Scott Morrison thrives in the empty space between three-year terms and 30-year plans. Whether it is climate change, nuclear submarines or budget repair – it is no accident the prime minister with the shortest planning horizon in living memory is our greatest announcer of long-run plans.
While the vacuousness of Morrison’s net-zero “plan” and his refusal to release the underpinning modelling has been widely condemned, the reality is: no matter how detailed a plan to transition the Australian economy over the next 30 years is, it will always be a work of fiction.
Imagine if you asked economists in 1981 to predict the relative cost of smartphones v landlines, or electric cars v petrol cars. To be crystal clear, us economists can’t predict the price of oil next month or the rate of inflation next year. Asking us to predict the likely costs of technologies that haven’t been invented yet is fantasy stuff. You can see why Morrison is a fan.
Good economic management has nothing to do with the number of decimal places in forecasts of future costs and benefits. It revolves around setting clear goals, putting policies in place, monitoring progress and adapting when necessary.
Morrison is world-class when it comes to the goal setting part; he’s at the head of the queue, gold standard, and of course, so much better than Labor at it. But when it comes to delivering on his promises our prime minister is a laggard not a leader. Rather than move heaven and earth to achieve his goals, Morrison just shifts the goalposts, and the blame.
But Morrison is no fool. He knows his audience, and his opponents. Throughout his life he hasn’t just avoided responsibility for his failures, he’s thrived on them. His long-run plans are nonsense, but he knows his audience craves them all the same. Marketing 101 tells Morrison to give the customer what they want, and to sell them something new before they notice their last delivery never arrived.
While most people will tell you the best way to complete a long journey is to get started now, Morrison is using long-term plans to explain why there is no rush to do anything. But, while there is no doubt Morrison has mastered the art of hiding inaction behind a pile of pamphlets, it’s important to remember it’s not even his trick.
Back in 1997, a newly elected John Howard released his grandiose climate plan entitled Safeguarding the Future. It’s worth quoting at length:
“Today I announce the largest and most far-reaching package of measures to address climate change ever undertaken by any government in Australia … It provides a durable framework to promote Australia’s national interest towards the year 2010 and beyond. In a comprehensive manner, it replaces and far exceeds the random, disjointed projects of the previous government.
Without further action, Australia’s emissions are expected to grow by around 28 per cent from 1990 to 2010. This is based on a comprehensive approach excluding land use change. Emissions from the energy sector alone are expected to grow by around 40 per cent. The package I announce today will achieve a dramatic reduction of a third in our expected net emissions growth from 1990 to 2010. These measures will reduce our net emissions growth from 28 to 18 per cent in that period, or some 39 million tonnes of emissions … This is a realistic, even conservative, calculation of the emission benefits.”
But it wasn’t. As shown below, Howard’s 13-year plan to reduce emissions didn’t even manage to slow the rate of emissions growth, let alone deliver anything near the “conservative, realistic” reductions he promised. So much for Morrison’s absurd assertion that Australia always delivers on its promises.
No matter who is in power and how much modelling they release, no government can say with certainty what our electricity, transport, industrial or commutations systems will look like in 30 years. The biggest problem with Morrison’s net zero plan isn’t a lack of modelling, but a lack of conviction. Any “plan” to transition to a net-zero economy that involves building new coalmines, opening new gas basins and new gas-fired power stations, is a fraud. Morrison must know that but he’s betting that voters will settle for plans over performance. Time will tell.