(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Credit to Scott Morrison. He’s spent the past week busily feeding the most profound yearning of Australia’s traditional media: that the Liberal Party is (finally) making some profound climate change paradigm shift.

But it’s a weak gruel: cooked up out of nothing more than a couple of speeches, an insult crafted for what he understands as his base and the working class semiotics of a high-vis dance routine alongside one of the country’s billionaires.

More like a gas-lit political recovery, by reprising his performative forward-and-back caper towards a “not a target” commitment of net zero emissions by 2050, maybe this year, maybe at some point before next year’s election.

Too much of the reporting misses what Morrison is actually up to. He’s adopted the language of the global right’s latest talking point to manage the politics of the transition: Prometheanism — the magic of technology will save us from the need for political action. It’s the language used by US Republicans in their push back against the Biden plan, and by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Here in Australia, it’s playing out with this government’s preferred tool — tossing a lazy few hundred million to his billionaire oligarch allies for carbon capture and storage, and liquid hydrogen.

Pretty convincing

So far, briefings on and off background seem to have convinced the opinion-makers in the press gallery that Morrison’s sincere about the 2050 goal. “That’s where he wants to land,” concluded Guardian Australia’s Katherine Murphy in her otherwise critical Saturday column.

Conscious of the Coalition’s climate divides, journalists have wanted to give the PM space to move even, as Peter Hartcher wrote in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, “excruciatingly slowly”. The result: Morrison’s deeply political speech to the Business Council of Australia annual dinner was applauded for the inches it seemed to shuffle him along the road.

However, his Friday pirouette away from targets seemed a leap back to where he was at the beginning. By the weekend, the non-News Corp media had travelled the same two-step: “Out of sync with rest of the world on climate policy” editorialised Nine’s SMH. “How straight was he really talking?” its news pages asked in a fact-check of Morrison’s speech to the Biden summit.

By Sunday, on Insiders, News Corp’s James Campbell was frustrated by the reluctance to celebrate policy by crabwalk with a “can’t we just stop and smell the roses?”. Campbell’s co-panellists weren’t having it: “a rhetorical shift” waived off Mark Kenny.

Morrison can’t shake the perception that electoral calculus trumps policy: “retaining crucial seats in Queensland and Western Australia is incompatible with boasting about climate ambitions” (per the ABC’s Laura Tingle); “he thinks the next election will be a rerun of the last” (per George Megalogenis in the Nine mastheads).

After marinating for a couple of days, his regional pandering swipe at “cafes, dinner parties and wine bars” — made in a flash inner-city hotel — has come to be seen as a fumble.

Back where we started

Now, despite Morrison’s week of work, we’re back where we started — despite the oft-reported certainty of a 2050 commitment, there’s as much public evidence of movement one way as the other.

The Coalition are wedged by their own denialist arguments. Once the “climate change is crap” challenge to the science became untenable (due to, well, facts), denialists shifted the discourse to the challenge of transition. For Abbott in 2013, it was tax. For Morrison in 2019, it was jobs. Like the right around the world, Morrison is positioning the 2022 discourse around “technology”.

The “jobs” positioning has been seized by progressives initially in the US with the Green New Deal, now embraced by President Biden in his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

Morrison’s caution confirms denialists continue to dictate the Coalition’s approach. The Biden climate summit demonstrated just how far the world has moved on, despite the best efforts at dismissal in News Corp media (the summit “confirmed the global divide under which developed countries pledge action and pay for others to watch from the sidelines” sniffed Graham Lloyd on the front page of The Weekend Australian).

Luckily, Australia is never important enough at global meetings for Morrison’s missteps to do the country much damage. However, his continued forward and back risks opinion-makers shifting questions from “are we there yet?” to “how long are we stuck here?”