The Liberals' radical turn on climate change

Five years ago, a near majority of the Liberal Party accepted the scientific consensus on climate change, but under Tony Abbott the party has taken a radically ideological path, isolating dissenters like Malcolm Turnbull.

There is much that is still unclear about Tony Abbott and so it remains unclear about the direction -- to many, the surprising direction -- in which he is taking his government. But there is little doubt that the Abbott-led parliamentary Liberal Party is not the Liberal Party that Malcolm Turnbull once aspired to lead to power.

There is some irony, surely in the fact that at the same time as Malcolm Turnbull has been the subject of furious attacks by two of the leading conservative media people, the cheerleading squad for Tony Abbott and the despisers of Malcolm Turnbull’s politics, Tony Abbott was proclaiming an alliance with Canadian prime Minister Stephen Harper to thwart any move to a global emissions trade scheme.

Listening to their joint press conference, it was clear that neither Harper nor Abbott are too much fussed about climate change. Abbott said it was a significant issue though not a critically important one, and no doubt Harper agreed with him.

Neither of them have publicly rejected the science on climate change but it is clear they emphatically reject the idea that anything substantial needs to be done to try and mitigate the consensus among scientists that time is running out for action before we face serious consequences as a result of global warming.

This position on climate change shared by Harper and Abbott is not Malcolm Turnbull’s position, to say the least.  He has said many times that the scientific consensus on climate change cannot be denied and that an emissions trading scheme is the best way (indeed the only way, he has implied) to meet the challenges of global warming.

Irony is not conspiracy and this is not a conspiracy theory. But it did seem ironic that at a time when Turnbull was under attack by Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt  and therefore in the political spotlight,  Abbott was delivering in spades to those in the Liberal Party who had organised his challenge to Turnbull in December 2009.

People like Nick Minchin for instance, for whom Turnbull’s support for an ETS was a major reason for their determination to get rid of him from the leadership. Indeed, while both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were seriously damaged by their handling of climate change, Turnbull is the only senior politician in Australia to have lost the leadership of his party because he was consistent in his support of both the science on climate change and the need for an ETS to address global warming.

Had Turnbull been prepared to change his position on climate change to something closer to Minchin’s position -- which was outright denial -- there would have been no challenge to his leadership. Of course there had been other controversies, like the Godwin Grech fiasco that had weakened his leadership, but these were minor issues compared to his support for an ETS.

It was a different parliamentary Liberal Party back in 2009 when Abbott deposed Turnbull. Abbott won the leadership ballot by just one vote. Several Liberal MPs and senators had said that their party’s support for an ETS was crucial, that the Liberal Party could not walk away from the challenges of climate change.

Joe Hockey also stood in the 2009 leadership ballot. Hockey was a Turnbull supporter and a supporter of an ETS. Like Turnbull, he refused to abandon this support in order to enhance his chances of winning the leadership, something that those who eventually supported Abbott, had urged him to do.

Joe Hockey’s political journey of the past five years is illustrative of where the Liberal Party has travelled in that time. Hockey is the chief engineer of the Abbott government’s economic direction. This is about more than the shape of the Australian economy. It is fundamentally about the role of government, the size of government in terms of spending and revenue raising and about how to do that spending and revenue raising most fairly.

It is a more radical path that Abbott and Hockey have taken, more ideologically driven. This is surprising and it does point to the distance Hockey in particular has travelled politically.  But it is Hockey’s silence on climate change, his support for the dismantling and de-funding of climate change bodies, his support for significantly diminishing government funding for science and scientific research, especially on climate change, that signals that Joe Hockey is not the Joe Hockey he was five years ago.  

Five years ago, close to a majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party, including Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and the current Environment Minister Greg Hunt, were emphatic supporters of an ETS -- Liberals who accepted the scientific consensus on climate change.

Where are they now on this issue? They are either silent or, like Hunt, have repudiated the views they held not that long ago. Surely it can’t be that they have come to believe that climate change science is junk? It can’t be therefore that they are silent on the need for an ETS because they have changed their minds about the need for urgent action.  They are silent, I suspect, mostly because Abbott has led them to government.

Five years later, here we are, with Malcolm Turnbull, deposed in significant part because he supported an ETS, under attack by people who absolutely deny the science of climate change.  Indeed they are engaged in trying to convince Tony Abbott that his pollution abatement schemes, which hardly anyone believes can work, ought to be abandoned.

Abbott, they argue, should stop pretending that the science on climate change is anything other than ideological rubbish. And those who do believe this nonsense -- like Malcolm Turnbull -- ought to be banished from any sort of senior position in the government.

He has more or less done exactly that in Canada at the love-in with his political soul mate Stephen Harper. When he had been asked at first about the Jones and Bolt attacks on Turnbull, he said that he would always support a cabinet minster. A few days later, having given the matter some thought, he added that Bolt and Jones were his good friends and they had every right to get stuck into Turnbull if that’s what they wish to do.

There was no good political reason for doing this except to make it clear that the furious attackers of Turnbull were his close mates. Perhaps seeing Turnbull under attack was not necessarily advantageous politically in the short-term, but in the long term, perhaps Abbott thought it would illustrate just how isolated Turnbull is in the Liberal Party and among the Coalition’s media boosters.

Why Malcolm Turnbull has stayed in politics -- and why John Howard had urged him to stay when Turnbull was publicly considering quitting -- is a mystery. For all his talent and smarts, he is likely to remain a minor player in Australian politics into the foreseeable future. 

It’s fair to ask why he is still there.