Remember Morrison's black-rock moment? Well, look who's scarednow | Katharine Murphy

With their clash over coal, the Coalition partners are making the case for voters to show them the exit

It’s always unwise to call peak farce when we are dealing with Australia’s torturous climate and energy debate, so perhaps we can just categorise the following incident as mildly surreal.

Scott Morrison was in Melbourne for much of this past week. On Wednesday he was out on the hustings with Daniel Andrews, one of the most progressive political leaders in the country, and a premier who has recently secured an emphatic mandate from the people.

By stapling himself to Andrews, by cooperating mightily in a state where the Liberals are in deep political trouble, perhaps Morrison was hoping for a small measure of reflected goodwill.

Whatever his aspirations, Morrison was asked about coal, as he has been every day since a group of Queensland Nationals decided to go to war with their leader Michael McCormack. The brawl that has fractured the government was unleashed just over a week ago, and it relates to McCormack’s failure to shirt-front the Liberals on coal plants and on divestiture powers to break up energy companies.

For some of the rebels, this is a proxy war about Barnaby Joyce returning to the leadership (yes, really). For others, coal and energy really is the burning issue.

Reporters inquired on Wednesday how Morrison could tolerate the Nationals defying his leadership by banging on relentlessly about wanting new coal plants. He calmly mouthed the responses prime ministers mouth in trying situations.

Morrison noted that Joyce (“a passionate fellow”) had returned the red cordial to the fridge and was now sequestered, spent after a spell of thrashing, on the time-out step. Joyce had “settled” the insurrection, Morrison said, by acknowledging it had been a “misstep” to describe himself as the “elected deputy prime minister”.

Having declared peace in our time (and I deploy that phrase in the Neville Chamberlain sense), Morrison then rolled around to energy projects. He said the government was about “supporting the development of commercially viable and feasible baseload power all around the country”. These projects could be “gas, it could be hydrogen … it could be hydro”.

There’s a word missing there, right? It starts with c and ends in l.

The prime minister declined to utter the word coal. As well as gas, hydrogen and hydro, Morrison noted there could be “other traditional sources”. C-o-a-l could not pass his lips.

This omission would be of only glancing interest, or perhaps zero interest, had the prime minister not been the same bloke who, seemingly five minutes ago, had brought a lump of coal into the Australian parliament and brandished it lustily during question time, in one of the most boneheaded performances ever to grace the bear pit.

“This is coal,” the then treasurer declared triumphantly in February 2017, brandishing his prop as if he’d just stumbled across an exotic species previously thought to be extinct. “Don’t be afraid,” Morrison said, soothingly, to his political opponents, waving the black rock kindly supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia. “Don’t be scared.”

Just for the record, no one was scared then – except perhaps members of the voting public transiently in the visitors galleries of the House of Representatives witnessing the sudden onset of shark-jumping as a parliamentary sport.

But perhaps the strange coal seance of 2017 was all a harbinger, more omen than stunt, because it’s pretty clear that Morrison, to borrow from himself, is a bit scared now. Being trepidatious is entirely reasonable, because it’s clear to anyone watching that there is a schism inside the government.

Put simply, the schism is this.

The Nationals want Morrison to produce a shortlist that commits the Coalition to supporting new coal projects. They want an explicit commitment made in public before the federal election, because they believe that commitment pays political dividends in central Queensland.

To underscore this point, Joyce noted during one of his interventions that he was intent on protecting the interests of his regional heartland, and didn’t give a stuff about the climate-induced anxieties of voters in Melbourne. (In case you are wondering, this isn’t the normal Joyce word salad; this is a deliberate smack at the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. The Nationals believe Frydenberg is running most of the internal interference on this issue, because he’s worried about his inner city seat, and others like it.)

The Liberals have made it equally clear that they do n-o-t (underlined) want the government to put taxpayers on the hook by supporting coal before the election, because that is the equivalent of cordially inviting their small-l liberal heartland to take out their baseball bats and start swinging come May – not just in Melbourne, but right around the country.

If you are Morrison, that’s not an easy difference to split.

Unless there’s some grand bargain in the offing – Morrison supporting a north Queensland coal project, then sealing the border allowing any Liberals south of Noosa plausible deniability – this is a straight win/loss proposition.

Either the Nationals win, or the Liberals win, and while this unresolved roiling persists (and I predict the Nationals will persist), the bottom line is the government loses. While the priority is internal death match politics, the government makes its own compelling case for why Australian voters should show it the door.

Just to summarise the general ludicrousness, in the space of seven months the government has gone from rolling Malcolm Turnbull in large part because he was too progressive on climate change, and dumping the national energy guarantee that might have given them all a measure of electoral protection on this issue, to the prime minister being unable to utter the word coal in public, for fear of offending voters worried about climate change.

As the kids say, life comes at you fast. You wouldn’t believe it had you not seen it with your own eyes.

Meanwhile, as the numpty show rolled on, and on, a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank stood amid the clamour of the week and said what anyone with any respect for facts and evidence now says: climate change is real. It’s not cyclical, it’s a trend, and if we don’t start factoring it into our policy settings and our business decisions (meaning the prudent management of carbon risk), then Australia’s financial stability is at risk.

It was an important speech from Guy Debelle, both in terms of the content, and in terms of the signal. Debelle speaks for an institution apparently intent on telling the public it does not intend to drop the ball on this most important of policy issues, which might give the students who demonstrated around the country on Friday some measure of comfort that the failure of their parents isn’t absolute.

Eyes will also be on Labor over the coming weeks. The party that wants to form the next government is expected to release the remaining elements of its policy on climate change: what it will do to reduce pollution from heavy emitters, in transport and agriculture.

Given the diabolical history of this issue, there is nervousness in Labor’s ranks about the onset of yet another cheap scare campaign once the policy is subjected to scrutiny, and the policy will be heavily scrutinised, not only by journalists but also by the stakeholders now assuming Labor wins the contest in May.

Polling, both private and public, makes clear that a majority of Australians want action on climate change. Many voters see the cheapjack opportunism of the past decade as symptomatic of a political system that has lost its way.

While political actors who favour rational action on climate change have the wind at their back in a way I haven’t seen since the federal campaign of 2007, there’s only one way to get a mandate to decarbonise the Australian economy.

It’s not complicated. You have to seek one, and be brave enough to do that without fudges or strategic omissions or weasel words.

-Katharine Murphy is Guardian Australia’s political editor

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Katharine Murphy

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