Abbott's climate of opinion change clouds the issues
Tony Abbott put his foot right in it back in May last year, when he warned Australians not to take him at his word. Or so it seemed.
Tony Abbott put his foot right in it back in May last year, when he warned Australians not to take him at his word. Or so it seemed. TONY Abbott put his foot right in it back in May last year, when he warned Australians not to take him at his word. Or so it seemed. Asked about his decision to increase company tax to pay for a parental leave scheme after pledging a month earlier that he would not touch tax rates, he volunteered that he could not always be counted on to tell the truth in interviews.''I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say, but sometimes in the heat of discussion you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark,'' he told the ABC's Kerry O'Brien. ''Which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are those carefully prepared, scripted remarks.'' In other words, Abbott asserted his right to make stuff up whenever it suited his political ends, and not to be judged on it.Labor, in trouble over its shift on an emissions trading scheme, pounced. Ministers rolled out to dismiss Abbott as a joke and a dangerous choice at the coming election. The onslaught did stop Abbott in his tracks for a few days, but it was the last time he got into serious strife over some ill-chosen words.In fact, that incident helped Abbott break free of the bonds that have normally restrained political leaders. And he has not looked back, even if it shows him to be a hypocrite. Having advised everybody not to take notice of what he said in interviews, Abbott has built his current political success on prosecuting Julia Gillard for going back on her word - given during an interview, no less - regarding a carbon tax.Naturally, Abbott does not hold himself to the same standard. This week, he told a seniors' forum on the Gold Coast that his own carbon emissions reduction target was pointless. ''And you know the crazy thing about what the government has got in mind?'' he asked rhetorically. ''They're going to make business pay $9 billion a year, they're going to give half of it back to business and they're going to give half of it to the political groups that they favour. And the other crazy thing about this is that at the same time that our country is proposing to reduce its emissions by 5 per cent, just 5 per cent, the Chinese are proposing to increase their emissions by 500 per cent. So any emissions reduction that we put in place will be wiped out in just a few days by the emissions increase that the Chinese do.''The government and the opposition share that 5 per cent target his office subsequently confirmed that the Liberals are still committed to it. But in the heat of discussion, to borrow his phrase, Abbott allowed that to slip his mind. And why not? This target was the government's target and for that reason alone, it had to be attacked. Attacking is what Abbott, as the Liberal leader, can do. The worry is: is that all he can do?A couple of days after abandoning but not really abandoning his own party's emissions reduction target, Abbott travelled to Gippsland, where he felt the ''heat'' again, in an interview with Star FM. On man-made climate change, a fundamental problem with the Liberal leader is that it's hard to work out whether he genuinely believes that it's real, and if he does, that it requires anything more than a token response. Asked about this, he said: ''Yeah, look, I never said it was a myth. I once used some colourful language describing the so-called settled science of climate change but look, climate change is real, humanity does make a contribution to it and we've got to take effective action against it. I mean, that's my position and that's always been my position, but I've never been in favour of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.''That's not true Abbott has advocated a carbon price and an ETS many times. In October 2009 - just weeks before he took over as leader on behalf of Liberal MPs who opposed a price on carbon - he told the ABC: ''We don't want to play games with the planet. So we are taking this issue seriously and we would like to see an ETS.''But did he mean it? In a July 2009 interview, he argued for the opposition to vote through the Rudd government's ETS for purely political reasons. ''I think it's important to try to choose the ground on which you fight ? And I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.''If you look at everything Abbott has said about climate change since then, it is very hard to conclude that he does not remain hugely unconvinced. On Thursday night, Malcolm Turnbull gave the sort of speech someone who subscribes to the science and sees climate change as a big and unavoidable challenge for Australia would give. Abbott would never give a speech like that because, for him, climate change is an important political issue and is hardly a policy challenge at all.Unquestionably, Abbott has been a runaway success with his campaign against the government's carbon pricing regime. Public support for the government and Gillard has all but collapsed. But this success has not come without a great potential cost for Abbott should he win office. Since he became leader in December 2009, he has reduced himself almost to a political parody - a politician who can rail and complain and harness community anger and generate fear but himself appears to stand for hardly anything, including the words from his own mouth.In July 2009, Abbott's book Battlelines was released. He argued for a rise in the retirement age to 70, wholesale changes to the welfare system and taxation treatment of families and a full-scale restructuring of Commonwealth-state arrangements. The book affirmed Abbott as a substantial, reflective and articulate political creature. He has been running away from those elements of himself ever since.As leader, he has not demonstrated an extensive interest in economic policy, nor in the sort of industries Australia should establish or extend. Nor has he expounded on the type of wealth-generating social and employment opportunities he wants to create. Australia's future place in a rapidly transforming world has barely rated. A former minister for health and workplace relations, he seems to have no big reform ideas for those areas. Abbott's entire leadership is built on a negative, by what he is against.So far, Abbott's favoured policy positions are reheats of the Howard years, except for WorkChoices because the Coalition's official line is that it has no industrial relations policy. As a political fighter, Abbott is unparalleled. Having just been pipped last year, he is shaping up as an election winner. But does he look or behave like a prime minister?Shaun Carney is an associate editor.