Agitated Nationals grapple with climate debate, as former minister Chester takes ‘a break’ from party room

Michelle Grattan

A tough debate is expected when a highly volatile Nationals parliamentary party meets on Monday, ahead of climate change negotiations between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to endorse a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

Joyce is under dual pressure, with his party room sharply divided over the 2050 target, and former minister Darren Chester announcing, in a weekend statement which criticised Joyce without naming him, that he is taking “some time away” from the party room.

No details of the climate plan are yet on the table, but strong positioning is underway, with negotiations between Morrison and Joyce resuming once the PM, returning on Sunday night from his American trip, is back in the country.

The Nationals meet every Monday, remotely when parliament is not sitting.

Joyce indicated on Friday he would accept the government adopting a firm target of net zero emissions by 2050 provided the regions were not worse off. He also wants some largesse for the Nationals.

At the same time he is expressing concerns and gives the impression of being dragged reluctantly towards an agreement.

Morrison was pressed again while in the US about increasing Australia’s ambition on climate policy and has signalled he proposes to do so. But he has to get the minor Coalition partner on side.

Both President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have pushed Australia hard as the November Glasgow climate conference draws near.

The government’s current position is net zero “preferably” by 2050.

Interviewed by the ABC on Sunday, Joyce provided little fresh clarity. But asked whether there should be no coal jobs lost, he said, “well, not by reason of domestic policy”.

Deputy Nationals leader and agriculture minister David Littleproud, who supports the 2050 firm target with safeguards and incentives for the regions, told Sky that members of the Nationals party room were “pragmatic”. They were “looking through the lens of protecting regional Australia but making sure there’s opportunity for regional Australia to also participate in this”.

But former resources minister Matt Canavan tweeted, “I am deadset against net zero emissions. Just look at the disaster the UK is living through. They’re switching off their industry to keep their lights on, and they are struggling to feed themselves. Net zero emissions would just make us weaker.”

Resources minister Keith Pitt said: “We are yet to see the strategy, the plan, the cost, and who’s paying.

“My priority will be the 1.2 million direct and indirect jobs associated with the resources sector”.

Chester, who is a supporter of net zero, won’t be in the meeting to help advance the case. He said he had “decided to take a break from organised meetings, events and activities in The Nationals Federal Parliamentary party room.

“I will reassess my position when Federal Parliament resumes in October.

“To be clear, I continue to support the Coalition Government but want some time away from the The Nationals Federal Parliamentary party room to reflect on a number of significant issues.

“My decision follows months of frustration with the repeated failure of the leadership to even attempt to moderate some of the more disrespectful and offensive views expressed by a minority of colleagues.”

Chester, who was dropped from the frontbench when Joyce became leader, has been highly critical of Queensland National George Christensen, whose string of provocative comments have included, most recently, accusing Victorian police of using excessive force against demonstrators, and suggesting they should be arrested.

Joyce on Sunday again indicated he could not silence Christensen, who is retiring at the election, and said that anyway, there was a right of free speech.

Asked on SBS whether he thought he had the support of the majority of the Nationals to go forward on climate policy, Morrison said: “It’s not about my view. It’s about what I think Australians are clearly looking for”.

“My job is to bring my government together to focus on the plan that can achieve it.

“A plan [that] says to Australians, whether they’re up in the Hunter, or down in Bell Bay, or up in Gladstone or up in the Pilbara […] this is how we achieve net zero emissions in the future.

“Our view is that we can achieve that by keeping the costs low, keeping people in industries, ensuring we’re using transition fuels that take us from one place to the next, and we take people on the journey,” Morrison said.

The communique from the QUAD summit which Morrison attended at the end of his trip said: “We have joined forces to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the urgency it demands.

“Quad countries will work together to keep the Paris-aligned temperature limits within reach and will pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

“To this end, Quad countries intend to update or communicate ambitious NDCs [nationally determined contributions] by COP26 and welcome those who have already done so.”

The QUAD includes the US, Australia, Japan and India.

The Conversation

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