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Changing climates

Burn: the Abbott government’s slippery slope

AAP/Jane Dempster

It could never have been foreseen in a column looking at political climates and the physical climate that a sitting Australian government would ever show the symptoms of the climate crisis itself.

But the impact of the May budget and the war-like attitude of some frontbench ministers towards those most affected has been so damaging for the government that it shares all of the hallmarks of the breakdown in our climate system, with various commentators predicting the government has begun a kind of death spiral.

It is so bad that even Andrew Bolt thinks he can come to the rescue, News Corp-style, by manufacturing a diversion about Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott just to change the relentless headlines.

However, the budget crisis will live on well past the hubris of Bolt. The budget, especially many of the nastier small but hurtful cuts, has become a symbol of a government turning on its own people.

The crisis shows just how sensitive and precarious a political climate can be. The Abbott government went to ground once elected last year. The government entered a period of just talking to themselves, not communicating with their constituency, while working on a deregulation agenda.

It is possible to say that the current government was ignoring the public more than it does climate science. It refused to look outward as well to the global economy, where the government would see just how relatively healthy the Australian economy is.

To reveal their agenda in one hit may prove catastrophic for the government. So many have been directly alienated by the budget, so much trust compromised, and so much political capital used up as to place the Abbott government on a slippery slope.

The precarious situation of the government is as fragile as our climate system. As with human-made climate-forcings (mainly greenhouse gases), very little attention is paid to the consequences. With physical climate, it is the methane releases from melting permafrost and ocean floor clathrates; it is the extra water vapour acting as a second-order GHG; it is the loss of reflective sea ice; the acidification of oceans leading to the collapse of 30% of the world’s carbon sinks – and these are just the consequences that have started to kick in already. There are dozens more that are about to be triggered.

When these kick in, a climate system that has been stable for 10,000 years will rapidly collapse.

With the budget, the consequences will continue to damage the government. In treating voters with contempt – or as soulless economic actors who put a drain on social surpluses that should be redirected to business interests – the government has turned voters themselves into the enemy.

But voters do have souls. They think for themselves, and, like the climate system, they get angry. When this anger is channelled back to the government, all kinds of unexpected things happen:

  • Street protest mushrooms on all fronts, for Medicare, for education, for retaining a basic safety net for the most vulnerable;

  • Internal division within the government begins to emerge, creating problems internally as well as externally;

  • Independents witness the backlash and are less likely to support the government’s agenda in the senate; and

  • Ministers begin to defend the security of the PM’s position – the first sign that it is under threat.

When all of these things are put together, it is harder for the government to retain any legitimacy, let alone a mandate. But as with climate change, the denial is so strong that the government is even accelerating the policies that are as offensive to the public as excess carbon dioxide is to a climate that is habitable for humans.

We know how the climate crisis has escalated to this point. But how did the Abbott government get into its current situation?

What has exposed the government the most is the – possibly false – sense of security it has from three major sources. One is the sense that the Murdoch press have aligned themselves so completely with the government that they can take risks knowing that News Corp will come to their rescue.

The second is the Royal Commission into unions and the way the government anticipates it will take the heat off them and put it right onto Labor in the lead-up to the next election.

Thirdly, the government might believe it can reproduce the highly disciplined election campaign of 2013, which rested largely on the “sporty” populist image that Abbott was so careful to cultivate. The life-saving club, the poli-pedals, the rugby routine, supporting GWS in the AFL – this is where all those swinging votes counted for so much.

But the audience for all of these media stunts is quickly being alienated at the hip-pocket, and no amount of massaging the reality by News Corp and ministers themselves is going to change this.

They may have banked on these forces saving them. But from a distance, you would think that such a strategy would have been abandoned, as they behave as though one term is all they are going to get.

The government may as well go-for-broke in achieving the 75 reforms that the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) has beseeched them to do, in a call to “Be Like Gough”. The call-up is to be as radical on the right as the IPA perceives that Gough Whitlam was on the left.

So, instead of switching to any kind of concessional politics, the government has turned its back on its constituents with an us-versus-them mentality that has surprised many.

As with climate change, it is taking a great risk in not making peace with voters now. Environment minister Greg Hunt has repeated many times the claim that the government will easily meet its commitment to achieving emissions reduction targets by 2020, in what has been coined the “critical decade”.

But it now looks like even these paltry commitments are to be abandoned in this term of government. An analysis of budget papers reveals the government will only meet 14% of that target by 2018, leaving the remainder to be met in only two years.

Coupled with this is the fact that the government is still planning to keep climate change off the agenda at the G20 summit in November. Australia is going to look extremely isolated on climate change action alongside Canada, which is on Abbott’s overseas itinerary for Sunday.

In the meantime, Australia will burn fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow. It is looking increasingly like the government does not have a vision, either for itself or for how Australia will fare much past 2016.

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