Terminating Abbott won’t knock-off the climate sceptics

Abbott's dire position in the polls might be thought to favour backflips on his unpopular attacks on renewable energy. But the emergence of MP Dennis Jensen, a fervent climate sceptic, in the anti-Abbott camp, illustrates it may not be so simple.

Some may believe that Prime Minister’s vulnerable leadership position has enhanced the chances of seeing a more progressive, centrist approach on climate change policy. The view is that Tony Abbott and his government more generally have got themselves into trouble with the electorate by swinging too far to the right. Therefore they’ll move back towards the centre to recover, and this includes making greater efforts to constrain carbon emissions.

The public emergence of backbencher Dennis Jensen – one of the Coalition’s most fervent believers that all the major world meteorological agencies are wrong – as one of those wanting Abbott gone, illustrates it may not be that simple.

Towards the end of the year those within the renewable energy industry were all wondering whether among all the barnacles Abbott was looking to scrape away, his stalled attempt to slash the Renewable Energy Target might be one of them. 

The Warburton Review of the RET had essentially failed to find the scheme guilty of significant power price rises. In addition its recommendations to slash the scheme had been, to a large extent, treated by the media as not particularly credible. It was seen as a pre-determined hatchet job that would largely benefit incumbent power companies, repaying them for being so helpful in demonising the carbon price. 

Polling, including by the Liberal Party’s own pollster Crosby Textor, indicated the review's recommendations were deeply unpopular with the general public.

Clive Palmer’s Al Gore conversion meant the government was stuck in a stalemate, unable to make a swift kill. Instead they were stuck in the media headlights with a big knife in their hands and having to explain why they should execute the clean energy sector when this would act to increase power prices, primarily to the benefit of big power companies while hurting consumers.

The government had already moved to distance itself from the Warburton Review’s scorched earth recommendations. Of all the government’s unpopular initiatives blocked by the Senate, this was one that the government could easily drop without damaging the budget bottom line. So it seemed to be crying out as a barnacle they’d scrape away.

Yet at the end of the year they were still persisting with a position of wanting to slash the large-scale target almost in half. Labor had laid down a compromise of cutting the large-scale target from 41,000GWh to possibly as low as 35,000GWh in 2020, yet the government gave no indication it would accept the offer.

Given the government’s popularity has dived even further since then, and the appalling election showing in Queensland and Victoria as well as Abbott’s own leadership being at risk, hopes have probably grown the government will accept Labor’s compromise.

Yet it might be that Abbott’s extreme vulnerability actually drives him in the opposite direction.

Abbott’s press club address, which was promoted as going to set out a bold new strategic vision for the government instead seemed to be aimed not so much at reversing his flagging fortunes with the electorate, but rather aimed at his party colleagues. 

Dumping his generous parental leave scheme is likely to be most popular of all among those who are Liberal Party MPs rather than swinging voters in marginal seats (although improving the affordability and availability of child care will appeal to many swinging voters). At the same time he looks like he’ll stick by much of the budget measures that have got him into so much trouble in the polls.

It’s worth noting that the discontent with Abbott reached fever pitch over not so much a significant policy initiative, but rather the essentially harmless folly of knighting a prince. Why did this elicit calls for Tony’s head from MPs and conservative commentators when things like cutting the indexation of pensions, or making people pay more to visit the doctor, are far more responsible for their poor showing in the polls?

One suspects it is because attacking such a move didn’t conflict with their deeply held convictions.

Abbott’s immediate task in rescuing his leadership is not so much to repair his standing with the general electorate, but rather to shore up support among his conservative colleagues. Dumping his stalled effort to slash the RET, while it would help him with the electorate, could actually make things worse with his conservative supporter base.

We’ve already mentioned climate science armchair critic Dennis Jensen as the first MP to publicly call for Abbott’s sacking. In addition Senator Ian Macdonald, while stopping short of demanding Abbott’s resignation, has told the media significant changes are required and disputed Abbott’s claim that only the electorate should “hire and fire” the prime minister. Macdonald has repeatedly used Senate estimates hearings to pursue a personal agenda to undermine Australia’s climate science research.

MP Andrew Laming, who has come out this week saying he’ll seek to abolish Abbott’s knighthoods and criticised his strategy on the GP co-payment, stated in a Facebook post in August last year:

People are struggling to pay for electricity and the Renewable Energy Target is pushing up power bills. We’re determined to get those bills down. We've ordered an independent review of the RET.

Laming has also said that keeping the large-scale RET target as is would be “problematic and expensive” for power consumers and should be cut back by 40%.  

Of course, not all Coalition MPs unhappy with Abbott’s leadership are intent on unwinding action to curb carbon emissions. Warren Entsch, for example, has been one of the few public backers within the Coalition of the wind power industry.

Yet Abbott faces a very tricky situation. His core supporter base lies within the right wing of the party and he must keep them on board. At the same time, to repair his more fundamental problem of unpopularity with the general public, he has to wind back policy initiatives that are dear to the right wing’s hearts.