Grattan on Friday: Will bolshie Nationals or Joe Biden have more sway with Morrison on 2050 target?

Originally published on

Many observers have been assuming Scott Morrison’s strategy is to creep towards endorsing the 2050 target of net zero emissions, finally embracing it before the Glasgow climate conference in November.

But this week’s developments suggest the prime minister might have to adopt another course.

He could stay with his present position, which has the target as an aspiration he surrounds with a web of subsidiary policies, such as the multiple bilateral technology agreements he announced while he was overseas.

Morrison’s present commitment, reiterated in his major speech in Perth before leaving Australia, is to reach net zero “as soon as possible, preferably by 2050”.

In London British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in an intriguing but unexplained moment at their joint news conference, stated Morrison had “declared for net zero by 2050”. Of course he hadn’t, and Johnson was aware of that – he has been urging him to do so. We don’t know whether there was intent in Johnson’s comment, or just sloppiness.

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In the mouth of a politician, the word “preferably” is like that handy phrase “the government plans to …” (or “has no plans to …”). It is cheap coinage. It certainly wouldn’t buy much in Glasgow.

But it is useful and it may be the coinage Morrison will need to continue to deal in. Remember we are talking here about political reality, not what is the best policy, which clearly would be to sign up to the target.

We’ve thought Morrison would want to shift before Glasgow so Australia would have a more credible position internationally, respond to the pressure from the US and Britain, and minimise isolation. That’s apart from the electoral implications surrounding an issue many voters feel strongly about.

But Morrison this year has already worn the awkwardness of taking Australia’s weak position through Joe Biden’s “virtual” climate summit and maintaining it during his trip to the G7 meeting.

And even if he changed for Glasgow, other countries wouldn’t be convinced. There’d be no foreign applause. The sharp point of the debate has moved from 2050 to the medium term, and Morrison won’t make Australia’s 2030 targets more ambitious (though he’ll argue it will exceed them and possibly even project to 2035).

The US and the UK have leaned on Morrison, and he hasn’t firmed his 2050 stand. Now, at home, it’s increasingly looking dangerous for him to do so, even though work is under way to map out Australia’s emissions technology plans and what that means for reductions.

It’s a risk-benefit judgment for Morrison, and the risk of moving could be high.

Not all the Nationals oppose the 2050 target but enough of them do – and very strongly – to create a serious obstacle for the PM. The opponents within the minor party are bolshie and willing to fight.

Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie was a minister until she became the fall girl in the sports rorts affair. She doesn’t owe anything to Morrison or her leader, Michael McCormack.

McKenzie was on Sky with Alan Jones this week. “The National Party is the second party in this Coalition government. [It] has not signed up to net zero anything at any time and we’ll take a lot of convincing that that is actually the destination we need to get to,” she said. “Because we know it’ll be our miners, our farmers, our manufacturers that will be paying the price for all this posturing.

“We will not let our people be put under the bus to chase some fake ambition to appease overseas masters.”

In normal circumstances, Morrison might expect the Nationals’ leadership to be able to get a desired result – by pointing out there could be benefits for farmers – regardless of noisy dissidents.

But nothing is normal in the Nationals. It’s a wasps’ nest. Poke a stick in and anything could happen. McCormack, with a tenuous grip on the leadership, could easily be stung to death.

McCormack knows this. Pressed in a Wednesday podcast with The Conversation, he said the Nationals wouldn’t be agreeing to the target this year. When it was put to him, “we can be sure that the Nats would not embrace that target?”, he replied, “Correct”.

Politics with Michelle Grattan: McCormack on 2050.
The Conversation789 KB (download)

Resources Minister Keith Pitt told the ABC on Thursday that for the government policy to change to endorsing net zero by 2050 would require the Nationals’ agreement “and that agreement has not been reached or sought”. Asked what the mood of their party room would be now, he said: “I think they’d be unsupportive, but we are yet to have that discussion.”

If Morrison wants to trigger “that discussion”, it could be very messy and divisive in the latter months of this year.

Failing to embrace the target would not do the Coalition any harm in regional seats in Queensland – in fact it would maximise the difference with Labor. But what about climate-sensitive southern seats, such as Higgins in Melbourne and Wentworth in Sydney?

It would obviously be unhelpful. But many of those for whom climate is a major vote-changing issue may have shifted their vote anyway.

The prospects of independent Zali Steggall retaining Warringah would probably be assisted by the government failing to endorse 2050. But the Liberals are not reckoning on regaining this seat unless former NSW premier Mike Baird runs, and he has resisted that.

So while there would be clear costs in staying with the weasel words, “as soon as possible” and “preferably”, they are arguably not as great as a potential blow-up in the Nationals that could have unforeseen consequences.

How embarrassing would failure to have a firm target be for Morrison at Glasgow? Greater if he were there than if he just sent Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Energy Minister Angus Taylor, who wouldn’t be noticed. But will he go?

He’d remember Kevin Rudd’s presence at Copenhagen in 2009 played badly for him. He’d note Tony Abbott did not attend the 2015 Paris conference. Julie Bishop, as foreign minister, led the Australian delegation.

Morrison has said he hopes to go to Glasgow. Could he find a way to avoid an engagement that would have no upside for him? It would be a matter of scheduling.

He’ll be in Rome for the G20 at the end of October. The Glasgow conference, which runs from November 1-12, is expected to have a leaders’ segment at the start, facilitating them going straight from the G20.

If he attends, Morrison will be armed with a heap of policy on technology and how it will cut emissions. But he still mightn’t have that hard and fast 2050 target in his kit bag.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Australians under 60 will no longer receive the AstraZeneca vaccine. So what’s changed?

Originally published on

Australians aged under 60 will no longer receive first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine due to the rare risk of a serious blood clotting disorder among people aged 50 to 59.

The government has accepted the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), which recommends those aged under 60 now receive the Pfizer vaccine. It previously recommended Pfizer to those aged under 50.

The change is based on the advisory group’s assessment of the risks of the clotting disorder, called thrombosis and thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS, versus benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in protecting against COVID-19.

While the risk of TTS is still very low overall, it is more common in younger age groups. And younger people are less likely to die or become seriously ill from COVID-19.

What is the clotting disorder and how common is it?

Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) is a rare clotting problem that can occur after vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

We don’t fully understand why TTS occurs, but we know it’s caused by an overactive immune response. This is a very different mechanism to clots people might get after travelling or being immobile for lengthy periods.

The condition involves blood clots as well as a depletion in blood clotting cells known as platelets. The clots associated with TTS can appear in parts of the body where we don’t normally see blood clots, like the brain or the abdomen.

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In Australia we have now seen 60 cases of TTS, with 37 confirmed and 23 probable.

Of the 12 recent cases, seven occurred in people aged between 50 and 59.

Sadly, two people have died.

The risk of TTS reduces with age. For people aged under 50, there are 3.1 cases of TTS per 100,000 doses. This reduces to 1.9 cases for those aged 80 and above:

As awareness of TTS grows, clinicians’ ability to detect and diagnose the condition has also improved. This means the risk of becoming severely ill and dying from this condition has fallen dramatically.

How does this compare to the chance of dying from COVID-19?

Globally, 177 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported, with around 3.83 million deaths, or just over 2%.

The risk of dying from COVID-19 increases with age. The rates depend on the country you live in and your sex. In China, for instance, the death rate was reportedly:

for under-50s, less than 1%
50 to 59 years, 1.3%
60 to 69 years, 3.6%
70 to 79 years, 8%
80 and above, 14.8%.

In terms of data from Australia, in 2020, for every 600 people with COVID-19 aged in their 50s, one person died and 18 required admission to a hospital intensive care unit (ICU).

For every 600 people aged in their 70s with COVID-19, 24 died and 42 were admitted to ICU.

So the benefits of vaccination to prevent severe COVID-19 are greater among older age groups.

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A history of blood clots is not usually any reason to avoid the AstraZeneca vaccine

What if you’ve already had one dose?

If you’re aged 50 to 59 and have already had one dose, and didn’t have a significant reaction, the advice is for you to return for your second dose.

Relatively few Australians have received a second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But data from the United Kingdom shows TTS appears much less commonly after second doses – 1.5 cases per million doses.

If you have concerns about the risk of TTS, talk to your doctor or vaccine provider.

In the future, as more evidence emerges and is assessed by Australia’s regulators, we may use other vaccines for follow-up doses. But this is not currently the recommendation.

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How does the advisory group decide?

ATAGI is a group of experts that closely monitors vaccines both in Australia and internationally for side effects, as well as how well they are working.

It also considers the amount of disease circulating that the vaccine is designed to protect from.

These factors are considered at the time of initial approval, and then monitored continuously. When some of these factors change, the way we use vaccines also needs to change.

Today’s change demonstrates the strength and robustness of the ongoing surveillance of adverse events of vaccines and our regulators’ commitment to ensure the safety of the community receiving these vaccines.

We’re fortunate to have excellent control of COVID-19 in Australia and low rates of severe disease. We’re also fortunate to have an alternate vaccine in the form of Pfizer, albeit still in relatively short supply.

Out of an abundance of caution and considering all of these and other factors, it makes sense to increase the age cut-off for the use of this vaccine in our country at present.

This may be subject to further changes in the future, in either direction, as the situation around us continues to evolve.

Read more:
How do we actually investigate rare COVID-19 vaccine side-effects?

Paul Griffin is part of AstraZeneca’s Advisory Board

The Biden-Putin summit: no magic reset of relations, but no hitting the snooze button, either

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Patrick Semansky/AP

Much speculation surrounded the lead up to the just concluded summit in Geneva between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Coming after a NATO meeting where Biden reaffirmed his commitment to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sought to bolster the alliance against information warfare, it would have been fair to anticipate a relatively bellicose stance from the American leader.

By the same token, Putin had recently voiced some robust rhetoric that Russia would vigorously confront any threat to its sovereignty, alongside making a number of provocations, including massing troops on the border with Ukraine and lamenting the defeat of Donald Trump in the US presidential election.

All of this could have pointed to a feisty exchange between the two leaders.

In the end, the summit was a relatively calm affair. This was no doubt aided by the fact there were low expectations on both sides: they were merely hoping the hostile relationship could be ratcheted down a notch or two.

Red lines in the so-called grey zone

Despite the very low bar, it is likely both leaders marginally exceeded what they hoped to achieve.

The highlight was the announcement of a strategic dialogue between the two nations focused on arms control. That is comforting to an extent, but it was not a great stretch for either Putin or Biden to confirm that nuclear war was something each wished to avoid.

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Arms control was already one of the few things Moscow and Washington could agree on — as witnessed by the New START nuclear weapons treaty extension that was concluded soon after Biden took office, at the height of tensions between the two leaders. So, there should be little enthusiasm this dialogue will break much new ground.

Instead, the key takeaway from the summit was that both the US and Russia remain determined to confront and compete with one another, albeit in a slightly more controlled way than the free-for-all of the Trump era.

A good indication of this was the identification by the US side of 16 components of critical infrastructure that it deemed off limits to Russian meddling. That was an interesting development in itself, since it thrust cybersecurity (which is key to the maintenance of critical infrastructure in an automated age) to the forefront on high-level, strategic interactions between adversaries.

But more to the point, it also signified a desire by the Biden administration to stabilise the relationship by identifying areas of the American society, economy and political system that it would not tolerate Russia attacking.

In other words, the US is seeking to draw red lines in the so-called grey zone.

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Putin is a winner just showing up

The main question from this is whether Putin is at all interested in the type of strategic stability the US has offered.

One could make the argument the Russian state is at its most effective in its rivalry with the West in general (and the US in particular) when it acts unpredictably and seeks to exacerbate existing divisions within and between states. It has also used a variety of instruments, from repression to energy diplomacy, to successfully bolster its image as a great power, albeit a capricious one.

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In fact, Putin is already the winner from the summit simply by virtue of the fact the Biden administration agreed to it. Images of the two leaders adopting a relaxed posture, seemingly at ease with one another, does much to salve Putin’s need for recognition and status.

Domestically, it helps him show Russians that he is still influential globally. And internationally, it supports the Kremlin narrative that Russia should be treated as a leading pillar of an emerging multi-polar order.

In an interview before the summit, Putin called Trump ‘colorful’ and said he felt he could work with Biden.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Where to from here?

It is true both leaders scored points against one another. Biden’s references to the treatment of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny and his condemnation of Russian influence operations were tailored for his domestic audience.

These messages focused attention on US core values, which sharply distinguished his presidency from the messy transactionalism of Trump’s. It sent the same message to America’s allies, in an attempt to reassure them the US was once again prepared to lead on such matters.

Biden said after the summit, ‘I did what I came to do.’
Patrick Semansky/AP

For his part, Putin engaged in some customary “whataboutism” when chiding the US as hypocritical in castigating others but not looking to its own deep internal problems. And given the opportunity in an NBC interview to deny he was a “killer”, as Biden had labelled him in March, Putin quite deliberately didn’t take it.

Ultimately, the Biden-Putin summit was certainly not a full “reset” of the relationship. Yet, neither was it an attempt to simply hit snooze on it, with Putin extracting concessions from Washington while Biden pauses US confrontation with Moscow to focus on the bigger challenge of a rising China.

Whether it is truly successful in returning some strategic stability to the relationship, though, will not be clear for some time. If Russia-US relations slide back into chaotic competition, at least Biden can say he tried.

And for his part, Putin will likely hint that he didn’t.

Matthew Sussex does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

We moved hundreds of tonnes of rock to preserve the dinosaur footprints of the Snake Creek Tracksite

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Fossilised bones belonging to enormous long-necked sauropod dinosaurs have been known from western Queensland since the 1930s, when Austrosaurus mckillopi was discovered on Clutha Station near Maxwelton. Since then, western Queensland has yielded many more sauropod bones and skeletons, particularly in the past two decades.

But the footprints of these behemoths, which can reveal much about how they behaved in life, remained elusive until 2016 when we and our colleagues at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum were informed about sauropod tracks dating back some 95 million years at Karoola Station, northwest of Winton.

Harry Elliott, Bob Elliott, and Stephen Poropat at the Snake Creek Tracksite on June 10th, 2016.
Trish Sloan/AAOD

The tracksite, which we named “Snake Creek”, comprises a layer of siltstone less than a metre thick, as wide as a basketball court and twice as long. Ninety-five million years ago, this was a silt flat situated between a billabong and a meandering river.

Over the course of more than two years, the tracksite was excavated and moved in its entirety to a purpose-built facility at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) Museum in Winton, where it is now open to the public.

A snapshot of a prehistoric menagerie

Close up of the Snake Creek Tracksite showing the direction of the various animals. Several crocs and all of the small theropod and ornithopod dinosaurs moved from northeast to southwest (and, therefore, in the opposite direction to the sauropods). Other crocs crossed the tracksite perpendicular to the rest.
Stephen Poropat/AAOD

The largest footprints at the Snake Creek Tracksite were made by sauropod dinosaurs. Sauropods walked on all fours, and the front and back feet left very different prints.

The front footprints are crescent-shaped, whereas the back feet are oval with a front taper. At least four individual sauropods walked across the tracksite in the same direction within a very narrow time frame.

The sauropod footprints appear to have been made when the tracksite was not underwater. They are surrounded by concentric ridges that imply brittle deformation of the silt, and many have blobs of siltstone in the middle (called “adhesion traces”) that show where sediment pooled after the animal lifted its foot.

One of the sauropod footprints had a surprise in store: a single three-toed footprint preserved within. This appears to have been made by a medium-sized, meat-eating theropod dinosaur, similar to Winton’s own Australovenator wintonensis, that crossed the tracksite before the sauropod when the silt was still fairly wet at depth.

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Sauropod footprints at the Snake Creek Tracksite. The front footprint (towards the top of the page) is crescent-shaped, whereas the back footprint is oval but tapered to the front and indented behind. The blob in the middle of the back footprint is a solidified mass of silt. Ridges encircle the footprints, which are also surrounded by footprints from smaller animals.
Stephen Poropat/AAOD

Most of the other footprints at the tracksite appear to have been made after the sauropod footprints, by animals buoyed up in water. Parallel to the sauropod tracks but running in the opposite direction are several trackways of small, three-toed footprints.

Initially, we thought all of these footprints were from small-bodied theropod and ornithopod dinosaurs, similar to those at the nearby Lark Quarry Conservation Park. However, closer examination of the relative lengths of the toes and the width of the trackways revealed that some were not — at least four of the trackways were made by ancient relatives of modern crocodiles called crocodyliforms.

The absence of belly or tail drag marks, coupled with the scarcity of front footprints, means it is likely the crocodyliforms were swimming in shallow water, pushing off the bottom periodically with their back feet to propel themselves along.

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A three-toed crocodyliform footprint (right) overprinting a three-toed small theropod dinosaur footprint (left).
Stephen Poropat/AAOD

Other footprints at the Tracksite appear to be those of swimming turtles that touched down very rarely. Perhaps the most unusual traces are not footprints at all: they are horseshoe-shaped divots that appear to have been left by bottom-feeding lungfish.

Possible lungfish feeding trace.
Stephen Poropat/AAOD

Protecting the Tracksite

Fossilised footprints require conservation if they are to be protected from weathering and erosion. They are often moulded with latex and cast in plaster or resin to create replicas for further study.

Much more rarely, fossilised footprints or trackways may be removed wholesale to a museum. The most notable example before now was the relocation of a relatively small section of a tracksite from the Paluxy River in Texas to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the 1940s.

In 2018, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) Museum set out to relocate and preserve the entire Snake Creek Tracksite, which was at risk of erosion from periodic flooding in Snake Creek.

Between April 2018 and November 2020 a small team of AAOD Museum staff and volunteers systematically removed hundreds of tonnes of rock from Karoola Station to the AAOD Museum.

Anna Tzamouzaki, Christine Heller, and Judy Elliott formed the core of the team that relocated the Snake Creek Tracksite. Each of these women spent more than a year on site, painstakingly removing sections of Tracksite piece by piece, loading them for transport, then reassembling them at the AAOD Museum.

In May 2021, the new home of the Snake Creek Tracksite was opened to the public: a temperature-controlled, 885-square-metre building at the AAOD Museum in Winton, set up with the help of funding from the Queensland Government. The tracksite will now be accessible to future researchers, and offers a glimpse of a long-lost ecosystem in Australia’s deep past to any visitors to town.

An inside view of the March of the Titanosaurs exhibition at the AAOD Museum.
Steven Lippis/AAOD

Read more:
A new look at a lost dinosaur dig in the Australian outback

Stephen Poropat works for the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, and a substantial portion of his research on the Snake Creek Tracksite was conducted while he was working for Swinburne University of Technology.

Adele Pentland is affiliated with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Natural History Museum. She has benefited from funding awarded to Stephen Poropat in 2017 by the Paleontological Society (Arthur James Boucot Research Grant).

Australia’s 2.5% minimum wage rise: there’s something in it for you, and the economy

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Australia has a serious wage problem. Over the past decade wages for all but the top 20% of income earners have flat-lined.

This is part of the longer-term problem concerning productivity and wages identified by groups like the OECD – namely, workers have not shared in productivity gains, with “labour market flexibility” experiments mostly to blame.

So the decision of the Fair Work Commission – the guardian of what’s left of Australia’s historical approach to ensuring decent pay – to increase the minimum wage by 2.5% is significant.

The commission reviews the minimum wage annually. Last year it granted a 1.7% increase – the lowest in 12 years. This year’s 2.5% is less than the 3.5% wanted by unions, but more than the 1.1% sought by employer groups.

The increase directly affects only about a fifth of Australian employees. It will, however, have indirect benefit for workers earning more, and aid economic renewal.

Higher wages are good for employment

The 2.5% increase is more than what Treasury and the Reserve Bank forecast for average wages over the coming year, but also something these conservative institutions would welcome.

Sluggish wage growth does not just result in greater wage inequality. It effectively retards demand, a key determinant of employment.

Unemployment and underemployment have affected about one Australian worker in eight (12-13%) for more a decade. Only expansive monetary, fiscal and wages policy offer any hope of boosting employment.

Unemployment and underemployment in Australia

Per cent, seasonally adjusted.
ABS Labour Force

Most immediately, the decision will benefit up to 200,000 workers paid the national minimum wage rate (which will increase to $20.33 an hour) and about 2.2 million employees that rely on awards whose conditions reflect the minimum conditions (that is, they aren’t covered by an enterprise agreement or other contract that guarantees them more).

The commission has ruled the increases won’t apply to most retail workers before September, and for those in aviation, tourism, fitness and a few retail sectors before November.

With these exceptions, the flow-on will be immediate for workers employed by reputable employers subject to union scrutiny. It may be slower in more informal enterprises where award compliance is more variable.

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Indirect impacts

There will be flow-on affects to other workers, though less than in the past.

Up to the early 1990s, movements in one part of the award system rippled through to other job classifications in a very direct way. This has not been the case since workers – especially those on middle and upper incomes – have been required to bargain at enterprise level for wages.

Such “bargaining”, however, has been supressed for more than a decade, due to:

chronic and significant unemployment and underemployment

the crippling of union bargaining capacity through restraints on collective industrial action entrenched in the Fair Work Act

the imposition of legislated caps on wage increases for public-sector workers since the early 2010s, which have also helped suppress private-sector wages.


That said, having a publicly defined wages norm of 2.5% is helpful to all workers. It provides a benchmark for what is reasonable to claim in enterprise bargaining or negotiating an individual contract.

A hint of prices and wages accord

The Fair Work Commission tacitly noted it could have granted more.

Its decision, it said, was influenced by legislated changes to income tax that have benefited low and middle income earners. It also acknowledged the importance of the Superannuation Guarantee Levy increasing by 0.5% from July.

In weighing these factors there are elements of a tacit incomes policy – something Australia hasn’t had since the Hawke-Keating era of the 1980s and early 1990s.

During that period the federal government made agreements (known as prices and incomes accords) with the trade union movement to explicitly coordinate “industrial wages” (that is, actually wages) and the “social wage” (that is, provisions such as Medicare and superannuation that effectively increased living standards). In exchange for increases in the social wage, unions curbed their demands for industrial wage rise, which helped the government tackle inflation.

There are echoes of those ideas in this decision. Indeed Fair Work Commission president Ian Ross, who was in charge of the wage review, was a key official at the Australian Council of Trade Unions in the last years of the accords.

Getting the balance right

Institutions like the Fair Work Commission and its annual wages review are rare globally. It is the legacy of Australia’s pioneering system of regulated wages and employment conditions that began in 1904 with the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. The court’s first landmark decision in 1907 (known as the Harvester decision) was to define and set a “living wage”.

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Over the decades this arbitration system has adjusted wages in light of changes to economic and social conditions. More often than not it has got the balance right – ensuring improved labour standards for workers in economically sustainable ways.

Even with the push for “labour market flexibility” since the 1980s, things – especially at the bottom of labour market – would certainly be worse were it not for the award system and its current custodian, the Fair Work Commission.

This decision reveals the commission can still provide important leadership in supporting recovery from a deep economic crisis. More will be needed if we are to “build back better”.

John Buchanan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Why a carbon price alone won’t be enough to drive down New Zealand’s emissions

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Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

With its emissions budgets, the Climate Change Commission’s final advice to the government charts a course towards a low-emissions economy. But its comprehensive policy package is arguably the more decisive element — targets can only be achieved if the right policies are in place.

For many years, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been the government’s primary policy response to climate change. It puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions, but given New Zealand’s failure to cut emissions, its efficacy has been called into question.

In part, this failure is circumstantial. The ETS was deliberately hobbled by the fifth National government to “moderate” its impact on the economy in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

But recent changes to the ETS settings, especially the introduction of a flexible cap on the total emissions allowed in the scheme, make it more rigorous than ever. The price of New Zealand units (NZUs) has risen correspondingly and, presumably, behaviour change will follow. Or will it?

The commission has taken a clear position that emissions pricing, while necessary for driving the low-emissions transition, is not sufficient. To drive down emissions, the ETS needs complementary policies and tools. Hence the commission’s endorsement of a comprehensive policy package.

Read more:
Climate explained: how emissions trading schemes work and they can help us shift to a zero carbon future

This has proven controversial domestically, but it is the standard view in international climate policy circles, including among many economists. A recent expert workshop in the US concluded that:

Carbon pricing cannot stand alone. Politically feasible carbon pricing policies are not sufficient to drive emissions reductions or innovation at the scale and pace necessary.

Why is this the case? Because the real world is more complicated than economic models typically allow.

Not just market fixing

There are many finicky obstacles to behaviour change, even when an adequate carbon price is in place.

Consumers may lack adequate information, or lack access to capital to purchase cleaner technology (such as electric cars), or lack the authority to respond to the price signal (such as a building tenant who carries the cost of electricity but cannot undertake energy efficiency improvements to a building she does not own). Not every such barrier will require a regulatory solution, but sometimes this will be just the ticket.

Beyond market fixing, there are deeper challenges to market-based approaches such as emissions pricing.

In theory, an emissions price enables markets to identify the least-cost emissions reductions. This is valuable because the more cost-effective the climate policy, the more resources are left over to do further good.

Read more:
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But there are instances where more expensive options make sense, especially from the perspective of long-term strategy. It is well known that investing in expensive technologies lowers their cost over time, such that steeper upfront costs are justified in the long run.

For example, Germany drove down the price of solar panels through feed-in tariffs, which meant Germans overpaid for electricity but also accelerated the global shift to renewable energy.

When Germany introduced feed-in tariffs, the price of solar panels dropped.
Shutterstock/Hennadii Filchakov

Similarly, in Aotearoa New Zealand, there are opportunities, especially in agriculture and land use, to make future solutions more cost competitive by investing now.

Take investing in native forests — it’s exactly what will reduce the relatively higher costs of establishment (compared to commercial pine plantations that have enjoyed decades of investment already). The higher cost is currently seen as a reason not to plant native forests.

Read more:
Greening the planet: we can’t just plant trees, we have to restore forests

Not so sensitive

Another complication is that some sectors are more sensitive to a carbon price than others. For example, the planting of exotic forest has proved very sensitive to carbon price. So too has electricity because costs are direct and alternatives are available.

But sectors such as agriculture and transport tend to be less sensitive, because costs are diffuse, cultural norms are entrenched, and alternatives are lacking.

An analysis of transport found an emissions price of NZ$235/tonne — about six times higher than today’s price — would be needed to align transport emissions with New Zealand’s international commitments. This is because, in order to change transport behaviour, we ultimately need to change the transport system.

To cut emissions from transport, the system needs to change to reduce people’s dependence on cars.
Jason Oxenham/Getty Images

Existing infrastructure creates a lock-in effect which keeps people in their cars even as the emissions price rises, because alternative means of mobility are inadequate. This is known as “price inelasticity” and has likely been significantly underestimated in economic modelling. It is also the source of political pushback because people have no choice except to bear higher costs.

Consequently there is a case for starting early, rather than attempting an expensive transformation of the transport system only once the carbon price reaches a certain threshold. As others have said:

Carbon taxes stimulate a search for low-hanging fruit. That ceases to matter when we know we must eventually pick all of the apples on the tree.

A paradigm shift ahead

It is time to take seriously the notion that climate policy cannot only be about correcting the status quo, but undertaking a major technological transition. What is required isn’t only market-fixing, but a mission-oriented approach which embraces people’s capacity to find solutions and put them into action.

It also involves more than just allocating costs efficiently by emissions pricing, but searching for policy levers that trigger systems change over time, especially through technological tipping points that cascade upwards into a global-scale impact.

It bears emphasising that, even though there is a case for complementary policies, this does not mean every complementary policy is justified. A new way of evaluating policy options, which accounts for the risks and opportunities of the low-emissions transition, is seriously overdue.

Cost effectiveness ought to retain its place as an instrumental value, alongside other principles of justice. But the purpose of the exercise is risk mitigation — that is what climate action should be judged against. Getting that wrong will be more costly and more unjust than the burdens of the transition.

David Hall received funding from Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

NZ’s clean car discount is a turn in the right direction, but how much will it drive consumer demand?

Originally published on

New Zealand faces two enormous challenges if it is to meet its international climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement: biogenic methane emissions from agriculture, and carbon emissions from industry and transport.

For now, there seems little prospect of significantly reducing agricultural emissions, short of reducing actual livestock numbers, because the technology is currently not available. The same can’t be said for decarbonising industry and transport.

The question is, how best to do that. Carbon emissions are currently priced by the emissions trading scheme (ETS), but in its present form this can’t provide the financial incentives to decarbonise within the timeframe recommended by the Climate Change Commission.

To meet the government’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, other market mechanisms will be required. Hence the recently announced “feebate” scheme to encourage a transition to electric and cleaner hybrid or conventional vehicles.

There’s no doubt the technology exists to transition industry and transport to a low-carbon future. For industry, electricity and possibly hydrogen are the obvious substitutes for coal and gas.

Decarbonising transport is also technically feasible, but creating the right incentives remains a challenge. While taxes on petrol and diesel already include a price on carbon, demand is relatively insensitive to price, regardless of global costs and local taxes.

Read more:
Climate policy that relies on a shift to electric cars risks entrenching existing inequities

The new rebate policy simply switches the focus from fossil fuel energy for internal combustion-powered transport to electricity-powered transport.

Ironically, this reverses what happened when hybrid electric vehicles were first produced in the late 19th century. Mass production of cars and cheap oil put an end to that early form of EV. Back to the future!

How will consumers respond?

Reducing the price of EVs by lowering the government’s tax take and increasing the levy on certain classes of fossil-fuelled vehicles is a bold initiative — but also something of an experiment. The outcome will depend on the extent to which the rebate increases consumer demand.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of car ownerships in the world — close to 0.8 vehicles per person. EVs are becoming more popular but still account for less than 1% of the market. Higher uptake depends on a range of variables.

Most car manufacturers are moving into the production of EVs. Although this will occur at scale, we can’t be sure the vehicles will become cheaper, particularly if recent price spikes in raw material markets continue.

Read more:
NZ’s Climate Change Commission needs to account for the huge potential health benefits of reducing emissions

New Zealand is also at the end of the supply chain, making us price takers in the global market for new EVs. The supply of second-hand EVs from Japan will depend on how often owners replace their vehicles.

On the demand side, the feebate initiative will change the relative price of cars and should increase sales. By how much and over what period is harder to predict.

New Zealanders’ ability to pay for EVs is perhaps more significant. New Zealand is not a high-income economy, and this will probably have a greater bearing on uptake. Even a second-hand vehicle at NZ$25,000 is beyond the reach of many households.

If demand turns out to be relatively insensitive to a change in price, further policy adjustments will be needed. This, of course, opens up the possibility of future governments altering the entire course of transport decarbonisation policy.

Read more:
As NZ gets serious about climate change, can electricity replace fossil fuels in time?

A nudge in the right direction

Economies are complex interdependent systems. The rebate scheme is a policy “nudge”, but clearly public transport, cycling and walking should be part of a broader set of policies aimed at getting people out of private motor vehicles.

Furthermore, the impact on electricity prices remains unclear. About 80-85% of New Zealand’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Timely investment in wind, geothermal and stored hydro can add to supply in the future, and the current government wants to see 100% renewable electricity generation by 2030.

Paradoxically, however, transitioning to a low-carbon economy will most likely result in higher electricity bills. Bringing additional generation capacity on line, increased demand from transitioning industry and transport to electric, and the prospect of producing green hydrogen from renewable sources, will all drive up prices.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s endowment of renewable resources positions it well to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. But achieving the 2030 target remains a huge challenge. The rebate scheme is but a step in that direction.

Basil Sharp does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Which COVID vaccine is best? Here’s why that’s really hard to answer

Originally published on


With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines accelerating, people are increasingly asking which vaccine is best?

According to Google Trends, more and more people want to know.

Even if we tried to answer this question, defining which vaccine is “best” is not simple. Does that mean the vaccine better at protecting you from serious disease? The one that protects you from whichever variant is circulating near you? The one that needs fewer booster shots? The one for your age group? Or is it another measure entirely?

Even if we could define what’s “best”, it’s not as if you get a choice of vaccine. Until a suite of vaccines become available, the vast majority of people around the world will be vaccinated with whichever vaccine is available. That’s based on available clinical data and health authorities’ recommendations, or by what your doctor advises if you have an underlying medical condition. So the candid answer to which COVID vaccine is “best” is simply the one available to you right now.

Still not convinced? Here’s why it’s so difficult to compare COVID vaccines.

Clinical trial results only go so far

You might think clinical trials might provide some answers about which vaccine is “best”, particularly the large phase 3 trials used as the basis of approval by regulatory authorities around the world.

These trials, usually in tens of thousands of people, compare the number of COVID-19 cases in people who get the vaccine, versus those who get a placebo. This gives a measure of efficacy, or how well the vaccine works under the tightly controlled conditions of a clinical trial.

And we know the efficacy of different COVID vaccines differ. For instance, we learned from clinical trials that the Pfizer vaccine reported an efficacy of 95% in preventing symptoms, whereas AstraZeneca had an efficacy of 62-90%, depending on the dosing regime.

Leer más:
How to read results from COVID vaccine trials like a pro

But direct comparison of phase 3 trials is complex as they take place at different locations and times. This means rates of infection in the community, public health measures and the mix of distinct viral variants can vary. Trial participants can also differ in age, ethnicity and potential underlying medical conditions.

It’s tempting to compare COVID vaccines. But in a pandemic, when vaccines are scarce, that can be dangerous.

We might compare vaccines head to head

One way we can compare vaccine efficacy directly is to run head-to-head studies. These compare outcomes of people receiving one vaccine with those who receive another, in the same trial.

In these trials, how we measure efficacy, the study population and every other factor is the same. So we know any differences in outcomes must be down to differences between the vaccines.

For instance, a head-to-head trial is under way in the UK to compare the AstraZeneca and Valneva vaccines. The phase 3 trial is expected to be completed later this year.

How about out in the real world?

Until we wait for the results of head-to-head studies, there’s much we can learn from how vaccines work in the general community, outside clinical trials. Real-world data tells us about vaccine effectiveness (not efficacy).

And the effectiveness of COVID vaccines can be compared in countries that have rolled out different vaccines to the same populations.

For instance, the latest data from the UK show both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have similar effectiveness. They both reliably prevent COVID-19 symptoms, hospitalisation and death, even after a single dose.

So what at first glance looks “best” according to efficacy results from clinical trials doesn’t always translate to the real world.

What about the future?

The COVID vaccine you get today is not likely to be your last. As immunity naturally wanes after immunisation, periodic boosters will become necessary to maintain effective protection.

There is now promising data from Spain that mix-and-matching vaccines is safe and can trigger very potent immune responses. So this may be a viable strategy to maintain high vaccine effectiveness over time.

In other words, the “best” vaccine might in fact be a number of different vaccines.

Variant viruses have started to circulate, and while current vaccines show reduced protection against these variants, they still protect.

Companies, including Moderna, are rapidly updating their vaccines to be administered as variant-specific boosters to combat this.

So, while one vaccine might have a greater efficacy in a phase 3 trial, that vaccine might not necessarily be “best” at protecting against future variants of concern circulating near you.

Leer más:
Can I get AstraZeneca now and Pfizer later? Why mixing and matching COVID vaccines could help solve many rollout problems

The best vaccine is the one you can get now

It is entirely rational to want the “best” vaccine available. But the best vaccine is the one available to you right now because it stops you from catching COVID-19, reduces transmission to vulnerable members of our community and substantially reduces your risk of severe disease.

All available vaccines do this job and do it well. From a collective perspective, these benefits are compounded. The more people get vaccinated, the more the community becomes immune (also known as herd immunity), further curtailing the spread of COVID-19.

The global pandemic is a highly dynamic situation, with emerging viral variants of concern, uncertain global vaccine supply, patchy governmental action and potential for explosive outbreaks in many regions.

So waiting for the perfect vaccine is an unattainable ambition. Every vaccine delivered is a small but significant step towards global normality.

Las personas firmantes no son asalariadas, ni consultoras, ni poseen acciones, ni reciben financiación de ninguna compañía u organización que pueda obtener beneficio de este artículo, y han declarado carecer de vínculos relevantes más allá del cargo académico citado anteriormente.

European Masterpieces from the Met demonstrates art’s power to speak to the human condition

Originally published on
Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) Italy 1571–1610
The Musicians 1597
Oil on canvas
92.1 x 118.4cm
Rogers Fund, 1952 / 52.81
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Review: European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Thanks to the pandemic, exhibitions such as European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which opened at QAGOMA on the weekend, are fraught with logistical difficulties. Quarantine rules and social distancing requirements, not to mention the actual health effects of COVID, have dramatically affected the ability of gallery and museum staff to plan, oversee and shepherd high profile exhibitions into existence.

The fact they are open at all stands as an extraordinary demonstration of trust between institutions and their commitment to the power of masterworks to speak to the human condition.

Vincent van Gogh.
The Netherlands 1853–90
The Flowering Orchard 1888
Oil on canvas
72.4 x 53.3cm
Signed (lower left): Vincent
The Mr and Mrs Henry Ittleson Jr Purchase Fund,
1956 / 56.13
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The excuse for this exhibition was a major refit of the European Galleries at the Met. Planned long before the pandemic, exhibitions like this one take on new meaning in current times. None of us are going to be able to travel with ease to New York any time soon. These exhibitions remind us of what we are missing. So, as our memories of the joy of visiting international galleries fade, what impression of the Met emerges from this show?

Certainly, the quality and depth of its collection shines through. This exhibition doesn’t give us all the Met’s greatest hits. Everyone will have a favourite painting that didn’t make the cut. However, the curatorial choices are clever.

It is fun to play the mental game of which of an artist’s pictures from the Met you would choose to include. Time and again, it proves to be on the walls in Brisbane.

Lost in the interplay of glances among the figures in Georges de La Tour’s The Fortune Teller, you don’t regret for a moment that we didn’t get his darkly moody The Penitent Magdalen.

Georges de La Tour.
France 1593–1653
The Fortune-Teller c.1630s
Oil on canvas
101.9 x 123.5cm
Signed and inscribed (upper right): G. de La Tour Fecit Luneuilla Lothar: [Lunéville Lorraine]
Rogers Fund, 1960 / 60.3
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Fans of French neoclassical painting are extremely well served by Marie Denise Villers’ portrait of Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes — a luminous, arresting portrait whose sitter is painted with breathtaking clarity and intensity.

Marie Denise Villers.
France 1774–1821
Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (died 1868) 1801 Oil on canvas
161.3 x 128.6cm
Mr and Mrs Isaac D Fletcher Collection, Bequest of Isaac D Fletcher, 1917 / 17.120.204
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The exhibition plays up the advantages of distance. Second-tier works gain new life separated from their more famous siblings.

In New York, Poussin’s Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man is overshadowed by the riotous profusion of bodies in his Abduction of the Sabine Women. In Queensland, away from the noise of the Sabine painting, it is possible to appreciate the elegant structure of this religious picture.

Nicolas Poussin.
France 1594–1665
Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man 1655 Oil on canvas
125.7 x 165.1cm
Marquand Fund, 1924 / 24.45.2
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Connoisseurs of technique will not be disappointed by the works on display. Fra Angelico’s The Crucifixion rightly occupies an important place in the history of perspective. One can trace the story of the treatment of light from Caravaggio through to Cézanne.

Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) Italy c.1395–1455.
The Crucifixion c.1420–23 Tempera on wood, gold ground 63.8 x 48.3cm
Maitland F Griggs Collection, Bequest of Maitland F Griggs, 1943 / 43.98.5
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Venice is expertly evoked with Turner’s characteristically soft, wispy brushstrokes; a perfect contrast to the thickness of paint found in El Greco’s The Adoration of the Shepherds or Rembrandt’s Flora. The Fragonard (The Two Sisters) looks like a Fragonard.

More than this, what makes these works so exciting is the way they brim with ideas. Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith is a good example. It’s one of his cleverest paintings. One could spend a week in front of the work unpacking its symbolism and theological ideas.

Johannes Vermeer.
The Netherlands 1632–75
Allegory of the Catholic Faith c.1670–72
Oil on canvas
114.3 x 88.9cm
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 / 32.100.18
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The works not only reflect ideas, they stage deliberate interventions. Titian’s Venus and Adonis is a case in point. It shows the couple in a passionate embrace, the moment before Adonis is about to head off on the ill-fated hunt that will cost him his life.

The accompanying label describes this work as “re-imagining” Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Latin epic about mythological transformations. This fails to capture the dynamism of the relationship. This is a painting desperately keen to escape its origins in Ovid’s work. In Ovid, you never forget that Adonis is the product of incest, the offspring of a mother who burned with unnatural desire for her father.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Italy c.1485/90–1576 Venus and Adonis 1550s Oil on canvas.
106.7 x 133.4cm
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 / 49.7.16
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Read more:
Guide to the classics: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reading rape

It is a tale so monstrous that Ovid even warns his readers (or at the very least their daughters) not to read it. Ovid makes you feel uneasy about love. His epic is full of rape and violence. This painting rewrites Ovid’s story and invites you to devote yourself to the pleasures of love, even if they have tragic consequences.

Equally compelling is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Pygmalion and Galatea. Critics have not been kind to Gérôme. His great crime was to be born so late and live so long. He jumped the wrong way on Impressionism, railing against the “junk” of modern art, and few have forgiven him.

Jean-Léon Gérôme.
France 1824–1904
Pygmalion and Galatea c.1890
Oil on canvas
88.9 x 68.6cm
Signed (on base of statue): J.L. GEROME.
Gift of Louis C Raegner, 1927 / 27.200
Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Yet at the same time, Gérôme was engaged in arguably his most important sequence of works, his series of paintings and sculpture depicting the moment when the fantasies of the sculptor Pygmalion are realised and the statue he has been carving — with whom he has passionately fallen in love — comes to life.

Gérôme’s sequence is uneven. The sculpture is terrible, now perfectly at home in that temple of kitsch, Hearst Castle in California. The reason why that sculpture fails is why this painting succeeds. In the sculpture, despite a bit of added paint, we see only marble.

Here, in an example of virtuoso painting, Gérôme plays with the transition of stone to flesh. We see a miracle unfolding before our eyes. It is a painting inviting us to contemplate art’s ability to imitate, perfect, mediate and complicate our relationship with the world. In this, it is a perfect emblem of this exhibition.

European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is showing at QAGOMA Brisbane until October 21.

Alastair Blanshard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Acting PM Michael McCormack on net zero 2050 and prospects for a new coal-fired power station

Originally published on

With Scott Morrison overseas, Nationals leader Michael McCormack has been Acting Prime Minister this week. In this podcast, he speaks about the free trade agreement with the UK, climate change, coal, the Nationals, and China.

With speculation about whether Morrison will embrace a 2050 net zero target before the Glasgow climate conference, the attitude of the Nationals is critical and McCormack is under pressure from a vocal group in his party that is strongly against the target.

McCormack says the National party will not supporting signing up to the target this year.

When it is put to him, “we can be sure that the Nats would not embrace that target?” his reply is definite. “Correct”.

On coal, unlike many in the government, McCormack believes the controversial proposal for a coal-fired power station at Collinsville in Queensland can be a goer. A feasibility study is being conducted for the project. (It is understood a draft report has been produced already.)

McCormack says the study is “very much on its way”. Shire Energy CEO Ashley Dodd “texts me every day of every week and highlights the progress. And last week there were some really, really positive news.”

Asked whether he thinks the government will be able to support the project, McCormack says, “provided every box [including environmental ones] is ticked, yes”.

“If the proponents come forward with everything that they’re required to do, then I can see no reason why it wouldn’t be supported. And of course, it’s not just the federal government. It’s other entities, too, which need to come on board.”

Transcript (edited for clarity)

Michelle Grattan: Michael McCormack, leader of the Nationals and deputy prime minister, is acting PM this week while Scott Morrison is overseas.

The Labor Party is relishing giving McCormack heat in question time. But McCormack himself seems to be equally relishing the limelight. And this week he had some good trade news to sell to farmers. Michael McCormack joins us today to talk about the Tamil family, the Australian-UK free trade agreement, climate change, coal and the Nationals.

Michael McCormack, can we start with the Biloela family? The government is taking quite a hard line, refusing to allow them to return to the town, which is in the National seat of Flynn. But your member for Flynn, Ken O’Dowd, supports the families return. Mr. O’Dowd is retiring at the election, would you expect your candidate next time round to say the family should be returned or to support the government’s line that they shouldn’t be?

Michael McCormack: Well, Ken has done a marvellous job for Flynn, for Gladstone, Emerald and every other town in that electorate in central Queensland. But the next candidate for Flynn hasn’t been decided. The ultimately the person who will run for the LNP and sit with the National Party, hopefully after the next election has not been determined. And that will be up to that person. But what we’ve done as far as the Biloela family, every step of the way is stick to our clear and steadfast policy. And that is that if you came to Australia via an unauthorised vessel, then you would not be settled in this country. And we’ve stuck by that. And by sticking to that policy, which was made clear at the election when we returned to power in 2013 and continued at the subsequent elections in 2016, 2019, is that we’ve stopped the boats and that has saved lives. Now, under Labor’s watch, under those six years of labour from 2007 when they dismantled John Howard’s clear policy on boats and on illegal immigrants to 2013, when they finished government, Labor saw, sadly, 1,200 people lost at sea. Now we don’t want to go back to those bad dark days. We want to make sure that at every step of the way that people know our clear immigration policies and that if they do attempt to board a vessel via a people smuggler and try to get to Australia, then they will not be settled here.

MG: Let’s move on to the free trade agreement, which was agreed in principle this week between Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson. Its got concessions and advantages for Australian farmers, but they do seem a long way off. A decade, at least 10 to 15 years for our beef and sheep meat exports.

MM: Well, there’s immediate access for 35,000 tonnes tariff free for beef, 25,000 tonnes of sheep meat, 80,000 tonnes of sugar, 24,000 tonnes for dairy produce. This is a good outcome. And trade equals jobs. More trade equals more jobs. So we can look at those things. And as it’s also eight years for beef and sheep and 10 years for the sugar cane produce. And yes, there are elements that do go out to a further period. But this is a good outcome for Australian farmers and for Australians in general. Regional Australia has grown despite Covid-19 and despite every other thing that’s been thrown against it and agriculture has grown to a $66 billion enterprise, we want to make it $100 billion by 2030. Only by doing trade deals such as this are we going to realise that outcome.

MG: In the talks that Scott Morrison has had with the British prime minister, climate change was, of course, one of the elements, and that’s been a theme of the G7 leaders. Now, your Senate leader, Bridget McKenzie, this week warned that it would be against the Nationals’ policy to sign up to net zero by 2050, to sign up to that firmly. What would be the Nationals’ position if the prime minister wants to embrace that target?

MM: Well, we’re not going to sell our coal miners out, no way, shape or form, as Nationals. And nor is Scott Morrison. I was pleased to see overnight that Japan said individual countries should set their own targets and their own pathway to lower emissions. And Japan, of course, has 14 of its 53 power stations are coal-fired power stations. And so they’ve also set a clear pathway to continuing exports. And Australia is the best coal exports in the world. But Australia is not a signatory to the G7 plus or G7 communique. And Scott Morrison hasn’t signed away anything and nor would he. We’ve actually lowered our emissions by 20%, which is, from 2005 levels, which I haven’t seen those sorts of emissions being lowered to that extent, by the US, by Canada or many of those other countries that often make statements about climate, and so, you know, you look at our rooftop solar capacity, it is the highest take-up in the world. And so we’re doing our part, we’re meeting and beating our international obligations for 2030 big time. And we’ll continue to do that. And regional Australia will lead the way in that process.

MG: So if I can just clarify this, the Nationals would not embrace the 2050 target as a firm commitment this year.

MM: Well, how do we get there? That’s the question. Well, it’s technology, not taxes. That’s always been what we’ve said. And we’re not signing, we’re not signing up to anything. We’re not signing up to any international agreements, again, to see farmers and factories and households paying more for energy.

MG: So we can be sure that the Nats would not embrace that target.

MM: Correct.

MG: Right. So, you mentioned coal, the study of a possible coal fired power station at Collinsville. That was set up, what, before the last election?

MM: Part of the underwriting new generation investments.

MG: Around the last election. Now, where is that up to? Is that finished?

MM: Well, Ashley Dodd, who is the proponent of Shine Energy, which is the company that is exploring that possibility, they received some very good news last week. The business case is actually at the moment being reviewed. If it all stacks up, then I can’t see why you wouldn’t have such a facility in Gladstone, which needs the energy. Now Gladstone, I’m not sure whether, Michelle, you visited in more recent times, but it is booming and you’ve got so many companies looking to set up there. And looking to establish there and the port is expanding – it’s a very deep water harbour. We want to see Gladstone be its best self, we want to see it be the industrial manufacturing powerhouse of central Queensland, of the nation. But we’re not going to do it if we don’t have the power. So Shine Energy, forging on, they’re getting that help through that UNGI [Underwriting New Generation Investments] process. And measures are going well.

MG: So that means the study is nearly finished or?

MM: Very much on its way. Yes. And Ashley Dodd…

MG: And you think…

MM: Texts me every day of every week and highlights the progress. And last week there were some really, really positive news. He’s in a good frame of mind. Shine Energy, stand ready to to do what they need to do. But of course, it also needs to meet all the environmental implications. Yes, it does. And yes, it will.

MG: So you think that the government will be able to support this enterprise.

MM: Well, provided every box is ticked, yes.

MG: But nevertheless, you get the feeling that Scott Morrison has now turned away from coal and he’s putting more emphasis on gas. You don’t think that times have just passed by the possibility of this project going ahead?

MM: Well, there’s also diversification of the energy market. And we’ve always said that we believe in a range of energy options. Gas, yes, it’s a big part of it. I’m delighted that Keith Pitt has been so forward leaning with Beetaloo Basin and we’re supporting that project. Massive project, huge numbers of jobs, with the right road infrastructure, with the right amenities in that regard. In the Northern Territory, and even the, even the Gunner government which realises that this might be a way out of their economic malaise, and they’re in a bit of strife at the moment with debt. But this can only help that process of the Northern Territory government getting to some way back to where it needs to be and also addressing the energy needs and export requirements of this nation.

MG: So just to be clear, on Collinsville, it is quite feasible you think that we could have a new coal fired power station there

MM: If everything stacks up. Yes. If everything… Because that’s part of the UNGI process. That’s part of what we put in place prior to the 2019 election. And if the proponents come forward with everything that they’re required to do, then I can see no reason why it wouldn’t be supported. And of course, it’s not just the federal government. It’s other entities, too, which need to come on board. But this is a process that will be worked through.

MG: Now, turning to China, obviously Australian farmers have taken quite a lot of the brunt of China’s ire with Australia generally because it’s their products that are running into obstacles. Do you have any concerns that Australia is going too far in its criticisms of China, so far that we’re really doing ourselves damage?

MM: We trade a $149.6 billion with China. It’s our largest trading partner and I’ve been very, very careful with my comments around that, because what I don’t want to see is the barley grower in South Australia or Western Australia, the meat worker in a boning room in Casino, lose their job or lose their market because in some way, Beijing misinterpreted anything or any support that I have for our trade continuing. And it’s important. It’s important for our growers. It’s important for our workers. It’s important for our nation. That trade continues with China. Yes, I appreciate there are difficulties, but there are always difficulties in a, in a competitive market. And this is one of the reasons why we’re working through this process diligently, respectfully, pragmatically, practically, as you would expect. But that’s also why one of the reasons I’m pleased that Dan Tehan is working so hard to diversify our markets as well in the UK-Australia free trade agreement in principle is one of those recently, of course, opened up a trade arrangement with Indonesia that grew and expanded what we had before and 35,000 tonnes of barley going to Mexico for the very first time recently. That’ll help there. The beer production and everything else and indeed the sheep meat going to Saudi. These are important diversifications of our markets that are good.

MG: But do you think we need to be more careful? The government needs to be more careful with its language about China?

MM: We’ll always do and say what’s in Australia’s national interests first and foremost.

MG: Do you think there’s any possible threat to iron ore exports?

MM: I would like to think not, because Australia’s iron ore is the best in the world.

MG: But what do you think?

MM: Well, I mean, these are matters for others to decide. But I say again that the mills and the production processes in China need our metallurgical coal, need our iron ore. China knows that if it wants to build a better future, then Australia’s resources are one way to be able to enhance and provide that.

MG: Now, just turning to the Nationals. These days, there always seems to be a good degree of angst in the Nationals – more than there used to be – at least in my memory. Is this mainly to do with issues or is it a question of personalities and ambitions?

MM: Oh well, there’ll always be personalities and ambitions in Canberra. That’s why, that’s why the place is like it is. But I’m focused on making sure that our $110 billion of infrastructure is rolled out supporting 100,000 workers. I’m focused on making sure that the regions can get the best deal that they can get in every way, shape or form, whether it’s through infrastructure, whether it’s through water resources, whether it’s through agriculture. That’s my only focus. You’ll only ever get me commenting publicly and privately about the things that will be good for regional Australia. I’ll leave the politics to others if they so choose to go down that path. People out in regional Australia, particularly through Covid and particularly when they’re catching mice in greater numbers than they ever expected. People who are looking to the skies to see that the next shower is going to provide them with that subsoil moisture, to be able to give them hope when they’re planning a crop. They’re not worried. They’re not worried about the internal goings on, the machinations of a federal parliament. They want what’s best for them. And the bread and butter issues are my issues as well. Their concerns are my concerns.

MG: Just finally, because we can hear the bells ringing…

MM: I think that’s just the start of parliament, so a little bit of time…

MG: For parliament to start. I just wonder what it feels like as acting prime minister, sitting in that question time hot seat, being peppered with questions which are well-outside your normal field of the questions you need to answer?

MM: Funnily enough, it’s actually not because when you are the deputy prime minister, you get asked questions from every which way, every angle, every topic. When you’re out at a Bathurst roadside on the Great Western Highway, you’ll get questions about every topic under the sun.

MG: Not so many people are listening, though.

MM: Sure. And for those people who are listening to question time, I’m always amazed by the number of truckies who are listening in as they deliver the goods around the nation, and good on them, they they keep the wheels of the economy turning.

MG: So what’s their feedback?

MM: Good. Generally good. And question time is a cauldron. It’s a robust debating chamber. And you just have to have read your topic, know your topic, and but also show that you’re human. I don’t think people want politicians to be just reading from script all the time or just sticking to the, to the talking points, and I’ve never been like that, I’m always somebody who yes, you’ll see me as I am. I’m Michael from Marra – little town with, tell you what, when I was when I was born and grew up there in the first four years that dad had the farm there, it had only a population of just over 100. How good is it that we have a nation where a little village of just over 100 people can produce somebody who can go on and be the acting prime minister? That gives hope to every boy and girl out there who ever aspired to open the batting for Australia in the cricket, to be a politician, to be the best nurse or doctor or engineer or scientist that they could be, that providing they work hard, providing they listen to their parents and their teachers and provided they have a bit of luck, you can be anything in this nation.

MG: Also, you’re former journalists, of course. So…

MM: I am, and what a great and noble profession that is!

MG: You’ve seen the process from a different perspective. Michael McCormack, thank you very much for talking with the conversation today. We’ll let you get back to those briefs for the parliamentary day.

Additional audio

A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.