Inside the Nats partyroom: the politicians holding Australia's climate policy to ransom

Asia's Tech News Daily

The Nationals spent four hours yesterday in a tense meeting over whether to support a largely inadequate target of net zero emissions by 2050. They reached no agreement. Four hours wasn’t enough time, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said, ignoring the fact the Coalition’s junior partner has been in government eight years.

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Once again, Australia’s climate policy is being held hostage by 21 MPs and senators in the Nationals partyroom, who represent a thin fraction of the country. Any commitment to net zero will come with “tens of billions” extorted by the Nats to the regions. And it’s not even the whole Nationals caucus, either. Its caucus is internally divided on net zero, with the most pro-coal voices in the most pro-coal party continuing to hold the country to ransom. Here’s a guide to how the partyroom breaks down on that. 

The coal fanatics

Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan, a former public servant and economist, is the most unequivocally pro-coal voice in the party. He’s always adamantly opposed net zero, calling it “the public policy embodiment of corporate bullsh*t” and just another “woke obsession”.

Canavan was one of the key players in Joyce’s return to the leadership in June, which was in part driven by a feeling that former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack wasn’t doing enough to push back against the Liberals on climate.

Joining him in the “adamantly opposed” camp is fellow Joyce-backer George Christensen.

The extractors

Most of the Nationals partyroom sits in this group — they’ve been publicly hostile to net zero in the past, but are now indicating they might support it, at the price of significant concessions to the regions, some of which would involve huge support for emissions-intensive industries. 

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Joyce confirms the Nationals’ latest rort: net zero to include a $3 billion coal subsidy

It’s the exact nature of these concessions which is holding the Coalition back from reaching a consensus position on the target. Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie, who hit out at the “vacuousness” of Josh Frydenberg over his support for net zero, says she won’t support it unless there is “protection” for the regions.

What might that protection look like? It could come in the form of an immense $250 billion government loan facility for the mining sector, as demanded by Resources Minister Keith Pitt. We’ve already seen one of those handouts to the regions in the form of an inland rail link which will help increase coal exports, and which falls in the electorate of Ken O’Dowd, who also falls in the “anti-net zero except with concessions” camp, along with fellow Queensland MP Llew O’Brien.

Meanwhile, NT Senator Sam McMahon wants nuclear power as a means of reaching net zero. 

The backers

We’ve now gotten a sense of how central the debate over net zero was to the Nationals leadership spill. Soon after losing the leadership, McCormack said he backed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stance on net zero. 

Darren Chester, a McCormack backer dumped from the ministry by Joyce, is probably the party’s strongest supporter of net zero. Chester recently stopped attending partyroom meetings over tensions with Joyce. He returned to yesterday’s marathon session to plead his case.

Also in favour of net zero is Damian Drum, another Victorian National and McCormack backer and the party’s whip. 

The leadership

Joyce himself has always adamantly opposed net zero, particularly when he was a backbencher. While publicly, he’s appeared to ever so slightly warm to it, he’s also repeatedly framed the decision as a matter for the partyroom, over which he has no control. But he has hinted that the party doesn’t feel obliged to sort out their position before Morrison lands in Glasgow less than two weeks from now.

“We’re not chained to a script. We have our own party and our own partyroom for a distinct purpose,” he said.

Deputy leader David Littleproud also takes this view, that whatever the pressure heaped on the Nationals from the media and the Liberals, the party will take as long as they want to decide. 

“We’re pragmatically working through this,” he said.

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