Hewson’s lament of Abbott’s takeover

John Hewson has forceably asked the obvious question – why don't Liberals take ownership of the climate change agenda by rediscovering their faith in markets to adapt?

Let’s face it, whether it's Labor or Liberal neither party is all that convincing that they really buy this problem called climate change.    

Still at this time, for those who are deeply concerned about climate change, it can be hard not to despair about the Coalition. Some of the complete claptrap that a number of Coalition MPs seem to have free rein to utter on the topic can have one screaming at the radio and television in mad anger or, in lighter moments, fits of laughter. 

There’s Labor MPs who equally seem to think that, in spite of having a background in nothing but the union movement and no scientific training, they reckon they can judge that their retired mining engineer mate’s views on global warming outweigh those of the UK Met Office, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Indeed I’ve been told by various Labor insiders that Kim Beasley couldn’t give two hoots about climate change while he was Labor leader. But you tend not to hear so much from them on the topic.  

Whereas on the Coalition side it’s like those ex-lawyers and farmers that know better than atmospheric scientists have a megaphone permanently attached to their mouths. Meanwhile, their colleagues that are concerned about climate change, and there’s a few of them, seem to have been intimidated into silence.

Nonetheless, at its very core climate change is a matter of:

a) physics; and

b) a moral belief that people and organisations should take responsibility for their own mess rather than leaving it to others to clean up.

There’s no reason why the left side of politics should have a monopoly over either of these things. Indeed, the logic many of the Coalition apply so passionately to addressing the budget deficit could equally apply to climate change.

Two former senior members of the Liberal Party gave speeches at the Doubling Energy Productivity Forum last week which proved that addressing climate change is not an issue owned by any side of politics.

Robert Hill was a former Defence minister in the Howard government, as well as holding the Environment portfolio prior to that. In his speech to the forum he gave a history lesson to those who seem to think the sky will fall in from policies to reduce emissions. Hill noted that when he originally proposed a renewable energy target to increase renewables' share by 1.5 per cent (which would keep it at roughly 10 per cent share) he was “told it would destroy the Australian economy”. Now he notes South Australia has achieved 30 per cent renewable energy without ill effect after it was almost nothing just a decade earlier. And at the same time, costs for renewable energy have come down substantially thanks to mass scale and Hill believes they will come down even further thanks to greater scale.

On motor vehicle emission standards Hill noted he didn’t manage to win that battle because he was told it would destroy the Australian car manufacturing industry. Well in the end, he wryly noted, he couldn’t help wondering whether maybe the Australian car industry would still be around had the government been more demanding of Australian manufacturers to match the fuel economy requirements of countries overseas. 

But it was a 30-minute part-tirade, part-lament delivered by former Liberal Party leader John Hewson that suggested the Liberals could own the climate change agenda by rediscovering a faith in markets to innovate and adapt. These Liberals, of whom Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt are two, must overcome the faction who seem driven by a desperate desire to preserve the existing order of things rather than any belief in markets and competition.

No one in their right mind could accuse John Hewson of being a communist hidden inside a green cloak. His 1993 policy manifesto, Fightback, went further than any Liberal leader has ever done in laying out an agenda for freeing up markets and loosening government controls. Indeed he lost the 'unloseable election' because of his almost crazy-brave plans to free up markets in this country and simplify taxation arrangements.  

He started off his speech by saying he was appalled by John Howard’s words in a recent speech that he was “agnostic” about climate change based on his “instincts”. That’s because Hewson noted that climate change “is not a matter of religion, it's a matter of science and it’s not about instincts, it’s about facts”.

He outlined, often through drawing on examples of businesses he had been involved in, how responding to environmental problems can be a spur for innovation and doing things smarter and more efficiently – it is entirely compatible with markets, capitalism and generating greater wealth for society rather than some kind of return to the caves.

But his speech used political inaction and timidness on climate change as really an indicator of a far deeper malaise within Australian politics – a focus on short-term political point scoring without any regard to long-term community interests. Over the late 1970s to the early 90s Hewson recalled both sides of politics cooperated on imposing market discipline on the economy. This was even though it involved short-term pain and put out some sectional interests. This was because both political parties were guided by the long-term, best interests of the community.

But since 1993 politics had gradually got worse he felt. The last election, he noted, had reached the base level of being fought on personal attacks and policy by dot-point slogans. Neither party was prepared to tell the electorate about the need for difficult but necessary changes, such as bringing the budget deficit under control.

The speech was a sad one, but it also serves to provide hope that the Liberal Party could one day champion markets to reduce pollution, rather than tear them down.