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The soul of the Liberal Party hangs on this

I have never been a Liberal voter (never say never, right Brendan?), but the schadenfreude at recent events wore off surprisingly fast. I find myself in the strange position of being simultaneously opposed (on balance) to the Labor ETS legislation because it is not aggressive enough given the scale and speed of the problem, and dismayed by the reasons why members of the opposition wish to scuttle it.

This is not nearly as paradoxical as it might seem – it is precisely because I want a more visionary response to the problem than Labor has offered that I want a viable opposition with a constructive approach to climate change. Recent events suggest that you can’t have one without the other

Labor’s ETS legislation is being fought by a large number among Coalition ranks not because of the specifics of the response to human-induced global warming, but because of the very fact of there being one. To the denialists it is a straightforward absurdity – there can be no appropriate response to a non-existent problem.

Andrew Bolt hammered this point home in his rather fractious interview with Mark Colvan on PM last Friday: there is no warming, therefore the Liberal party’s problem is Turnbull, pure and simple. Sophie Mirabella went one better with her desperate, up-is-down argument against Turnbull in the Sunday Age – the party room objection to the ETS is about model rather than concept, thus colonising the curious new territory of denial denial, though she would surely, um, deny this.

It’s contravened by the fact that the Liberals got most of the changes they purportedly wanted out of recent negotiations, not to mention Nick Minchin flagging well before the legislation reached the senate that even if they got the lot, he wasn’t necessarily inclined to support it.

For the Liberals (not so the Nationals, well and truly united in denial – disciplined delusion is something I guess), the issue has been lurking, Ridley Scott Alien-like, beneath the surface for several years.

Now the bloody denouement – but will John Hurt’s corpse be Malcolm Turnbull or the Liberal Party?

Climate change denial within Coalition ranks was always an open secret, but even those members of parliament who – like Mr Bolt – serially misinterpret graphs involving global temperatures were apparently able at the very least to understand polling numbers suggesting that a majority of Australians believed that recent climate change: i) was largely human caused; ii) was of concern, and; iii) demanded some form of response from the country’s leadership. Break this down by age, and the numbers only get uglier for the future of the Liberal party.

The realisation of which the Howard government arrived at late – interviewed on Four Corners in 2006, the then-PM acknowledged mildly that a world 3oC warmer might be ‘less comfortable for some’.

This was the year that the world seemed to turn the page on climate, and this kind of apparent environmental naivete played to the bulk of the punters pretty much as it probably was – the dissembling of an ageing leader with a stubbornly anachronistic take on the world.

The run up to the election correspondingly saw both a hasty rhetorical greening and the birth of an ETS proposal from the Coalition. Malcolm Turnbull, by that time minister for environment and water resources, had previously argued unsuccessfully for the adoption of an ETS, and subsequently found himself spruiking the government’s somewhat Meatlofianly titled ‘Be Climate Clever (I Can Do That)’ campaign.

I still have the promotional pamphlet, and – other than it’s remarkable triviality (like, I shit you not, ‘Choose solar powered garden lights’…) – there’s nothing overtly wrong with most of the material. It’s just that, divorced from the last-minute political calculation that saw it hastily printed and rammed into every mailbox in the country, it’s so damned innocent.

But while the intent was to demonstrate leadership, the impression given was instead of a government that had spent eleven years leaning on its shovel suddenly pointing at the ground and suggesting that we all dig. It was deeply condescending, and darkly, unintentionally funny.

That aside, this was Coalition policy under John Howard, and most of the same players involved in the current Malcolm-you’ve-broken-our-hearts sturm und drang were members of that government, so it’s worth quoting Turnbull’s ‘Be Climate Clever (I Can Do That)’ introductory message at some length:

‘Australians know that our climate is changing and that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are a major cause. A drier, hotter climate will affect our economy, our environment and our way of life.

‘Together, we need to slow and then stop the rate of global warming. This means the whole world will need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over time, all, or almost all, of the world’s electricity will need to come from clean energy sources which do not emit greenhouse gases.’

Obviously, the likes of Minchin et al – and for that matter Howard – didn’t actually buy any of this, but it was judged politically necessary to offer something to the electorate. If the Coalition had miraculously pulled off the win, it’s possible that Howard could have secured party room support for an ETS not dissimilar to Labor’s current proposal because the hard core conservatives of the party – from whose ranks the deniers are largely drawn – could relate to the man (though for Abbott, it’s always been something… more).

Who knows, they might have eaten the proverbial shit sandwich for him. But no way for Turnbull.

Fate of course delayed the reckoning. And ever since, the party has been content to let the problem gestate – a strategy that had little downside as long as the party didn’t have to make decisions on substantive legislation. Last week’s desperate delaying tactics – farm it out to another committee etc – before the senate rose represented the last desperate attempts to cling to this approach.

Steve Fielding’s outraged senatorial scoldings have become pretty routine, but the one on Friday actually found the mark as he pilloried the recalcitrants – despite his common cause with their opinions – for their failure to take a position.

It’s hard to guess just how far out the Rudd government consciously played this, but moral considerations of, you know, the future of the planet and stuff aside, this was a political master stroke: initially withhold some of what the Coalition party demands with the ultimate intention of including it; negotiate with the Coalition in the knowledge that the denialist faction will not, on principle, accept ANY deal, and is thus hoping for a hard ball offer that can be rejected while maintaining the subterfuge of Mirabella’s ‘bad model’; commend warmly the contribution of the opposition leader and offer a generous deal that an opposition negotiating in good faith could not reasonably refuse; stand back and watch the blood spray up the walls as the alien climbs out.

I’ve been amazed by the near-constant refrain across the media of just how badly Malcolm Turnbull has handled this issue in the party room. What was the right way to handle it?

If some members of the party chose to stamp their feet like petulant children because they didn’t get their way, then blood was inevitable. Are we really to believe that his arrogance was the primary culprit here, that if he’d leant a more tender ear to their concerns they would all have lined up behind him? I don’t.

In some ways it mirrors the old media approach to the climate change issue – the deniers must get a balanced hearing regardless of their numbers (though in the case of the Liberal party room they’re admittedly pretty high) or the extent to which their views stand against the physical, planetary reality of the situation.

This is manifestly not balance – it reflects not a lack of bias but a lack of judgement. As Malcolm Turnbull more or less pointed out in his defiant speech on Thursday, the aims of placating the denialists while contributing to the kind of meaningful action on climate change that the bulk of the electorate demands are fundamentally incompatible.

For his good judgement Turnbull will probably lose his head, which is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the party clearly perceived before the last election that its leader was damaging its electability and nobody would chance the guillotine.

It’s also been cast by many as a fight for the soul of the Liberal party. Maybe it’s Abbott’s curse – the two public institutions seemingly most important to this man’s life are both fighting (and seemingly failing) to balance the need to evolve in step with (and thereby maintain relevance to) a changing world while holding to a core set of principles upon which its members can agree.

You make the church too broad and everybody wants to sing a different hymn; too narrow and they stop turning up.

But maybe it’s simpler than that. Yes, there are good reasons why the denialists show up where they do within the political spectrum (an interesting issue for a later post), but at the risk of serious naïvete, to the extent that the Left / Right paradigm still means something, it is humanity’s response to climate change that can be approached via this framework rather than the physical facts of its existence.

But if it is naïve, well, Sarkozy in France understands this, Cameron in Britain understands this, and to suggest that the soul of the Liberal party hangs on this question doesn’t say much for that soul.

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  • 1
    gianni
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    The SMH is reporting that in a secret ballot immediately after the leadership vote the Liberal Party voted 54 votes to 29 against passing the ETS. That’s a decisive plurality in favour of doing nothing. I’d say that clearly answers the question of where the soul of the Liberal Party resides on the question of policy responses to climate change.

  • 2
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Well said.

    If the Liberal Party (and perhaps as you posit the Rudd government as well) has determined that winning a future election by exploiting the divide between generations and perceptions is more important than the future of the planet, you would think that they would focus on surer ground.

    An irony that keeps surfacing for me is that far from being some radical, left wing plot, the climate science is the result of years, and years of careful and very cautious consideration, from some of the world’s most careful and often conservative scientists – some of who work for Governments – within the UNs IPCC. You would think that this would appeal to those who want to see careful, measured and reasonable arguments as the basis for making important decisions? So why come out as skeptics – even if they choose to remain so? Why not confine their arguments within the boundaries of economic rationalism, where as a Party they hold some strong ground?

    I don’t put this forward as a counter to your argument … but as a genuine question into the ether.

    Right now I just hope that the Rudd Government has a fallback for Copenhagen that will allow us to stand with our face forward, rather than ashamedly staring at our shoes.

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