Liberal MPs need more than tepid climate signalling to overcome Joyce and Canavan's coal cosplay

Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

At 7.31am on Tuesday morning, Scott Morrison’s backbench liaison staffer sent out a WhatsApp blast to Liberal MPs asking them not to front the media without first checking with the prime minister’s press office.

Obviously there is a lot happening. The prime minister was meant to fly straight to Washington, but has instead diverted to New York in an effort to quell the diplomatic storm from France and its European allies prompted by Australia’s decision to terminate the Naval Group’s $90bn submarine contract.

The times are delicate, and minding the message is part of what diligent prime minister’s offices do.

Related: Whether on Covid or climate, it seems our politicians really aren’t like you and me | Greg Jericho

But the other moving part of Tuesday morning was Australia’s acting prime minister. When we speak of Barnaby Joyce, perhaps the more apt description is moving bus rather than moving part. But in any case, with Morrison fully booked dealing with j’accuse on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly, Joyce was minding the shop at home. As they say in the classics, what could possibly go wrong?

On Tuesday morning, at 7.23am, our moving bus accelerated through the Today show to address domestic issues of the day. One of the issues was ambition in climate policy.

With Cop26 in Glasgow now bearing down, the Liberal MP Dave Sharma was due on Tuesday to make a speech arguing the case for a new 2035 emissions reduction target of 40%-45% on 2005 levels. Sharma had dropped an advance copy to the Australian newspaper. Given the story was running prominently, Joyce was asked about Sharma, and naturally the acting prime minister thought Sharma was a “great bloke” but …

This script writes itself, doesn’t it?

At 7.27am, Karl Stefanovic noted not everyone was on the same page. Sharma wanted “40% by 2035 and, at the same time, Matt Canavan wants a new coal-fired power station in Queensland”.

Given Liberals like Sharma won’t cop coal plants, Stefanovic wanted to know who would win that battle internally?

Joyce did not disavow the coal plant.

“That’s the great thing about democracy,” the acting prime minister enthused. “They can both express their views.”

Stefanovic persisted. “You have firm views on this, though.” Joyce told his host Sharma was narrowcasting to Bellevue Hill and Vaucluse but the Nationals had to represent the people of Tamworth, Muswellbrook and Singleton. “We have to make sure that we keep them in a job,” he said.

All of two minutes later, backbenchers were told by Morrison’s office to zip it unless they had prior authorisation.

Perhaps a coincidence. But given metropolitan Liberals tend to front the rolling news channels in numbers when Nationals troll them about building new coal plants that their constituents oppose, that seems unlikely.

Presumably Morrison’s office is just trying to manage daily realities. The prime minister is dealing with an international incident in New York. He does not need to be dealing with a resumption of the internal climate wars at home. Serious ructions could blow up Morrison’s negotiations with Joyce ahead of the Cop26 in Glasgow. Officials also expect Australia will be pressed on our lack of ambition by Joe Biden and others this week.

So those are Morrison’s problems. But some Liberals are bone weary of climate policy transactions where the Nationals set the terms.

They aren’t interested in the fix articulated by Joyce on Tuesday morning – let Canavan talk about coal in regional Queensland, and Sharma talk about climate ambition in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. They want a firm commitment from Morrison on net zero by 2050 ahead of the Cop26 in November, and more if that’s possible.

Related: Former Liberal MP Julia Banks will join Climate 200 group to support independents

Conventional wisdom around the government is Morrison can probably land net zero ahead of the Cop (although there is also another dispiriting story doing the rounds that the government will set out a plan to achieve net zero by mid-century but decline to adopt the target).

You’d laugh at that if it was actually funny.

There has also been some speculation about what the government may or may not say about a medium-term target at Glasgow. There was a minor frisson among stakeholders a few weeks ago when Morrison appeared to leave open an adjustment to the 2030 target. But at the moment, internal expectations are low. People expect the government will try and sell projected “over-achievement” on the current 2030 commitment as banked achievement.

Sharma’s speech on Tuesday was an effort to keep ambition for the medium term in the frame, if not at Glasgow, then before the next federal election. Sharma said (entirely sensibly) on Tuesday: “I think there is a strong case to be made to update our 2030 target, particularly as we are likely to over-achieve it. Clearly, though, our next nationally determined contribution, with a post-2030 target, needs to be significantly higher in ambition. A 2035 target of 40%-45% below our 2005 levels is achievable on the technology and policy levers available today, and will put us on a managed transition to net zero by 2050.”

So what do all these moving parts tell us?

They tell us the moderates are mobilising, and the prime minister’s office knows it.

This mobilisation and coordination (which has been underway for several weeks) isn’t surprising, given a number of Liberals are currently wedged uncomfortably between Canavan’s coal cosplay and Climate 200 – the group coordinating climate-focused independents in city seats.

There is deep frustration at the perception (and reality) that the National party is defining the outer limits of any climate pivot Morrison can execute. One Liberal MP told me recently the group favouring more ambitious action does not want to start a civil war, but it needs to be visible enough to project as a bloc to be reckoned with.

But the most important bit of that sentence is reckoned with.

Reckoned with involves putting political capital on the line.

It is now well understood that MPs like Sharma want the government to do something rather than pretend to do something. None of that is news.

But attempts at political inoculation won’t cut it. It is not enough for well-meaning Liberals to engage in tepid signalling that they want change, and hope that signalling will save them if a credible independent turns up on their home turf between now and the next election.

Public life is supposed to be about purpose. Global heating, and the inexorable transition of Australia’s carbon intensive economy to manage that existential risk, is one of the most serious problems we face.

These MPs have power.

It’s well past time they used it.

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