Be loyal to your roots and don’t be afraid to speak up for what you believe in

Ian Sinclair to the Nationals

Malcolm Colless in The Australian took Sinclair’s comment as an endorsement of the Joyce-Nash push for a sceptic line on climate change as a way of fighting off the independent threat. However, strangely Colless misses the obvious point. Sinclair’s former seat of New England, a blue ribbon seat that is arguably the heartland of the National Party, was lost in 2001 to a National-turned-independent – who is probably Parliament’s strongest advocate for climate change action, not against it.

In case Sinclair’s (or Colless’s) memory doesn’t go back that far then they only have to think back to last year when another former National leader’s seat was lost to yet another former National-turned-independent who won the Lyne by-election. Once again the Nationals lost a heartland seat to someone who is a strong advocate for climate change action, not against it. In faithfully trotting out the Nationals’ strategy to save themselves, Colless completely sails through the contradiction at the heart of it.

Peter Van Onselen writing in the same paper makes the same mistake when he talks about a recent poll of the Liberal back-benchers that claims around two thirds of them are opposing Turnbull’s plan to negotiate with the government on the ETS. He forgets to mention the fairly interesting fact that this almost inversely reflects the views of the Liberal voters that put them in.

The media, and especially those on the right are carrying on as though these manoeuvrings are just a normal struggle for ‘values’ and electoral positioning to distinguish the coalition parties from the government. But it isn’t, it’s what a political crisis looks like in the right-wing parties in Australia today. Climate change has become the issue that is carrying the Coalition parties downstream not just away from the electorate, but even from their own base.

Let’s just have a look at what happened internationally last week. Some might like to pretend that climate change action is radical, but as we saw in Pittsburgh, it has become the diplomatic lingua franca of the world’s governing classes. The most striking illustration was the way commitment to climate change action became the means by which China could prove its credentials as a paid-up member of the international community.

This includes governments of both left and right and even the right in opposition. When Cameron met Turnbull in the UK last week, he would have found the Australian Liberals’ sceptic position on climate change incomprehensible. Even in the US, where the political class has least interest of any in supporting climate change as regards the US’s position in the world, it was not just that it is led by an advocate of climate change, or that he ran against a Republican opponent who was also supporting climate change action, but even the Republicans, now in an increasingly hostile mood against a Democrat President, are prepared to negotiate on setting targets.

For the Liberal Party of Australia to be so out of line with the global political agenda, especially the US, is virtually unprecedented in its history or that of any mainstream right-wing party since Federation. Perhaps the only comparison was when the Coalition was wrong-footed over the US’s changing attitude to recognition of China in 1971, but even there they eventually accommodated after going into opposition. In this case, the accommodations Howard made on climate change, in his last ditch attempt to cling to office, is starting to seem like it never happened.

The problem for the right is that the election loss has opened up the issue, that was there all along and coming to the surface in the last year of the Howard government, of what they stand for – and they have no answer for it. Turnbull has tried on economics and the deficit, but they have no coherence on it for the same reason that Labor can’t decide whether this reckless spending should stop or go on, there is no real dividing issue over it. Both sides have no real alternative than to prop up the credit system for as long as they can get away with it. So neither Turnbull, nor any other Liberal, could propose any significant measures that would mean the Australian government would be spending much less than it is today.

So instead the Coalition, egged on by their supporters in the media, have latched on to climate change as the issue that will restore the brand. There are three reasons why this might, on the surface, look an attractive solution. First, it taps into the correct view that the climate change agenda is not wholly favourable to the US’s international position, something that the Australian political class continues to rely on. Secondly, it responds to the lingering assertion of sectional interests on which both Labor and non-Labor parties traditionally relied. This comes out when the Liberals keep pushing certain sections of society that will be penalised by climate change action such as the farmers or the coal industry workers (in a feeble attempt to play with Labor’s heads).

Finally, there seems to be some section of the electorate, even if a very small minority, that this does appeal to. But why? When Joyce tries to drum up opposition to climate change action, he talks of people not wanting ‘a new tax’. This makes opposition to climate change action seem like the type of issue that the right can traditionally gain traction on. But it is hard to see that this is what really lies behind this opposition to climate change action. After all, the tax impact is hardly clear-cut and besides, for the farmers, will be some years off even if it does happen. Anyway, people agree to pay taxes all the time if they think the cause is right.

The problem here is they don’t think the cause is right. Or to put it in the language of the pro global warming side, they don’t believe the science or, more accurately (unless they are dissenting climatologists) they don’t believe those that are telling them it. It is this distrust of the establishment, for whom the climate change agenda has now become accepted, that lies behind much of the current scepticism over the issue. This is what distinguishes the Australian right from the UK right, where such anti-establishment sentiment is ignored, or from the US right, where it sometimes indulged, and then managed and ignored. Here, with no history to look back on or international power to be comforted by, the traditional establishment parties in this country have nothing left to turn to but an anti-establishment mood.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 30 September 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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6 responses to “What a political crisis looks like – Climate change edition”

  1. fred on 30th September 2009 9:53 am

    Two major problems for the far right COALition of Liberals and nationals are illustrated by polls that are analysed by Possum.

    “This ABS analysis focuses on the views of farm managers on climate change and it’s effects on their business…..Firstly, whether farmers believe that climate has changed….”
    The answer is “yes” according to 65.6% of farm managers in Australia.

    That puts the COALition, and the Nationals in particular, in the perilous position of being at odds with the majority of one of their core constituent groups.

    See here for more details.

    Further to that are the results of this Newspoll.
    In answer to the question [in part] “Are you in favour or against the introduction of the CPRS?”
    -67% of Australians are in favour.
    -57% of COALition voters are in favour
    -A minority of Australians and COALition voters are against the introduction of the CPRS.

    Again, the COALition are pushing a line unattractive to most Australians and even their own supporters.

    Not wise.

    The second problem they have is that these numbers are more likely to get worse [for the COALition] in the near and further future.

  2. kymbos on 30th September 2009 11:05 am

    I would argue that the Coalition’s position on climate change will have more significant impacts on their re-election prospects than their equally denialist position on the stimulus.

    This is because eventually interest rates will go up, the electorate won’t like it, and between now and then the Conservatives will be repeating the mantra “interest rates will rise because of this reckless spending”. It may not be soon, it may be economic rubbish, but eventually the Great Unwashed will start listening to the Liberal line and again believe the rhetoric of ‘better economic managers’.

    In contrast, on climate change the Coalition is simply on the wrong side of history. The times won’t ever suit them and they will have to flip positions. The issue will be how much damage has been done to the country by the delays caused, and how forgiving will the electorate be when they flip.

  3. Graham on 30th September 2009 12:08 pm

    I don’t live in the bush but I certainly talk regularly to people who do, and my impression is that rural folk are well aware of the issues of climate change because they are in tune with weather, seasons, etc and they know that something is happening.

    The other thing is that rural industries have, in recent years, been very innovative in their practises so understanding climate issues is a very logical extension.

    The problam with the Liberals and Nationals is that they are so obsessed with playing a spoiling role in this debate that they haven’t bothered to show us what they actually stand for, other than a few oxymorons like “clean coal”.

    And seriously, putting Ian MacFarland in as spokesperson on climate change – what was Turnbull thinking?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 30th September 2009 4:05 pm

    Playing games with rising interest rates may be OK tactics but doesn’t solve the more pressing problem of what the Liberals stand for, in my view. This is what is driving the sceptic position on cc, which I think is impossible to justify on electoral grounds.

    Another appeal I think the cc agenda has for rural regions is that it turns weather-related problems, such as the drought, from a regional to a global concern, which would be seen as better for arguing for government support.

    (Apologies fred for the late posting of your comment. It was caught up in the spam filter.)

  5. ockerguy on 30th September 2009 6:29 pm

    I live in a rural area, and agree that most farmers know that climate chamge is a reality. In fact many have known this before the general city population because they are in tune with the weather.
    What rural people oppose is the carbon tax. This does not make them climate change sceptics.
    The agree on the problem. It is the solution they disagree with.

  6. Rose on 1st October 2009 1:37 pm


    I am a student at RMIT University and I am currently researching public opinion on emissions trading in Australia. Would you or your readers be interested in participating in the following online survey?

    It is completely anonymous and should take 5-10 minutes to complete. Results will not be published outside RMIT, however participants are welcome to contact me if they would like these forwarded upon completion in November. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any queries – details are included at the beginning of survey.

    Many thanks in advance, Rose

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