Scott Morrison walks back ‘end the weekend’ rhetoric on electric vehicles

Prime minister challenged on his government’s record on climate action after IPCC’s landmark report on global heating

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Scott Morrison says when he declared incorrectly in 2019 that Labor policies to reduce vehicle emissions would “end the weekend” he wasn’t opposed to electric vehicles, even though he told voters they were expensive, would not tow trailers or boats, or get Australians to their favourite camping spots.

The prime minister faced sustained questioning over his government’s heavily criticised record on climate action on Tuesday after a landmark assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found human activities were unequivocally heating the planet and causing changes not seen for centuries and, in some cases, thousands of years.

Responding to that report, Morrison hinted to reporters that his government might have more to say on Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target before Cop26 in Glasgow.

The prime minister also continued to insist that “technological breakthroughs” would ensure the world transitioned successfully to a low emissions future. While acknowledging that transition was already happening, Morrison said regional Australians would not bear the costs of the shift away from fossil fuels.

Extinction Rebellion protestors targeted Parliament House and the Lodge on Tuesday, with a small group arrested after spray painting “no time” and “duty of care” on parliament’s forecourt.

Inside the building, Labor sought to compare Morrison’s rhetoric with his record. The shadow climate change minister, Chris Bowen, asked Morrison if he believed no one would match Australia’s “ambition for a technology-driven solution” – which was a statement the prime minister had made earlier on Tuesday – why did he claim before the last election “that electric vehicles would end the weekend?”

On the hustings during the last election campaign in April 2019, Morrison told voters he didn’t have “a problem” with electric vehicles. But the prime minister pilloried Labor’s electric vehicles policy declaring “in typical Labor fashion, they want to ram it down the necks of all Australians”.

“So the cheapest car you can currently buy, as an electric vehicle, presently, my understanding is, including all on-road costs and the rest of it, is about $45,000 to $50,000 a year,” Morrison said.

“That’s the cheapest car Bill Shorten wants to make available to you to buy in the future, and I’ll tell you what – it’s not going to tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.

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“Bill Shorten wants to end the weekend when it comes to his policy on electric vehicles where you’ve got Australians who love being out there in their four-wheel drives.”

The Coalition’s rhetorical attacks were supplemented by advertising on Facebook posted by the Liberal party’s official account. The campaign stated that “Labor’s car tax would mean higher prices on some of Australia’s most popular cars”.

The campaign used Facebook ad functionality to target users with an interest in particular vehicle types to make false claims about Labor’s 2019 policy. The Labor policy included vehicle emissions standards and a target of 50% of new car sales being electric vehicles by 2030. It did not include a tax on utility vehicles.

While Morrison’s campaign comments and the context surrounding them remain on the public record, the prime minister bristled at Bowen’s question on Tuesday, declaring “the claim made by the questioner is false”.

The prime minister later made a personal explanation to parliament. Having appeared to query his “end the weekend” quote earlier in question time, Morrison acknowledged he had said “Bill Shorten wants to end the weekend”.

But he contended his criticism wasn’t about electric vehicles, it was about “Labor’s bad policy”.

“The point about it is not whether electric vehicles are good or bad,” Morrison told parliament in his personal explanation. “In fact, they have a role to play increasingly in the vehicle fleet of Australia, over the next decade.”

Since the Australian election, governments around the world have redoubled efforts to drive electrification of the vehicle fleet. The United States president, Joe Biden, last week foreshadowed an executive order which will attempt to make half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 electric, and the administration is pursuing new vehicle emissions standards.

Under sustained diplomatic pressure from key allies like the US and the United Kingdom, Morrison has been attempting to pivot on climate policy. He’s been signalling Australia wants to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible and “preferably” by 2050.

But that shift has attracted pushback from the National party. Nationals senator Matt Canavan told reporters on Tuesday he “remained opposed” to a net zero target, claiming it would “send thousands of Australian jobs to other countries”.

“I can’t see any way I would support a proposal that would not improve the environment but would cost our own jobs,” Canavan said.

Earlier, in the Coalition party room, Nationals senator Sam McMahon announced a plan to seek to amend the EPBC Act to remove the prohibition on nuclear power, and potentially support taxpayer underwriting of plants, which received support from Canavan.

The pair later told the media the policy had been agreed by Nationals senators, which Guardian Australia understands occurred before the recent change in leadership back to Barnaby Joyce. Canavan conceded the nuclear push is unlikely to receive the necessary support, although McMahon claimed colleagues including some Liberals had supported it “privately”.

In New South Wales, the Liberal climate change minister, Matt Kean, meanwhile said Morrison needed to increase Australia’s ambition.

“The federal government can do more,” he told the ABC. “I think you can set more ambitious targets.”

Morrison often references the cost associated with action to reduce emissions. But Kean said the transition was an opportunity. He said Australia could be an “energy superpower in the low carbon economy that is coming”.

“It will mean jobs, opportunity and prosperity for Australia. We need to act and we need to act decisively and we need to act now.”

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Katharine Murphy and Paul Karp

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