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Scott Morrison denies attacking electric vehicles in 2019 as he unveils new Coalition policy

·7-min read

Scott Morrison has deflected accusations of hypocrisy and denied he attacked electric vehicles before the 2019 federal election when he said Labor would “end the weekend”, as he unveiled the government’s new clean car policy.

The government on Tuesday ruled out subsidising the expansion of electric and hybrid vehicles, and said it expected only 30% of new sales to be EVs by 2030 – a date by which a growing number of countries plan to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

The “future fuels and vehicles strategy” instead includes $178m of new funding, mostly for new EV and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and to help businesses set up charging stations for fleets. It said the government would “co-invest with industry” to install an estimated 50,000 smart chargers in homes.

Under questioning at a press conference in Melbourne, Morrison denied he had criticised EV technology before the last election.

Related: Not coming to a showroom near you: the new electric cars Australia will miss out on

At the time, he said battery-powered cars would not “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.”

He also questioned how much EV charging stations would cost, and whether someone who owned an EV and lived in an apartment was “going to run the extension cord down from your fourth-floor window”.

On Tuesday, Morrison claimed his criticism had been limited to Labor’s then-policy, not the technology itself. He said he did not regret saying EVs would “end the weekend”.

“I don’t have a problem with electric vehicles, [I] have a problem with governments telling people what to do and what vehicles they should drive and where they should drive them, which is what [former opposition leader] Bill Shorten’s plan was,” Morrison said at Toyota’s hydrogen centre in suburban Altona.

“I’m not going to put up the price of petrol [for] families and make them buy electric vehicles, and walk away from the things they have. That is not the Liberal way and the Nationals way.”

The Shorten-era Labor policy was not to tell people what vehicle they should drive, require anyone to buy an EV or put up the price of petrol. It included a non-binding target of 50% new car sales being EVs by 2030 and the promise of a vehicle emissions standard to reduce the average carbon pollution of the national car fleet.

Morrison stressed the government would not “be forcing Australians out of the car they want to drive or penalising those who can least afford it through bans or taxes”.

“Just as Australians have taken their own decision to embrace rooftop solar at the highest rate in the world, when new vehicle technologies are cost-competitive, Australians will embrace them too,” he said.

The expansion of rooftop solar – which, according to the Clean Energy Council, has now led to 3m systems being installed across the country – was encouraged for more than a decade through federal and state incentives and subsidies.

The government vehicle strategy suggests its approach will have only a limited impact as a climate policy. It is projected to cut greenhouse gas emissions by just 8m tonnes – less than 2% of the national annual total – over the next 14 years.

Transport emissions are nearly 20% of the national total, were increasing rapidly before Covid-19 lockdowns and are projected to rebound in the years ahead.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said the future policy was “another pamphlet, rather than a serious announcement”. He said a Labor government would make EVs cheaper by removing import and fringe benefits tax.

“I think people will look at Scott Morrison today and this announcement and just shake their head and say, ‘What’s changed?’,” he said. “This is a guy who says he’s about new technology. He’s resisted it.”

The energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, said the government’s strategy of helping install charging infrastructure, rather than phasing out fossil fuel cars, was about helping motorists “embrace the increasing range of technologies available to keep them moving in an informed and fair way”.

Taylor claimed credit for the number of low emissions vehicle models available in Australia increasing by 20% over the past eight months, but did not explain how the government’s policy had contributed to this.

Car manufacturers across the globe have released a wave of new EV models as governments have announced emissions limits for passenger cars and future bans on fossil fuel cars. Industry representatives say Australians have fewer options than comparable countries due to a lack of policy support.

Taylor said voluntary adoption was “the right pathway for reducing transport emissions over the long term”.

“Stringent standards, bans or regressive taxes will limit choice and increase the upfront costs of cars for Australians,” he said.

The chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari, said the government’s strategy addressed only “roughly 5% of the electric vehicle issue”. He said it ruled out the two “most important and efficient measures” to encourage EV uptake – fuel efficiency standards that would require cars to become cleaner over time, and rebates.

He said EVs were a “monumental opportunity” for Australia that could cut emissions while “creating an innovative industry in manufacturing, technology and services”.

“It’s disappointing that, against the overwhelming advice of the industry and experts, the government continues to peddle its false line that doing nothing increases choice,” Jafari said. “For a strategy that has taken years to write, this leaves much to be desired.”

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A study has suggested future uptake of EVs will be driven by state policies. ClimateWorks Australia, a thinktank connected to Monash University, found promised state and territory action had set a de facto national target for 2030 of at least 30% of new cars being electric. The two biggest states, New South Wales and Victoria, are aiming for EVs to make up 50% of new sales by the end of the decade.

The Australian Automobile Association said the government strategy included some welcome measures, but fell short of delivering the policies needed to drive uptake of clean cars.

“Australia is a small player in the global marketplace and we need national policies that actively incentivise car brands to sell additional low emissions cars into Australia, providing Australian consumers with increased choice,” managing director Michael Bradley said.

Related: Where will I fill up? My week driving Toyota’s hydrogen car in locked down Melbourne

Taylor said “many Australians” were choosing new technology vehicles, citing Electric Vehicle Council data that 8,688 battery and plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in the first half of 2021, an increase on last year.

EVs were just 0.75% of new car sales in Australia last year, compared with 10.2% in Europe and 15% in the UK. They are nearly 80% of new sales in Norway.

Norway and South Korea have announced a ban on new petrol and diesel car sales from 2025, followed by a list of countries – including the UK, Germany, India and Israel – in 2030. Japan, China and California will phase out new fossil fuel vehicle sales in 2035.

The Morrison government had announced plans for a national EV strategy before the last election, but changed direction after attacking Labor’s plan.

It has rejected introducing fuel efficiency standards, which would involve setting a target to lower the average emissions from the national vehicle fleet, despite a departmental analysis in December 2016 finding the benefits in savings on fuel and reduced emissions would outweigh the costs under all scenarios examined.

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