When Tony Abbott chose to highlight his blood oath to rescind the Gillard government’s clean energy legislation on the first day of the election campaign it raised this question: do weathervanes bleed?
I was reminded of Malcolm Turnbull’s irritation revealed a week after Abbott defeated him in a leadership ballot on 1 December 2009: “Tony himself has, in just four or five months, publicly advocated the blocking of the [emissions trading scheme], the passing of the ETS, the amending of the ETS and, if the amendments were satisfactory, passing it, and now the blocking of it. His only redeeming virtue in this remarkable lack of conviction is that every time he announced a new position to me he would preface it with “Mate, mate, I know I am a bit of a weathervane on this, but … ”.
Abbott says he changed his mind on climate change action in September 2009 in the country town of Beaufort, where he told a public meeting of 130 people that climate science was “absolute crap”. He was playing to the crowd, which loved it. Since then he has been dancing artfully to his own dog whistles to sceptics, at the same time occasionally glancing in the direction of the science.
By October 2011 Abbott’s heart was beating fast. The government’s Clean Energy Future bills had passed the house. After enduring one of the most torrid scare campaigns the country can remember, the frontbench erupted in joy. Hugs and kisses were freely given and received. There was that deliciously awkward moment involving the prime minister and Kevin Rudd. Abbott attacked “the unseemly spectacle of a government cheering itself for breaking its own election promise. They celebrated their betrayal with a kiss.“ He gave the “most definite commitment any politician can give that this tax will go. This is a pledge in blood.”
Through this entire performance he has managed to avoid addressing what has been obvious from the start: his so-called direct action policy, made up on the run in the immediate aftermath of the Senate defeat of Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, is full of holes. No government could ever spend the money needed to make it work. The evidence that the policy is a dud, which has been accumulating for more than three years, expanded recently. Analysis by consultants SKM MMA and Monash University’s Centre of Policy Studies found that under direct action Abbott would blow promised emissions cuts unless $4 billion more was committed.
Do Australians realise that, when it comes to climate change, they may be voting for a weathervane in danger of yet another wild gyration, as measured on the Turnbull scale? Not if they relied on the media to learn about the missing $4 billion. The newspapers on the morning of August 15 contained virtually no coverage. The Sydney Morning Herald, which regularly escapes sharp analysis because critics are focused on its opposition, had a ludicrous 154 words up the back. The Age did a little better, while the ABC gave the story something of the prominence it deserved. The News Corp papers did not carry it at all, although they published an AAP story on their websites as the day wore on.
Not surprisingly in this fossil fuel paradise named Australia, climate change has been the most divisive issue in a generation, at least. Partly as a result of Abbott’s dog whistles (and Rudd’s decision to leave his moral outrage at the Church door in 2010) many Australians turned their backs on the future. But this won’t last. Climate change will be a big issue again soon. This will be so particularly if Abbott finally stops his dance and fulfils his blood oath to stand and deliver a double dissolution on the issue, as he promises should his plan be thwarted.
Would he take his direct action policy to such an election? The policy is clearly a dud so the answer is probably no. The weathervane will spin. Where is the media providing us with this context? Doing their own dance, which involves keeping their eyes averted.
Philip Chubb is an Associate Professor at Monash University.