Crunch time – again

Tuesday, 24 November 2009 

A couple of days ago, this blogger was contacted by Wilson Tuckey’s office protesting over the last post, which repeated 4 Corners’ lumping of him in with climate change sceptics such as Minchin and Bernardi. It was fair enough that Tuckey’s office did so. His site shows that he may be anti-ETS, but is still a believer in climate change action, preferring appropriately grandiose tidal power projects instead.

Yet the assumption made by the media (and this blog) is understandable since politically, Tuckey is aligned with Minchin and Bernardi, as this growing split in the Coalition is not really about climate change action as such. Under the guise of a bogus scientific debate, climate change sceptics are no more taking the position as a result of their understanding of the science of climatology than Labor is taking theirs. Labor may say they are simply adhering to majority scientific opinion, but then, of course, choose to ignore the reassurances from the majority of the scientific community about nuclear power.

This is a political struggle between a clapped-out left and a clapped-out right happening under the cover of a scientific debate (and not to the benefit of the real scientific debate, as it happens). Labor has hitched itself to an international agenda and the personal values of its leader, something even sceptics and/or Rudd-haters in the government have worked out is the only way forward.

The Coalition is more sensitive to the problems that the shift in the global agenda to global warming creates for its overseas patron, neither is it yet at the stage to hand its domestic policy over to the whims of a single leader. So while the climate change agenda is convenient for Labor, it has become the natural focus of the Coalition’s problems.

Yet the dangers that lie ahead for both the left and right were on display in Tony Abbott’s Lateline interview last week. Abbott is what is known in current parlance as a ‘clever’ politician. Certainly, he put his finger on the government’s central weakness:

The interesting thing about that is here is Kevin Rudd claiming to be able to solve problems that might happen in 50 or 100 years time and he can’t solve the problems that are happening now on Australia’s doorstep.

The government has struggled to get a group of refugees off a boat but has a plan to change the weather. In reality, its program weakness is being covered by a grand project stretching over the next few decades and turned from a domestic agenda to a global one. The contradictions in this approach of shifting the political agenda to an international arena where, as we glimpsed with the Oceanic Viking, it has less control, has the possibility of working itself out at some point.

But for now we are looking at the crisis in the right, rather than the government, and Abbott’s interview shows how bad it is becoming. Abbott can clearly see the problems of where the sceptic line is heading. He avoided Tony Jones’s prodding to follow Minchin’s claim of a “global left-wing conspiracy”. It was a wise move, since it highlights the sceptics’ isolation from the political mainstream, cruelly brought out by Tanner’s jibe about Minchin’s “rural militia” last week. Abbott noted, more accurately, that some pro-climate change activists have “other agendas”.

The problem is so do a lot of sceptics, especially in the Coalition. Abbott had an interesting line in the capacity of society to overcome adversity. It is striking here that someone who believes in the moral constraints on women’s control of their bodies, the cultural and behavioural (i.e. racial) constraints on indigenous communities to run their own affairs, and the social constraints to allow more immigrants, should be more eloquent of the potential of society to overcome adversity than some in the left. The trouble is that for someone from the right, this requires a faith in the market to solve those problems, and he just can’t bring himself to openly say it. Until the last few years, the right in Australia have never had to face this problem of arguing openly for the market. For a century they could do it indirectly by being against unions and the Reds, and then when that disappeared, a phoney cultural war under Howard. Now that this has also gone, the climate change debate has become the last refuge of scoundrels.

It is why, despite Abbott’s best efforts to stay away from the science, reminding us he was a politician, not a scientist, he couldn’t resist. So we had a bogus scientific tête-à-tête between him and Jones over whether the earth had been cooling over the last decade, with Abbott trying on something from the Hadley Centre he read in a book and sounding like an idiot.

As predicted a few weeks ago, Abbott’s attempt to follow Howard’s tactic of straddling both sides of the climate change debate has collapsed and he has been forced to choose a sceptic line. In doing so, it has left him vulnerable to attack from Turnbull and some others in the party as inconsistent and an opportunist. The irony is that there is nothing politically opportunist about the position at all.

The political dead-end the sceptics in the Coalition are heading for is concealed, because they are being egged on by a media looking for some way to carry on the cultural war of the Howard years. In doing so they are creating a constituency out of thin air. In noting that the Coalition would have nothing else to campaign on if they accepted the ETS, Milne certainly has a point, but opposition to the ETS is not a political answer either. Not just because less than a third of voters are actually against it, but because the nature of that opposition is not something that provides a future for the Coalition.

Paul Kelly on Insiders thinks the Coalition must balance climate change action with the demands of its “conservative base”. What on earth is this “conservative base”? The Coalition’s “base” is ultimately its business sponsors – and they want a deal. There may be some from the Liberals’ middle class base who simply don’t want another tax. However, the strongest opposition is likely to come from those most antagonistic to “global left conspiracies” or indeed any political “conspiracies”, the type of voters that Joyce is trying to appeal to and even mainstream powerbrokers like Minchin are being dragged into talking to, but which most Liberals wouldn’t be seen dead inviting to their coffee mornings. To be blunt, the media can make a living out of mouthing off but a mainstream party cannot dislocate itself from a social base. It is inconceivable that the Coalition would base its support so firmly on a support base marginalised from global opinion, let alone mainstream Australia.

For that reason, it is inevitable that, even if he isn’t around to see it, Turnbull’s position will ultimately have to prevail. In the meantime, however, there will be a lot more wrangling. Gerard Henderson, on the same program, thinks this will all die down after Copenhagen. But then he never really understood what was going on in the first place. As he himself admits, he finds the public display of disunity from senior Coalition figures, such as seen on the recent 4 Corners, incomprehensible. This is an establishment party fighting for its political existence but with nothing but a bogus scientific debate and the most anti-establishment segment of society to base it on. For now, however, that need will prevail and those searching for ‘core values’ will likely ramp up the action. Irrespective of his views on climate change, it is no mystery which side the Member for O’Connor will be on.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 24 November 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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4 responses to “Crunch time – again”

  1. Cavitation on 24th November 2009 7:10 am

    I think we need a new word to use instead of “politician” to describe the Liberal and National party rebels over climate change amelioration. After all, it’s far from a politician’s usual habits to support the end of the world or at least its severe diminishment. It is incomprehensible that these rebels want to go to the next election promising that if you elect us, then we will hasten the destruction of the world’s ecosystem. This is not the action of a real politician. It’s the action of a suicide.

    Even if you are sceptical about the reality of the effects of global warming, the risk is still real. People respond to such risks. That is why we have stopped using asbestos for example; the actual dangers are less costly than the high costs of removing asbestos from our buildings, but we spend the extra money to avoid the risks. We spend a fortune on maintenance and regulation of aircraft to avoid the risk of accidents, even though a laissez-faire open skies policy would be much cheaper but having more people in plane crashes. So it is instinctual to respond to risks, and global warming is clearly a major future risk no matter how it actually works out.

    Clearly, adding to the cost of industries that generate air pollution in order to encourage alternatives, is a type of tax. But we live with similar measures, both in the past and presently, which does the same thing and the public accept this. The car and textile industries still have tariff protection to protect jobs; so a carbon tax to protect our ecosystem is just like this.

    No other country has a mainstream political movement that opposes greenhouse gas amelioration; even in the UK and the USA the conservative parties back greenhouse gas reduction. It is a mystery to me why Australia has such a large group of so-called politicians who are determined to commit political suicide at the next few elections. How has the risk of destroying our planet become such a political issue in Australia? Hopefully, the Liberal and National parties will step back from such a crazy policy today. But the damage has been done, and their political misstep will be brought up to damage the conservative parties for a long time yet. How they selected so many nutcases to represent them in parliament is an interesting question.

  2. kymbos on 24th November 2009 8:58 am

    Another great piece. You make out the Coalition to be as entirely ridiculous as they in fact are. How did this all happen?

  3. Graham on 24th November 2009 12:14 pm

    In following the whole ETS debate, a couple of things have occurred to me. Ian Macfarlane has shown some real strength of character in changing his quite entrenched position based on his exposure to the weight of argument.

    The other thing is that it is hard to believe that Nick Minchin ever held senior Ministerial positions in the former Government, in fact it sends a shiver down my spine when I think about it!

  4. Avalon Dave on 25th November 2009 9:16 am

    Where does comedy end and tragedy begin?

    Kevin Andrews? I’m still occasionally bursting into laughter, a full 2 hours since first hearing the suggestion.

    With Abbott and Turnbull doing their best impersonations of Peacock & Howard, I’m looking forward to the “Barnaby for PM” campaign.

    The last few weeks,starting with Four Corners, and culminating in this morning, is just truly, truly unbelievable.

    And the week is not yet over…

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