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Changing climates

Abbott may have delivered the ETS’ last rites, but what did Bernardi’s G8 do?

AAP/Alan Porritt

If Tony Abbott had been expecting to get a lift in the polls from carbon tax repeal, he would have been left disappointed by weekend polls which had him tracking from bad to worse. His adept handling of the MH17 tragedy might give him a slight lift in the next poll, but these polls are even more calamitous for Abbott if we accept claims that landline-based polls have been underestimating the Labor and Green vote for many years.

Many revelations have come out with the carbon tax repeal, including disclosures about an inner core or ‘Group of 8’ within the Coalition who have worked tirelessly to kill the carbon tax, the reporting of Rupert Murdoch’s views on climate change and a rearguard pitch by News Corp tabloids to turn the repeal into a rejection of the science.

In an entertaining expose of Coalition thinking and machinations in the Sunday Telegraph, Carbon Tax: Ding dong, the big climate con is dead, Miranda Devine credits the carbon tax repeal as the end of the ‘global-warming industry’. Apparently ‘the game is up’, and Abbott and Devine are putting climate change scientists on notice as ‘shamans’ who have ignored a world that only News Corp journalists seem to believe has not warmed for 16 years.

Daily Telegraph front page, July 18.

But Devine reveals the ‘unsung’ heroes who have seen the ETS to the grave to be a “core Group of Eight” who, the night the carbon tax was repealed:

… gathered for a quiet celebration, the culmination of a seven-year campaign.

With the tax gone, the G8 have consented to being named as Cory Bernardi, Michaelia Cash, Mathias Cormann, Brett Mason, Barnaby Joyce, Mitch Fifield, Fiona Nash and David Bushby. The plot was devised in Bernardi’s office up to 15 months before Abbott became leader, to:

… hatch plans to defeat Rudd’s ETS, despite Turnbull’s embrace of it.

Devine’s story seems to be suggesting this group was instrumental in Abbott taking the leadership by one vote from Malcolm Turnbull, and lead to the Coalition being on the ‘right side of history’ on climate.

While we now have an inside account of Labor’s ETS odyssey, it looks like the Coalition’s own story is still to be written. Exactly how Bernardi’s G8 plotted to undermine Turnbull, and Rudd’s particular version of the ETS, ten years after John Howard had first come up with the idea, is unclear.

While we will have to wait for the Coalition’s own climate-obsessed house-of-cards tale to emerge, we now have a more complete view of Murdoch’s views on climate change to date. Murdoch’s interview on Sky News to commemorate 50 years of The Australian rolled out many of the standard denialist positions on climate change, including:

  • Climate change has been going on for a long time.

  • Human contribution to climate change is negligible or non-existent.

  • Something is happening with the climate but it is nothing to worry about.

Murdoch’s statements were immediately dismissed by climate scientists, but it is worth considering whether these views directly influence the content of News Corp papers in Australia.

Murdoch scholar David McKnight writes with a sophisticated take on this. It is not the case that Murdoch phones editors to suggest an editorial stance, except perhaps during an election. Rather, these editors already understand Murdoch’s worldview and are falling over themselves trying to please the master. An acutely paternalistic loyalty-and-promotion structure provides the invisible hand that determines all that goes on within News Corp.

In editorially supporting the repeal, News Corp is largely isolating itself in its reporting of climate. The handful of columnists and journalists who believe the war is still raging – or that it has been won by the deniers –, are increasingly looking very sad.

But News Corp may be buoyed by speculation that Gina Rinehart is getting closer to a takeover bid for Fairfax, which may result in a decline in editorial diversity in Australia.

Rinehart is apparently only interested in the takeover bid if she can find suitable editorial managers. Jeff Kennett has declined an offer and the search might soon be on to replace chief executive Greg Hywood and chairman Roger Corbett, who have refused Rinehart a place on the Fairfax board but would potentially lose their jobs if a takeover happens.

There has been speculation by John Howard’s former chief of staff Grahame Morris that Murdoch’s support for Abbott in last year’s federal election was never about the NBN or gratuitously demonstrating a power to swing an election. Instead, it was about knocking out editorial diversity by neutering Fairfax, which has 18% of the capital city market compared to 72% for Murdoch. This is a figure which only holds up if you count public transport publications like mX, and the local newspaper businesses like the Leader Group.

If such a restructure happens it may be a blow to science and environment reporting in Australia, where Fairfax currently punches well above its weight. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hannam alone has ranked third in a global survey of climate change coverage in 2013, with Tom Arup of The Age also in the top 30.

Without even considering the question of proprietorial influence, it remains to be seen whether a restructure would diminish the standards that Fairfax has set in science-informed environmental reporting, and the crucial national interest role of communicating climate science needed to address the coming crisis for Australia.

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