Things are stirring out in the bush

The National Party is being forced to address the zealots in its ranks who keep denying the bleeding obvious.

Not so long ago policy battles over climate change in Australia were a city thing: latte-sipping climate junkies versus old-school establishment types who thought they should just shut up.

Except for noisy politicians opposed to any climate action, regional Australia barely got a look-in. As a child of the bush who sips coffee (not latte though), I find that odd. Because it’s plain as day that the impact of climate change is most keenly felt and observed out in the country.

Over the past few weeks former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, former deputy Matt Canavan and others have been darkly warning their colleagues and anyone else who will listen that government commitment to a 2050 net-zero emissions target would kill Australia’s regional economy.

Deputy PM Michael McCormack doesn’t directly oppose PM Scott Morrison’s preferred 2050 net-zero target, but did say last week he won’t “sign up to anything that’s going to mean massive job losses in regional Australia, and food prices… that can’t be afforded by families.”

But there are signs emerging from the back blocks that what these self-styled champions of the bush keep repeating is out of step with the people they claim to represent. As bodies like the National Farmers Federation call for stronger policies, there’s a building unease in the regions about the climate. Once-private, scattered concerns are now publicly stated and widely shared.

2019 was a massive turning point. By midyear, an intense drought was really biting over vast stretches of eastern and southern Australia. Along with millions of trees and river fish, farms were dying. In towns forced to spend scarce financial resources on water cartage, residents began thinking the unthinkable: that they might have to pack up and leave.

As that arid year wore on, talk among firefighters, farmers and rural townsfolk about a rising bushfire threat drew little response from Scott Morrison, Michael McCormack and their senior colleagues. As fires erupted over spring the talk intensified. Then everyone’s nightmare came true.

All the catastrophe talk around Black Summer is true. The biggest fire event in world history burnt 186,000 square km – nearly three Tasmanias in area – of bush and farm and town, killing 34 people. It consumed incalculable numbers of wild animals and plants: an ecological disaster. It destroyed livelihoods, hitting the national economy to the tune of over $100 billion.

The fires traumatised whole towns and districts. Video of the flames, the smoke and the fire-induced weather shocked the world at the time, and remains a scary sight. Those of us who weren’t there can only imagine the personal trauma suffered by people confronted by the inferno and forced to live through its bleak aftermath.

Over that summer, inland Australia suffered weeks of 40C-plus maximum temperatures. When rain came, benefits were patchy. Science coined the name “flash drought” for the heat’s rapid, devastating impact on soils and plants. A year on in far-western NSW, centuries-old river trees and whole stretches of natural bush hardened to normal drought cycles are dying.

The Nationals’ current deputy leader, David Littleproud, is one of the smarter people in that party. Unlike some of his colleagues he has not written off supporting Morrison’s target preference. “We’re open to it,” he said last week. “I’ll be part of the solution… as we move forward.”

Littleproud supports the active involvement of the farm sector in increasing carbon take-up by soils, while preventing carbon loss and improving biodiversity through better farm practices. But the success of that, he said last week, depends on finding ways of quantifying the benefit.

That is most interesting. In 2014 the Coalition abolished a carbon price scheme that was already measurably cutting coal emissions, and applied its own “Direct Action” policy requiring public money to be spent on private land carbon projects. In 2015 then-environment minister Greg Hunt asserted that in its first year the scheme cut emissions by precisely 124 million tonnes.

Direct Action looked dodgy from the outset. Now, David Littleproud says we’re still figuring out how to measure such emissions. So we have it from the horse’s mouth that Hunt’s figures were a guess – exaggerated, it’s reasonable to assume, for extra polish.

For many precious years a belligerent minority in government, mainly Nationals, has peddled fantasies about an unchanging climate and coal’s essential role in the economy. Now that party has a choice: drop those zealots and their mindless fantasies and get to work on a future without coal and gas, or cop some nasty surprises from regional Australia at the next poll.

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