Judith Brett plus Alex McKinnon, Arnold Zable and Anthony Ham
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 And when he won the election in 2013 he repealed the legislation.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.