Scott Morrison climate change
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with Scott Morrison. (Image: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

Australia’s political media is slowly — too slowly — waking up to the denialist schtick of post-Abbott conservatism. Conservatives aren’t arguing the science anymore. They’re fighting the transition.

How much ground will the conservatives concede? What space will the denialist ultras on the backbench (and in News Corp) give up? And will the media pick up the shift and hold the government to account?

There was a hint of what’s to come in a quiet leak to The Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend. The government was going to stop digging in on the hill of Kyoto carryover credits.

It was classic Morrison media management: sliding out the hard truth for his backbench with an assurance that it doesn’t make any difference anyway, in a drop about a speech he won’t make until next weekend.

This came after British PM Boris Johnson let the world know in late October he’d told Morrison it was time for bold action on climate change (Australia’s official account was silent). It also followed Morrison’s meeting with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who had recently committed Japan to net zero emissions by 2050.

Toss in China’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2060 and New Zealand’s declaration of a climate emergency, and Australia’s stance looks increasingly compromised. And all that’s before President-elect Joe Biden rejoins the Paris accord with a commitment to 2050 net zero emissions and a promise “to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets”.

Concede the science. Fight the transition. That was the heart of Morrison’s 2019 election strategy. And Australia’s media happily went along with it.

Remember Labor’s modest nudge on electric vehicles that would “end the weekend”, amplified across the News Corp tabloids? Or the serious journalists at the ABC who couldn’t resist the bait of guessing the impact of Labor’s policies on years-long GDP forecasts?

It’s a strategy underpinned by a confidence that Australia will be given a free pass by the world: we’re not important enough to make a difference, not worth the fight, yet too important not to accommodate. That’s worked for the Liberals and Nationals since the Kyoto conference in 1998. But it’s a strategy that depends on not getting too far away from the global pack.

Morrison knows the case fatality rate of Australian prime ministers actually trying to do anything about climate change action. He’s long pandered to the denialist base. His 2017 coal miner cosplay as treasurer was a heavy wink to the backbench that he was one of them.

Now, wedged by the global shift, he needs to adjust. His core problem is that he’s trying to send three different messages to three different audiences.

To the backbench, the fossil fuel industry and the Sky “after dark” audience, he’s trying to say: no retreat, we’re just, umm, straightening our defensive trenches to resist the transition.

To the media, he’s trying to say: we’re, er, managing the transition without cost. Unlike Labor.

And to the global community, he’s saying: we’ll always have Paris… all the while winking over the world’s shoulders at the US Republicans and local mining industry.

It’s a remake of the Howard government’s “no regrets” policy (as Marion Wilkinson’s recent book The Carbon Club reminds us). Howard’s plan depended on Bush in the White House. Morrison has relied on Trump.

But pressures are mounting. And, as those pressures drive the grinding of global policy, Morrison risks getting his fingers caught in the gears.