Palmer knows carbon is Abbott's weakness

Unlike any other issue, carbon stands in the way of the Coalition’s 'economic growth at all costs' policy. No wonder PUP policy settings on carbon have been ambiguous.

The Conversation

The Abbott government’s long-standing insistence that its mandate to govern can all be traced back to a protest against the carbon tax were renewed this weekend, when even the WA Senate re-election result was pressed into such an argument.

Tony Abbott said on Sunday:

"As far as I am concerned the very strong take-out of this result is that the Australian people yet again have voted to get rid of the carbon tax and get rid of the mining tax, and I expect these taxes to be swiftly scrapped."

And this line was run even though there was a swing against the Liberal Party, whose vow to scrap the carbon tax has become a well-worn mantra. But then there was also a swing against Labor, and a strong vote for the Greens and Palmer United Party. This leaves Abbott with the rather thin argument that individual “candidates who are against the carbon tax and mining tax have performed very strongly". Seriously?

For Abbott, the people have spoken three times now: in the federal election last year, the Griffith by-election and now the WA Senate re-run.

At the end of the federal election campaign last year, Abbott had a very easy ride in taking this tack. He had the national might of the Murdoch press behind him in every single publication. When he was confident enough of winning, and only then, he declared that the election was “all about carbon”.

Abbott was simply falling in behind News Corp’s global campaign at the time to politicise carbon by transforming it into a political bogeyman.

This time, of course, the message from Abbott is not directed toward voters, a kind of feedback that he hopes will influence future voting trends, but to Clive Palmer, who now holds the balance of power in the Senate.

Palmer, whom Abbott accused of “buying” Senate seats, to which has been added “more cheaply than you can run a national advertising campaign for dogfood”, leads a party which will most certainly oppose the mining tax, but whom Abbott hopes will also oppose the carbon tax.

PUP policy settings on carbon have been ambiguous and inconsistent to say the least. Carbon might be one of those policy areas where Barnaby Joyce would advise you not to talk to Palmer, as you will only get “anarchy”. But PUP’s cageyness over carbon may be a result of the fact that Palmer knows full well that carbon is Abbott’s weakness as it is the one issue that he has raised to a fundamentalist totem.

It is therefore Palmer’s best bargaining chip for any deal he wants to strike with the government. But on the other hand, Palmer is a populist and also knows that while repealing carbon policy matters so much to Abbott, it is not so clear cut with the electorate.

Interestingly, in Western Australia, Abbott does not get the free ride with the Murdoch press as he has in all other states. WA is Seven West Media territory, where Kerry Stokes (who is currently one of the VIP billionaires touring with Abbott on his Asia trip) owns and controls the key news outlets.

Nevertheless, in echoes of News Corp’s coverage of the federal election last year, News Corp publications from outside of the electoral theatre were mobilising last week precisely around the question of carbon tax and its unpopularity.

Pro-fossil fuel thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs commissioned a new instalment of its annual “independent” survey last month of Australian attitudes to climate change. The survey contained a number of leading questions that were apparently designed to generate news stories showing that Australians had moved on from climate change.

However, it backfired. The survey limits itself to asking whether respondents “believe in climate change” and whether they are willing to pay for it, and finds that 2 per cent more of the population sampled (37 per cent) believed that “the world is warming and man’s emissions are to blame” than they did in 2010.

So, Herald Sun columnist Terry McCrann and the IPA’s Director of Deregulation, Alan Moran, decided to selectively focus on the more leading questions that are supposed to show an abandonment of climate change by Australians.

One was McCrann’s argument that 5 per cent less of the population (43 per cent) were prepared to pay between $100 and $500 a year to fight climate change than they were in 2010.

Given that McCrann is an economics writer, you would think he would have noticed the macroeconomic factors that might explain this, and looked into the high representation of blue-collar and low-income households in the sample.

The survey singles out “anthropogenic believers” and McCrann fails to add the fact that a further 24 per cent still believe global warming is happening, and 38 per cent are unsure. This leaves only 1 per cent who categorically don’t believe.

But in a much more hyperventilating piece from Moran entitled “Beware of wolves wrapped in climate change”, he again went for the affordability question to show that only 4 per cent of those polled were willing to part with more than $1000 per year to “reduce emissions” as proof that:

        "…in the battle for public opinion the doom-mongers are making little headway."

Moran uses his article as a springboard for refuting the latest IPCC report with mendacities that would not even compare with those from an underfunded denialist website. “It’s been hot before” claims like “over the millennia natural phenomena have caused the earth’s temperature to rise and fall around four degrees Celsius either side of current levels” don’t even pass rudimentary analysis. During the last thermal maximum, there weren’t seven billion people on the planet.

The IPA’s foray into public opinion has not helped the cause of the Abbott government. Unlike any other issue, carbon stands in the way of the Coalition’s “economic growth at all costs” policy. It is carbon that may hurt Abbott at the ballot box in the next election if every avenue to a mitigation remedy is ignored, and the electorate is unable to be fooled by the “direct action” placeholder.

The fundamentalism of Abbott’s anti-carbon stance can be seen in the intention to remove climate change from the agenda of the G20 summit in November that Australia is hosting to be replaced by “economic growth” as the main item.

It remains to be seen whether the government will appease the strenuous diplomatic pressure being applied by EU countries and the US to have climate change reinstated. The cost of not doing so may be great in terms of Australia’s high per capita contribution to global warming, but this track record shows that Abbott’s narrow national agenda will take precedence over the global nature of climate politics.

David Holmes is a senior lecturer in communications and media studies at Monash University.

David Holmes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.