by Richard Denniss
[Originally published on Guardian Australia, 22 January 2020]
Would the prime minister rule out protecting Australians from terrorism if it cost a single job? Would he promise that no nurse, teacher or other public servant would be sacked in pursuit of a budget surplus? Of course not. But when it comes to preventing dangerous climate change, the government whose policies closed the entire Australian car industry claims that every job is sacred. Yeah, right.
The one thing we can say with certainty about the coal industry is that, regardless of climate policy, automation will decimate coal communities in the coming decade. The coal companies sacked around half their workforce in the late 80s – the minute new technology let them – and the coal industry is gearing up to do it again. Adani promised its proposed Queensland coalmine would be automated “from pit to port” and the rest of the industry is publicly preparing for the same goal.
But while #ScottyFromMarketing loves to position himself as defending coal workers from climate activists, he is strategically silent when it comes to protecting those same coal workers from the ravages of automation. If the Coalition wanted to protect the jobs of those who currently work in the coal industry, they would ban the introduction of robot-driven trucks and trains in existing mines and ban the construction of new, highly automated mines in regions that have never mined coal. But they won’t, because supporting the coal industry has nothing to do with protecting the jobs of existing coal workers. Coal is about symbolism and the symbiotic relationship between the Coalition and the coal industry.
Fresh from doing nothing to prepare for the worst bushfires Australia has ever seen, Scott Morrison’s latest inactivity revolves around doing nothing to prevent our already changed climate from heatingup even more. Now that pretending there’s doubt about the science of climate change doesn’t cut it, our spin-doctor-in-chief has moved on to feigning concern with the economy as his latest excuse for climate inaction.
The prime minister is under mounting pressure to match the net-zero emission targets for 2050 that’s supported by all Australian states (including New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia, with Liberal governments). And while he might not hold a hose when the bushfires are raging, there’s no doubt Morrison knows how to put a fire hose on his colleagues.
Step one is, of course, to shoot the messenger. While it’s usually scientists or environmentalists that cop abuse for speaking up against the federal government’s love affair with coal, Morrison didn’t miss a beat when he set out to mock and belittle the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean. Practice makes perfect.
Step two is to pull out the straw man. Shutting the coal industry down overnight would be reckless and cause lots of pain for no real gain. The fact that no one, ever, has called for the shutdown of the coal industry overnight makes it a particularly hard fight to lose. But it distracts journalists for just long enough to move things along to step 3. Econobabble.
If we know one thing about the economy it’s that it changes so frequently and so unexpectedly that it is literally impossible to predict. But even though no economist can accurately predict what the exchange rate or unemployment rate will be in three years’ time, Australian governments have become expert in worrying about what the economy will look like in 30 years’ time.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s tax cuts, penalty rate cuts or climate policy. Australian politicians love to talk in detail about what the impact of their policies will be in 30 years’ time, rather than talk at all about the problems they are ignoring today. Peter Costello started it with his ridiculous fear campaign about “the costs of ageing”, but the Coalition, under Abbott and Morrison, plumbed new depths with their fear campaign aimed at anyone trying to save the planet.
Saying that you accept the science of climate change but think preventing it is a bit expensive is like saying you accept the science of immunisation but then decide to only inoculate one of your three kids.
Climate science told us long ago that our bushfires, hail storms, floods and cyclones were going to get a lot worse if we kept burning so much coal, oil and gas. Economics has told us all along that prevention is cheaper than cure, and that the removal of fossil fuel subsidies and the introduction of a carbon price would be good for the overall economy, good for the budget and good for the climate.
But just as we replaced real science with climate denial, we have replaced real economics with dodgy forecasts and bizarre criteria like protecting every coal job for the next 30 years.
Less than a year ago, Morrison promised the budget would be in surplus, wage growth would pick up and the economy would grow strongly. They were wrong about these things, not because they are stupid, but because no one knows what will happen to the economy in a year’s time – let alone in decades to come.
Which brings me back to that fire hose Morrison is trying to put on his Liberal colleagues who believe it makes more sense to try and prevent climate change than to use a term in government blaming others for it.
When pushed on setting more ambitious emission reduction target, Morrison mounted his high horse to declare: “What troubles me is that there are plenty of people at the moment who will go out and make a glib promise about that and they can’t look Australians in the eye and tell them what it will mean for their electricity prices, what it will mean for their jobs.”
Whether because of privatisation, outsourcing, offshoring, technological change, policy change or just plain bad luck, we should always be generous in helping people when they’re forced to make a new start.
But promising that our country won’t tackle climate change unless every single coal worker’s job is safe is not generous. It’s a cruel hoax designed to conceal climate inaction. No one job is worth saving at the expense of dangerous climate change. Not even Scott Morrison’s.
Richard Denniss is chief economist at the Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI