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The reason the Morrison government struggles with the idea of targets

abc– What is it about the federal government and targets that so often seems to get it into trouble?

For the past couple of weeks, as the vaccine rollout has flailed around amid conflicting messages, supply problems, lack of transparency on availability and eroding confidence, the government has been defending the decision to dump its original vaccination targets.

Not only would we not “meet and beat” the rollout targets, we were being told we didn’t need the targets in the first place and people should just get over it.

When it comes to climate change, the whole target (meeting and beating) story is a bit more complicated.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and ministers like Energy Minister Angus Taylor say people are too hung up on targets and that the important thing to focus on is what is being done to cut emissions.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have targets. We do! And it seems they are excellent targets. Possibly even world-beaters in achieving emissions reductions to date, no matter how they have been reached.

And they are excellent targets even if they will have Australia competing with Saudi Arabia and Russia among OECD countries for the wooden spoon of emissions reducers by 2030.

While the government seeks to spin that it has been quietly shifting the (internal party) ground on policy so that it can almost say out loud that we are going to get to net zero emissions by 2050 without blowing up the Coalition, everyone else in the world is talking about 2030 targets of around twice the emissions reduction of Australia.

But the way the nature of discussion in most other parts of the world has changed in the past decade is perhaps more significant.

How the rest of the world talks about emissions

Ten years ago, there was certainly more of a sense of the theatre of good intent in international climate talks than there is now.

Many countries have moved a long way in the intervening decade — countries like Germany, where 80 per cent of power is already coming from renewables.

The commitments and strategies being outlined now represent hard-nosed assessments of competitive advantage, and comprehensive strategies to lock in those advantages in a new technological age, which makes this week’s announcements here on hydrogen hubs and carbon capture and storage simply sound, well, a bit embarrassing.

The UK, for example, has not only announced an end to the sale of new petrol and diesel powered cars by 2030, but an expansion of the production of electric car batteries, investment in charging points infrastructure, and an industry transformation fund to assist its existing manufacturers transition to produce electric cars.

Australia talks the language of competitive advantage. But it doesn’t actually have a comprehensive strategy to achieve it. Certainly no targets and few clear commitments like the one on the end of fossil fuel based car sales.

Instead, we talk about our competitive advantage in hydrogen production. Yet the reality is lots of countries are turning to hydrogen.

From emissions to … George Christensen

And that brings us, in a possibly unlikely segue, to George Christensen.

Christensen is the LNP backbencher from the Queensland seat of Dawson with the penchant for colourful views and travel to the Philippines — which has made him a national figure not necessarily for the right reasons. But he locally managed to pull off a big swing to him at the last election. He announced on Thursday night that he would not be recontesting the seat at the next election.

The LNP has been desperately, if quietly and not very successfully, trying to stop its sitting MPs from retiring from political life. And this is why.

Queensland — along with Western Australia — is at an absolute high tide mark in terms of its hold on federal seats. At the last election, the LNP won 77 per cent of the federal seats in Queensland.

The Coalition won a minority of the seats in the mainland states outside Queensland and WA.

That means at the next election, the loss of any Queensland and WA seats has to be made up in other places, which currently doesn’t seem all that likely. Scott Morrison, after all, didn’t even win the majority of seats in his home state of NSW at the last election.

The LNP now faces the prospect of sitting members retiring in three of its regional Queensland seats: Flynn (Ken O’Dowd); Christensen (Dawson); and there is internal party concern that Phillip Thompson may not recontest in Herbert.

That’s before you start looking at seats in Brisbane.

How do the LNP’s climate policies fit in?

The perception that the current position of the Coalition was created by its climate policies (the ones it refuses to have) leaves the government in a defensive tactical mindset with the prospect of having to find the resources to defend a lot of seats, with a lot of new candidates.

It won a lot of blue collar voters who had been told to be worried about their post-coal future, and wants to hold on to them. Labor is trying to win them back by pledging there are jobs to be had in a renewables energy world.

The most recent state breakdown of the two-party preferred vote in Queensland by Newspoll, showing the Coalition at 53 per cent, down from 58.4 per cent at the election, only reinforces the Coalition’s defensive mindset. It’s not looking for policy positions to win seats in the other states, just to hold onto the ones it has got.

That is what creates the caution in the policy positions, rather than the number of actual MPs who are stirring up trouble for the PM on coal or any other issue.

Other policy decisions are being influenced

If you needed more proof of how this balance of seats infects major policy decisions, look at this week’s announcement by new Defence Minister Peter Dutton that he would be rejecting the Brereton inquiry recommendation that the meritorious unit citation be removed from special forces troops who served in Afghanistan.

Dutton said the recommendation didn’t pass “the pub test” when thousands of soldiers would be tarnished by the actions of a handful of their colleagues.

This rather overlooked the thinking behind the recommendation, which in turn had been endorsed by the chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell — himself a former special forces officer — who must have understood exactly the gravity of his call before he made it.

The Brereton inquiry said its findings of credible evidence of 39 unlawful killings by Australian soldiers represented a “profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations”, which were thus “not meritorious”.

It recommended the revocation of the unit citation “as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Group as a whole for those events”.

Stripping the citation was seen as an important part of a much needed cultural overhaul in the special forces.

By happenstance, the special forces, and the defence vote more generally, hold a huge sway in a number of Perth seats, and also in the Townsville seat of Herbert.

It’s all enough to focus a prime ministerial mind on some targets of his own. But not necessarily any that will drive a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the Australian economy in a decarbonised world?

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