually endorse massive increases in emissions from some of the world’s largest growing economies.
“Understandably, this tests the patience of people in countries like Australia, particularly in regional areas, who ask the question. ‘Why do their jobs have to be exported and their incomes exported to other countries while global emissions under those arrangements are allowed to rise for so many?’
“These contradictions and limitations need to be acknowledged.”
Very loudly by the Morrison government.
Morrison knows there’s limited public tolerance for blame shifting between state and federal governments.
This approach won’t convince a louder and large minority – if not a majority – of voters of the collateral damage from not transforming its 1.3 per cent share of global emissions quickly enough.
Nor will it protect Australia from the international condemnation stirred up by images of a burning country.
Morrison is still determined to keep the domestic focus on practical measures and financial assistance and government comfort while holding out the carrot of technology to make this adaptation as seamless as possible.
That includes releasing a new technology road map for consultation next month looking at advances in areas like hydrogen, solar and batteries, transmission networks, large-scale energy storage and carbon capture and storage.
There’s even a new electric vehicle strategy to modernise the transport fleet (presumably ute owners need not be alarmed).
“The answer is not more taxes and increased global bureaucracy but practical change driven by science and technology that allows companies and economies to develop and commercialise new technologies that are accessible, affordable and scalable the world over,” the Prime Minister declared.
And he also emphasises the need for gas to play a significant role in “bridging the gap”.
“There is no credible energy transition plan for an economy like Australia, in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel,” he said.
“There are plenty of other medium or long-term fuel arrangements and prospects, but they will not be commercially scalable or available for at least a decade, is our advice.”
Tell that to the state governments of NSW and Victoria which have both effectively banned the development of any new gas fields in their states.
Yet Morrison knows there’s limited public tolerance for blame shifting between state and federal governments and that increasingly, it’s the federal government held responsible for any failures.
So in the absence of any nationally agreed policy, he’s promising a series of bilateral arrangements with the states on both energy policy and emissions reductions beginning with NSW.
Let’s see how that works in practice.
The states are obviously unenthusiastic about the Morrison government’s plan to give itself the clear legal power to declare a national emergency allowing Canberra to take the initiative in sending in the Defence forces rather than waiting to be asked.
The friction with a Coalition government in NSW is obvious in public and even more evident in private.
Morrison’s bigger task is to use all this to demonstrate to his party and to more of the public that he is showing national leadership in addressing big challenges – from the coronavirus to climate change. That’s far from assured.
The scepticism is in part due to the sports rorts fiasco and failure to decapitate Bridget McKenzie but also because of a much harsher general assessment of his judgment.
In 2020, he no longer attracts the benefit of the doubt or the aura of invincibility after a miracle election win in 2019.
The optimistic view within senior levels of government is that having been so shocked by the reaction, Morrison will emerge with scars but more politically resilient himself.
And that he still has time to recover and deliver to quiet Australians. His opponents are betting on just the opposite.