Pressure mounts on Scott Morrison to act on fires, climate
Pressure is mounting on Scott Morrison to do more to address climate change, as bushfires continue to burn across the country and smoke blankets Sydney.
Thousands of the city's residents are planning to attend a "climate emergency rally" this evening, where they will demand action. The event's organisers are urging them to wear face masks as a "symbol of the climate crisis and public health disaster".
And the government has come under renewed pressure this week from a number of prominent voices, including some from its own side of politics.
In a blunt speech to the National Smart Energy Summit yesterday, NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean said "no one can deny" the link between bushfires and climate change.
"Let's call it what it is," Mr Kean said.
"These bushfires have been caused by extreme weather events - high temperatures, the worst drought in living memory - the exact type of events scientists have been warning us for decades would have been caused by climate change.
"Hotter days, less rain, more drought, worse air quality. That is what the scientists have told us climate change looks like.
"This is not normal and doing nothing is not a solution. If this is not a catalyst for change, then I don't know what is.
"We need to reduce our carbon emissions immediately, and we need to adapt our practices to deal with this kind of weather becoming the new normal."
Mr Kean expanded on those comments in an interview with the ABC this morning.
"We've got the second-hottest year on record in the state of NSW. We're living through the worst drought in living memory. We're seeing bushfires earlier than we've ever seen them before, and going for longer," he said.
"You know, some people don't want to talk about this issue now. I think that the reality is that these bushfires have been going on for weeks, and until we address the causes, we can't find a solution."
He avoided criticising the Morrison government directly, but the implication was clear enough as he urged politicians to "stop putting ideology" into the climate change debate.
"Are there Coalition members, MPs at the federal level, who have been putting ideology into this discussion?" Mr Kean was asked.
"That's a matter for the federal Coalition. I'm the NSW Environment Minister and if we're not talking about this issue and taking action on it now, when will we?" he replied.
"There is no country on the planet better placed to take advantage of the new low emissions economy than Australia, and we should be doing our bit to tackle climate change."
Of course, Mr Morrison and his government argue Australia is already doing its part.
Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor is currently attending climate talks in Spain. Overnight, he told that summit Australia was committed to the Paris climate agreement.
But there is a pretty big sticking point.
The summit is debating whether countries should be allowed to count "carry-over credits" towards their 2030 emissions reduction targets. In other words, whether "surplus" tonnes of emissions reduction from the Kyoto period (up to 2020) can be carried over to the Paris period (2021-2030).
Mr Taylor is arguing in favour of doing that. At the moment, the government plans to carry over 411 million tonnes of abatement to help meet its target of a 26-28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
Labor has labelled that tactic a "dodgy accounting trick".
Back home, the Prime Minister was criticised yesterday by some Australians, who felt he failed to give enough attention to the bushfires as smoke descended on Sydney.
He held two media conferences throughout the day - one to give an update on the Australian victims of the White Island volcano eruption, and the other to announce changes to the government's proposed religious discrimination laws.
The fires were not mentioned during the first press conference, for obvious reasons, but actually did come up at some length during the second one as Mr Morrison fielded repeated questions on the subject.
"Our policy is sensible when it comes to addressing and taking action on climate change. Our actions on climate change are getting the results they're intended to get," he said.
"The policies that we're pursuing capture, I believe, that sensible centre that understands that we need to balance both meeting the needs of sustainability in our environment and ensuring that we meet the economic needs of our nation."
Mr Morrison went on to slam the 45 per cent emissions reduction target Labor took to the election.
"It was an economy-wrecking set of targets," said the Prime Minister.
"People know where I stand on these issues, they know clearly where I stand. I don't go changing my mind on these things because I know how important both of them are.
"I think Australians take some comfort in the certainty and consistency of our views, particularly now, where I note that I don't know what the Labor Party believes anymore because they change their view, and they have so many different views on these issues.
"I don't know what the Labor Party thinks anymore, whether it's on climate change or anything else. They seem to be just saying things that people want to hear. They look up their location services enabler and if it says they are in North Queensland, they say one thing, and if they are in Melbourne they say something else."
That press conference happened before Mr Kean's speech. But he is not the only Coalition figure who has pushed for greater action on climate change this week.
Mr Morrison's predecessor Malcolm Turnbull appeared on Q&A on Monday night, where he said better "national leadership" was required.
He called for a national summit to come up with new ideas for managing bushfires.
"The government's policy on climate is being held to ransom by a group of deniers within the party and in the media and other sections outside the parliament. Therein lies the problem," the former prime minister said.
"We do have to come together and recognise that this situation with fires is going to become worse."
Another former Liberal leader, John Hewson, has accused the government of having a "tin ear" on climate change.
"Morrison's got a particular prejudice. And it is a prejudice. He has a prejudice in favour of coal and fossil fuels, and is against any transition to a low carbon future," Mr Hewson told The New Daily.
"The government is really exposed on this issue. They've got bushfires and drought and they don't want to talk about climate. They're looking pretty ridiculous right now."
And outside politics, former High Court justice and royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne has taken his own subtle swing at the government for treating climate change as an ideological argument.
"Framing the most recent debates provoked by the bushfire emergencies as part of the 'culture wars' reinforces the notion that climate science is a matter of belief, not scientific observation and extrapolation," Mr Hayne told the Centre for Policy Development this week.
"Because the debate remains framed as a debate about belief, learned helplessness and short termism can be translated into the nativist, populist terms that now have such currency in many political systems."
Mr Morrison was asked to address many of those criticisms.
"On the bushfire crisis, will you be co-ordinating a national response, as was suggested by Malcolm Turnbull?" a reporter asked him yesterday.
"We already do," Mr Morrison replied.
"I think one of the great encouragements that I've seen through this process is we've had a nationally co-ordinated operation through all of our state and territory fire chiefs and services now for some time."
He highlighted the federal government's contribution to developing "aerial firefighting assets", saying it had put an additional $11 million into that area this year because it knew Australia was facing a "very difficult fire season".
"There is already a nationally co-ordinated effort," Mr Morrison repeated. "That was one of the things that came out of the Black Saturday fires many years ago."
"On calls for that national co-ordination that is occurring now to be led at a higher level within the federal government?" a reporter pressed.
"It's led by a Cabinet minister who reports directly to me, and I deal with it directly with the premiers of the states and chief ministers of the territories. I don't think it can go any higher than that," Mr Morrison said.
"But these calls were still being made as late as yesterday?" the reporter said.
"Do you think that national co-ordination is happening adequately? There are a lot of concerns about how long volunteer firefighters are supposed to continue volunteering without pay. They are crowdsourcing funds for water and food and resources on the ground. Do you think there is more the federal government can do?"
"The state governments get everything they request from the commonwealth, and there is a national co-ordinated process for requests to be made to the commonwealth for that assistance," the Prime Minister said.
"So no, I don't share that view, because I know what the practice is and I know what the experience is and I know what's happening on the ground."
Mr Morrison was once again asked whether the government would consider paying volunteer firefighters, whose task keeps dragging on.
"Well we have a volunteer firefighting force across the country which numbers in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. And that also includes those who come in from other jurisdictions. It is a standing volunteer force," he said.
"These are matters that are considered from time to time, but this is why I am so appreciative of the commitment made by employers to support that volunteer effort. The volunteer effort is a big part of our natural disaster response and it is a big part of how Australia has always dealt with these issues.
"We are constantly looking at ways to better facilitate the volunteer effort, but to professionalise that at that scale is not a matter that has previously been accepted and it's not a matter that is currently under consideration.
"The fact is these crews, yes they're tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities. And so we do all we can to rotate their shifts to give them those breaks, but equally they - and in many cases you've got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest. And I thank them all for what they're doing."
Forty fires across NSW are still uncontained. The Rural Fire Service says 2.7 million hectares have been burnt and more than 700 homes have been destroyed.
Adding to the growing pressure on Mr Morrison, this year's edition of the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) was released last night, and it ranked Australia 56th out of 61 countries.
On the report's specific "climate policy" measure, we ranked dead last, with a rather striking score of 0.0. The CCPI's authors accused Mr Morrison's government of being "an increasingly regressive force" on the issue.
Mr Morrison has not spoken so far today, but Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack did pop up to launch a fulsome defence of the coal industry.
"I support an industry that provides jobs and provides tens of billions of dollars worth of exports, tens of thousands of jobs and the energy that this country needs," the Nationals leader told reporters in Mackay.
"Many of the greenies who sit in their terraced houses in far off capital cities ought to know that that's where their energy supply comes from too.
"It's all well and good for them to snub their noses at the coal industry, to snub their noses at those people who work in the mining industry, but they ought to know that the mining industry providing $62 billion of exports is helping to pay for many of the state schools and hospitals they need and want."
His comments came as Labor leader Anthony Albanese headed to Rockhampton, the latest stop in his tour of Queensland's coal country.