As Tony Abbott returns to Australia, there are important climate questions about what really did happen in the Oval Office, where he met not only with US president Barack Obama but with Secretary of State John Kerry, vice-president Joe Biden as well as senior economic and political advisors. Such a welcome in the White House suggests an agenda that steps beyond the rituals of leadership diplomacy.
We may well find out in the coming weeks and months when announcements are made about Iraq, although the unusual alliance between the US and Iran probably makes Australia’s involvement irrelevant.
With Kerry there, deputising Abbott as a new sheriff in a US alliance over Iraq might have been on the table. However, it is more likely that they would have laid out to Abbott what the US is having to do to prepare the military for climate change.
This would be strategically a smart thing to do to bring Abbott into the 21st century on climate. We know that Abbott himself is very attracted to military affairs and to cultivating a kind of military charisma to present to voters and his colleagues.
After all, just before meeting with Obama, Abbott had been allowed some personal training with elite Marines. Abbott has also been staying in military police lodgings when in Canberra. Border protection in Australia has now been fully militarised; the government has commenced a war on transparency, and Abbott is intent on increasing defence spending.
We do know that the meeting had managed to convince Abbott to put global warming back on the G20 agenda under the heading of “energy efficiency”. But we also know – according to a senior AAP correspondent, Paul Osborne, who has managed to get his story published widely in Australia, across News Corp, Fairfax, ninemsn, SBS and SevenWest – that Abbott offered the increased fuel excise, which is actually a carbon tax, as an example of climate mitigation policy. Only News Corp revised Osborne’s article, and deleted the sentence that reports:
US media have been repeating an old quote in which he says that climate change is “absolute crap.
But as it transpires, if Osborne’s report is true, someone somewhere has been giving Obama a false impression about Australia and carbon pricing. The report claims that:
Barack Obama has offered an olive branch to Tony Abbott on climate change, conceding the Prime Minister won a mandate in 2013 to get rid of the carbon tax.
There is no record of the form of words by which such an acknowledgement is made. It is more believable that this was a claim made by Abbott about Australian voters. He has been wanting to claim this since the last week of the election last year.
Let’s recap on whether this mandate ever really existed.
Only when Abbott was in an unlosable position in the last week of the election last year with the power-shifting might of the Murdoch press behind him did he ramp up carbon as a mandate issue. Suddenly, the entire election was deemed to be "all about carbon”.
Abbott was simply parroting a News Corp worldwide editorial strategy at the time to politicise carbon and make it into an issue that politicians dare not even touch.
The polls at the time never isolated carbon as a turn-off for voters, whereas they certainly did isolate the fact that the Labor Party had self-destructed to the point of giving government away. It was not until a recent ReachTEL poll that we can see that voters would rather have a carbon tax than a deficit levy, or any of the numerous taxes that Abbott has introduced.
Australians do care about the climate crisis. For Abbott to have told Obama, Biden and Kerry that direct action is at least matching Obama’s recent reforms on cutting emissions in the US is a claim that they would have smiled at but not have taken seriously. Henry Waxman, a veteran US politician, has no time for direct action.
It is true that the Abbott government has pledged to make A$2.5 billion available to the most profitable companies in Australia as “an incentive” to curb their emissions, but no company is going to be interested in this if its means cutting their profitability. Giving taxpayers’ money away to ruling class interests is neither in the interests of Australian fairness, or in Australia becoming a good international citizen.
A Globe International assessment of the climate mitigation strategies of 66 countries rated Australia as the worst international citizen on climate change.
The pure theatre of these reported advances from Abbott were completely exposed the very next day. Abbott gave a speech to the obscure Asia Society Texas Centre in Houston, where where he re-iterated how important coal will be for Australia in many decades to come, even figuring in Australia becoming an “energy superpower”.
Abbott probably thought Texas was a safe place to be crusading for fossil fuels – as too many episodes of Dallas would lead you to think – but perhaps Abbott’s advisers should have done their homework. Texas is actually leading the US in wind power, which has increased 70% in only two years.
Texas is also on track to being one of the first US state to attain a 39% cut in its emissions by 2030. That is a good international citizen right there. But if Australia wants to be bigger than Texas, the political class will have to rise well above the closed ideological chamber that it occupies, and step up to the climate reality that the whole world is facing.