11 July 2008

An air that kills

The turmoil in the Liberal Party over carbon emissions is symptomatic of the debate within the community. Liberals can take no comfort from this because Australia needs more than just the passive space of a stage on which to act out this drama.

The 2012 deadline is sound, not only because it marks the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol, but because it will take that amount of time to consult with people and hose down the wider excesses of both climate-change denialists and those who believe we have already entered the end of days. It is inevitable that the government will have to postpone its rash 2010 deadline, as anything put in place by then will be half-baked (especially, not even if, Bob Brown supports it). Waiting until 2012 puts the Coalition in the position that Nelson wants it in now, now, now - that of a responsible party of government.

The reason why this is so pathetic is that at a time when leadership is required, the last thing you need is to muddy the waters. We have no idea what the Indians and Chinese are doing, bleats Nelson, we have no idea what the Japanese or Americans are doing, so we should sit on our hands and wait. The dig at Al Gore is all very well for those involved in US politics, but it reveals the dangers of importing US neocons wholesale and wondering why they don't resonate with Australians.

Nelson, Turnbull and Hunt had the ability to establish some dominance over Rudd while he was overseas. Without Rudd, nobody else in the government has the standing to balance both environmental and economic responsibility: not Garrett, not (thanks to the non-solution over the Murray-Darling) Wong, not Swan. By going to Hokkaido Rudd was never going to be present at the creation of some paradigmatic deal coming out of the G8 - not where the only leaders not terminally damaged were those of Canada and Germany, neither of whom stood up and dragged the other sad sacks along with them. A concerted effort to engage with Garnaut would have put a dampener on Rudd's penchant for overseas travel, which may well cramp his style and limit his appeal for his current job. Nelson, Turnbull and Hunt blew it.

My favourite bit was Nelson's fear that the government's proposed emissions trading scheme both meant nothing and, at the same time, "has all the hallmarks of a giant revenue grab and centralist redistribution" - i.e. they're no better than Tony "Abolish the States" Abbott.

By talking across each other, the Coalition look like a rabble and will convince nobody that they are an alternative government. If they do this on the most important longterm issue there is, nobody will be convinced they can manage a budget, defend the nation from enemies real and imagined, etc.

Nelson owes his place to Minchin, the most powerful climate-change denialist in Australian politics today (Michael Costa is just a wacka). There is no political damage at all in laughing off Minchin and his quaint antidiluvianism. Doing so would encourage lobbyists for coal miners and other carbon emitters to be a bit more clever than they have been, to adapt to a situation where they don't have the whip hand that they had under Howard. Nelson's piece in today's Australian gives no confidence that if a global consensus were to emerge, the Coalition could respond

It is not only Brendan Nelson who is in thrall to the Tom Switzer/Abbott mentality that once you've muddied the waters, the status quo is sustained and the argument is won for conservatism. Lenore Taylor thinks that if you want a statement from the Opposition on climate change, who better to ask than the spokesperson on Families Families Families Aborigines Welfare and Families. Yeah, he'd know:
There is considerable support within the Coalition for a tougher line, with frontbencher Tony Abbott telling The Australian Online yesterday that he thought Dr Nelson was doing "a very good job in calling into question the apocalyptic language of the climate change zealots" and insisting that there was "nothing wrong with debate inside a political party".

This is not a tougher line, this is a dumber line. Tony Abbott's swagger does not equate to toughness, his assertion of rubbish is the sign of a weak mind rather than a strong one. Once you've knocked the far left into a cocked hat there are still carbon emissions buggering up the planet. Muddying the waters only works on trivial issues like the presidential republic or the Medicare safety net.

Besides, this time last year do you think that Tony Abbott was some sort of champion of internal party debate? And you wonder why bloggers dump all over the mainstream media.
Dr Nelson warned yesterday the climate change debate should not be allowed to become a "religious crusade", with "people that are running around saying, 'Look, if we don't do this we're going to have disease and death and plague and pestilence and all sorts of dreadful things visited upon us"'. And he repeated his view that by going alone on an ETS, Australia risked "economic suicide".

Switzer, Minchin and Abbott would love nothing more than a simple conflict between zealots from either side, with a muddying of waters and a clear victory for the status quo. Nelson's "warning" is a sign that he's not taking the initiative in this debate; conservatives don't need to take the initiative when they are in command by default. However, the one thing that comes out of Garnaut is that the case for the status quo cannot be maintained. That, and because the denialists aren't in government, makes this ridiculous strategy. It will get the Liberals further away from government not closer to it.

At the next election Rudd will get credit for trying and fine-tuning a response to carbon emissions, be it a tax, an emissions trading scheme, a combination of these and/or something else entirely. It might be counterproductive, it might make it hard for people already doing it tough, but on the whole voters will give Rudd credit for being focused and for trying. The Liberals aren't even trying to address the biggest political issue of the day. Indeed, they are using the very tactics that got them tossed out of government, and they certainly aren't focused. This will only get them tossed further out, and Rudd's rushed response to climate change will look better than it would warrant.

Because the position of the government is not clear, Barry O'Farrell should declare this is the wrong time to sell NSW's electricity system. This would sink Iemma and Costa and prevent Labor from having a bag of cash with which they can bribe their way back into government. He can also talk about using the transition period as one for beefing up non-carbon-emitting energy and introducing responsible power use strategies by business and industry to look all statesmanlike. None of the muppets in the NSW ALP could match that and they'd just drift.

People who can't address an issue until it's polarised just aren't helpful in coming to grips with the subtleties of an issue like climate change. You need debate for that, not people who have got where they are by sidelining debate. It isn't just Nelson who's irrelevant, jerks like Minchin and Abbott are rendering themselves irrelevant too, which gives faint and probably fleeting hope to those of us who'd like a liberal government.


  1. Andrew, will you stop writing this stuff on your blog and start writing it in books or articles where you will have a wider readership and potentially make more money?

  2. I can do both. You clearly missed the anti-Manicheanism in this piece, which is consistent with my experience of you but not with your subtle, nuanced articles. You should view this blog as a teething rusk for books etc. to come.