Ju­dith Brett plus Alex McK­in­non, Arnold Zable and An­thony Ham

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - COM­MENT BY JU­DITH BRETT

Once again Tony Ab­bott has wrecked the chances of Aus­tralia achiev­ing a bi­par­ti­san pol­icy on emis­sions re­duc­tion. When, at the end of 2009, he suc­cess­fully chal­lenged Mal­colm Turn­bull for lead­er­ship of the Lib­eral Party, the cat­a­lyst was Turn­bull’s co-op­er­a­tion with the Rudd gov­ern­ment over the in­tro­duc­tion of an emis­sions trad­ing scheme. Win­ning by one vote, Ab­bott im­me­di­ately an­nounced a se­cret bal­lot on whether the party should sup­port the La­bor gov­ern­ment’s leg­is­la­tion. The re­sult, 54 against to 29 for, spelled the end of the Op­po­si­tion’s co-op­er­a­tion with the gov­ern­ment on its Car­bon Pol­lu­tion Re­duc­tion Scheme. When the scheme reap­peared in 2011 as a price on car­bon un­der Prime Min­is­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard and her cli­mate change min­is­ter, Greg Com­bet, Ab­bott made this “great big new tax on ev­ery­thing” the cen­tre­piece of his cam­paign against the gov­ern­ment. And when he won the elec­tion in 2013 he re­pealed the leg­is­la­tion.

To be sure, others have also contributed to the lon­grun­ning dis­as­ter of Aus­tralia’s cli­mate poli­cies: the Greens un­der Bob Brown, who, in a fit of self-in­dul­gent high­mind­ed­ness, re­fused to sup­port La­bor’s leg­is­la­tion in the Se­nate; Kevin Rudd, who walked away from the “great moral chal­lenge of our gen­er­a­tion” when the go­ing got tough; and Ju­lia Gil­lard, with her cul­pa­ble naivety in promis­ing that there would be no car­bon tax in a gov­ern­ment she led, and then agree­ing that the scheme her gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced could be called a tax. But it has been Ab­bott’s con­tin­u­ing bel­liger­ent pros­e­cu­tion of what shadow en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Mark But­ler calls in his new book the Cli­mate Wars that has turned go­ing slow on emis­sions re­duc­tion into a Lib­eral cause. It is Ab­bott who has given fo­cus and a voice to the mot­ley col­lec­tion of cli­mate scep­tics in the Coali­tion party room and kept alive the delu­sion that coal has a vi­able longterm fu­ture. For even if it were not the case that burn­ing coal is con­tribut­ing to global warm­ing, the rapid de­vel­op­ment of re­new­ables and their plum­met­ing price would be num­ber­ing its days. If one can make en­ergy from the sun, wind and tides, why would any­one bother dig­ging up and trans­port­ing coal?

And he is at it again. For a brief mo­ment early in June, the In­de­pen­dent Re­view into the Fu­ture Se­cu­rity of the Na­tional Elec­tric­ity Mar­ket, chaired by Aus­tralian Chief Sci­en­tist Dr Alan Finkel, held out the hope that Aus­tralian pol­i­tics might reach a bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus on a scheme to both re­duce emis­sions and in­crease en­ergy sup­ply, by pro­vid­ing the cer­tainty the pri­vate sec­tor needs to in­vest in new en­ergy gen­er­a­tion. Fear­ing Ab­bott and his troops, Prime Min­is­ter Turn­bull had al­ready ruled out an emis­sions in­ten­sity scheme, de­spite its wide­spread in­dus­try sup­port. Finkel knew he couldn’t con­sider it, even if it were a bet­ter op­tion than the clean en­ergy tar­get he even­tu­ally rec­om­mended. The clean en­ergy tar­get seemed like clever pol­i­tics. As it was “tech­nol­ogy neu­tral” it did not ex­plic­itly rule out coal. La­bor promised to work with the gov­ern­ment to ham­mer out a deal it could live with when it re­turned to gov­ern­ment. Busi­ness wel­comed the pos­si­bil­ity, fi­nally, of a bi­par­ti­san agree­ment that would pro­vide the cer­tainty needed for new in­vest­ment in en­ergy gen­er­a­tion. The Busi­ness Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, the Aus­tralian In­dus­try Group, the En­ergy Users As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia and en­ergy re­tail­ers Ori­gin, AGL and En­ergy Aus­tralia were all on board, and ar­gued that the clean en­ergy tar­get would lower prices for con­sumers.

Not so, said Ab­bott, whose spe­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the de­bate has been to re­duce com­pli­cated, tech­ni­cal ar­gu­ments to sim­ple cut-through slo­gans with lit­tle con­nec­tion to

re­al­ity. The clean en­ergy tar­get is a tax on coal, he de­clared. Since the Finkel re­view was de­liv­ered, Ab­bott has upped his pro­file and his at­tacks on the gov­ern­ment. Set­ting out his con­ser­va­tive man­i­festo to the In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs at the end of June, he called for a mora­to­rium on new wind farms, a freeze on the re­new­able en­ergy tar­get at its cur­rent level of 15% and the con­struc­tion of an­other “big coal-fired power sta­tion”. Con­trary to the ev­i­dence in the Finkel re­view and the asser­tions of the en­ergy providers, Ab­bott claimed that the re­new­able en­ergy tar­get was caus­ing peo­ple’s power bills to in­crease by mak­ing coal un­eco­nomic, and that if pri­vate in­vestors would not build a new coal-fired power sta­tion, then the gov­ern­ment should step in and make good this mar­ket fail­ure “as soon as pos­si­ble”. Just why this last sug­ges­tion is ei­ther a lib­eral or a con­ser­va­tive one is hard to fathom. It sounds much more like an old-fash­ioned so­cial­ist ar­gu­ment for re-na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the power sup­ply.

But con­sis­tency has never been Ab­bott’s strong point. His ma­jor pre­oc­cu­pa­tion has al­ways been prod­uct dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, draw­ing up the bat­tle­lines be­tween the Lib­eral Party and its ma­jor enemy the La­bor Party and win­ning the fight. From this per­spec­tive the main prob­lem with the pro­posed clean en­ergy tar­get is that it is too sim­i­lar to La­bor’s pol­icy. Ab­bott be­lieved, he told Paul Kelly in early July, that en­ergy pol­icy was “the best hope for the gov­ern­ment to win the next elec­tion”. At­tack­ing the big fat car­bon tax worked in 2013, so why wouldn’t it work again? Peta Credlin, whom Ab­bott de­scribed as the fiercest po­lit­i­cal war­rior he had ever worked with, has since ad­mit­ted on Sky News that La­bor’s cli­mate change pol­icy was never a car­bon tax, but that by pur­su­ing “bru­tal re­tail pol­i­tics” the Coali­tion made it one in the minds of the elec­torate, re­plac­ing fear for the fu­ture of the planet with a fight about the hip pocket.

In his ad­dress to the In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs, Ab­bott ap­prov­ingly quoted John Howard, “While com­pro­mise is nec­es­sary in pol­i­tics, con­vic­tion is the foun­da­tion of suc­cess.” But all suc­cess means for Ab­bott is knock­ing the other guy out of the ring. It does not mean achiev­ing good and en­dur­ing pol­icy out­comes for the na­tion. The prob­lem for Aus­tralia’s en­ergy pol­icy is that Ab­bott’s ad­dic­tion to the Cli­mate Wars means that he will al­ways try to blow up bi­par­ti­san so­lu­tions, even though only bi­par­ti­san so­lu­tions will de­liver the cer­tainty needed for new in­vest­ment in en­ergy gen­er­a­tion, and only new in­vest­ment will in­crease sup­ply and bring en­ergy prices down, as en­ergy sup­pli­ers and re­tail­ers keep telling us.

So there is lit­tle point in Turn­bull and his en­ergy min­is­ter, Josh Fry­den­berg, try­ing to ap­pease Ab­bott or his fol­low­ers in the party room on any pol­icy that takes cli­mate change se­ri­ously. In 2009 Ab­bott claimed that ar­gu­ments for cli­mate change were ab­so­lute crap. He now sub­verts Aus­tralia’s cli­mate pol­icy as a cham­pion of coal. And if coal didn’t ex­ist, he would find other grounds. His ar­gu­ments are only ever the path to a pre-de­ter­mined po­si­tion that there be no ef­fec­tive ac­tion on cli­mate change. This adds an­other layer of dif­fi­culty for Turn­bull in deal­ing with the is­sue. Scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change is not just a con­ve­nient point of dif­fer­ence from La­bor, it is now baked into Ab­bott’s pub­lic iden­tity. Both scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change and sup­port for coal are iden­tity is­sues for him, as they are for his sup­port­ers, mark­ers of their novel brand of con­ser­vatism and as such stub­bornly re­sis­tant to ar­gu­ment and ev­i­dence.

There is also some­thing else at play in Ab­bott’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to wreck the clean en­ergy tar­get, what the Ro­mans called do­lor re­pul­sae – the pain of de­feat – and it seems unas­suage­able. Even as Ab­bott’s friends in the Lib­eral Party warn him that La­bor and Bill Shorten are the real ben­e­fi­cia­ries of his con­tin­u­ing crit­i­cism of the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment, the shame and hu­mil­i­a­tion of los­ing high of­fice drives him on, with the thinnest of ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions for his ac­tions. This is not the sim­ple de­sire for re­venge that we saw so clearly with Rudd as he un­der­mined Gil­lard. It is more the des­per­ate need to still be heard and taken se­ri­ously, to be­lieve he has some­thing to of­fer when he has been so soundly re­jected, to numb the pain with manic ac­tiv­ity.

What should Turn­bull do? In Lon­don af­ter the G20 he fired a shot across Ab­bott’s bow, claim­ing that the party was not a con­ser­va­tive party but one of the cen­tre right. He quoted the party’s founder, Robert Men­zies, say­ing that “we took the name ‘Lib­eral’ be­cause we were de­ter­mined to be a pro­gres­sive party, will­ing to make ex­per­i­ments, in no sense re­ac­tionary”, and claimed that the core of the party’s iden­tity was its com­mit­ment to free­dom. The quote from Men­zies is from a chap­ter in his mem­oir, Af­ter­noon Light, on the re­vival of lib­er­al­ism in Aus­tralia af­ter World War Two. The chap­ter has fur­ther com­ments on the party’s core iden­tity that could give heart to Turn­bull.

Men­zies ex­plained that in tak­ing the name Lib­eral, he was not in any way look­ing to the Bri­tish Lib­eral Party that was by then set­tled into its third-party sta­tus. Rather, the new party was to be one of gov­ern­ment, aim­ing for power and for progress in its own right. And, in con­trast to the La­bor Party with its un­achiev­able “so­cial­ist ob­jec­tive”, it would be non-ide­o­log­i­cal, with a fo­cus on prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions to the na­tion’s prob­lems. Faced with Men­zies’ re­peated elec­toral suc­cess, La­bor strug­gled to man­age its ide­o­log­i­cal so­cial­ist legacy, which was a drag on its pop­u­lar­ity un­til Gough Whit­lam be­came fed­eral leader in 1967. Whit­lam was de­ter­mined to re­store La­bor’s ca­pac­ity to win elec­tions. This meant tack­ling the party purists, and re­form­ing the dys­func­tional Vic­to­rian branch to give greater say over pol­icy to branch mem­bers. When he met de­ter­mined

re­sis­tance, Whit­lam fa­mously de­cided “to crash through or crash”. It was a huge risk, and the rest is his­tory.

There are par­al­lels here for Turn­bull to pon­der. Like La­bor’s old so­cial­ist Left, Ab­bott and his sup­port­ers seem more com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing the pu­rity of their ide­o­log­i­cal iden­ti­ties – in this case as con­ser­va­tives – than to help­ing their party win the next elec­tion. Ab­bott has made clear he is not go­ing away, and he will con­tinue to ex­er­cise his “right” to crit­i­cise. That is, what­ever Turn­bull achieves, Ab­bott will un­der­mine it.

Turn­bull could bring on a chal­lenge, per­haps on the is­sue of a par­lia­men­tary vote on same-sex mar­riage. Con­ser­va­tives have threat­ened that this would im­me­di­ately lead to a lead­er­ship spill. Well, let it. Who would stand against Turn­bull and be likely to im­prove the party’s sup­port at the next elec­tion? Cer­tainly not Ab­bott, and there is no other plau­si­ble can­di­date.

If things con­tinue as they are, Turn­bull will lead the gov­ern­ment to de­feat at the next elec­tion any­way. And he will have very lit­tle to show for his time as prime min­is­ter. So what does he have to lose? With the courage of his con­vic­tions, he has the chance to achieve leg­is­la­tion on same-sex mar­riage, and to ne­go­ti­ate a sta­ble agree­ment with La­bor on a clean en­ergy tar­get. And it just might be, as with John Howard’s un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to the GST de­spite its un­pop­u­lar­ity, that this would turn around his elec­toral for­tunes. Fi­nally peo­ple would know that he stood for some­thing.

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