Scott Morrison meets with Liberal MPs worried Coalition will appease Nationals on net zero

Scott Morrison has met with a number of Liberal MPs concerned the government could try to appease the National party by adopting a policy roadmap to achieve net zero emissions without formally signing on to the 2050 target.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

With some Nationals implacably opposed to the Coalition adopting the target ahead of the Cop26 in Glasgow, Liberals in marginal and metropolitan seats have become increasingly worried that the prime minister may not be able to land his long-telegraphed climate policy pivot.

Morrison met on Tuesday with a deputation of Liberal MPs in a teleconference – including Dave Sharma, Fiona Martin, Trent Zimmerman, Julian Leeser, John Alexander, Julian Simmons, Angie Bell, Paul Scarr, Andrew Bragg, Tim Wilson, Katie Allen, Dean Smith, Jason Falinski, Celia Hammond and Bridget Archer.

© Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images Prime minister Scott Morrison met with a deputation of Liberal MPs in a teleconference on Tuesday who expressed concern the government may sidestep committing to the net zero target.

Related: Coalition inertia on climate undermines Australia’s credibility in region, ex-diplomats warn

The treasurer Josh Frydenberg – who annoyed net zero opponents in the National party by articulating the economic case for net zero emissions in a speech to business leaders last week – was also on the call.

Guardian Australia understands the MPs expressed concern the government may step around a commitment to the net zero target in order to appease opponents in the National party – a landing point many Liberals regard as both suboptimal in a policy sense, and politically untenable.

Government MPs say the minister for energy and emissions reduction Angus Taylor has privately floated the idea that the Coalition could adopt a plan to get to net zero without signing up to the target. Taylor was not on Tuesday’s call.

The prime minister is understood to have told the group it remained his preference to land both a roadmap laying out the required technology and actions required to get to net zero emissions by mid-century – and the 2050 target.

He told the MPs he didn’t like plans without targets attached to them. But he said the government had not yet landed an agreement with the Nationals. Morrison is understood to have reassured MPs that the Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was playing a positive role in the discussions.

Taylor is pulling together the policy roadmap with input from across the government. The government’s objective is to lay out new climate policy commitments in the middle of next month ahead of the Cop26 in Glasgow in November.

Related: ‘I haven’t even begun to fight’: Matt Canavan to defy Nationals party room if majority back net zero

Climate policy is always an incendiary conversation within Coalition ranks.

The Nationals met virtually on Monday amid rising tensions about the net zero commitment. Guardian Australia understands that net zero was discussed, but Monday’s meeting resolved to delay a substantive conversation until National MPs can meet in person, likely when parliament resumes in mid-October.

Nationals Matt Canavan and George Christensen have signalled publicly they are completely opposed to the target. The resources minister Keith Pitt has also flagged opposition, declaring resources industry jobs were more important than “demands from foreign countries or the United Nations”.

With @mlandryMP to meet and thank some of the 2000 workers at @bhp ‘s Peak Downs mine in CQ. Around 12 million tonnes of met coal is expected this year making a huge contribution to the Qld and national economies. #auspol pic.twitter.com/uCNUQrRnwT

— Keith Pitt MP (@keithjpitt) September 28, 2021

Canavan has suggested he is prepared to defy his party room if a majority ultimately accepts a commitment to net zero. On Sunday he declared he had not even begun to fight. Christensen was not at Monday’s virtual meeting of Nationals MPs.

The former leader of the Nationals, Michael McCormack, has argued the party needs to be pragmatic about net zero as long as the interest of regional Australians are protected in the transition. McCormack warned last week that a flat “no” to net zero could threaten Australia’s trade relationships and export income.

Victorian National Darren Chester – who has taken a break from the Nationals party room because of differences with the current leadership – has expressed public support for adopting the target. He told Guardian Australia last week he supported the commitment by the National Farmers Federation to an economy-wide target of net carbon zero by 2050.

The agriculture minister David Littleproud told the ABC on Tuesday the National party wanted to be pragmatic about the net zero commitment but we “have to make sure that regional Australia won’t be disadvantaged”.

Littleproud said future climate commitments would have to recognise that regional Australia in the past had “done a lot of the heavy lifting”.

“It is time to understand and appreciate that, and understand if we’re going to go forward we have got to look at this differently,” the agriculture minister said.

Littleproud said the Nationals would not reach a final landing point until the party room had discussed the policy roadmap.

On Monday, Joyce attempted to reassure restive colleagues that the coal industry and coal exports were not under threat.

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