Possibly the most poignant irony of the federal election was to see the outskirts of Sydney burn while the votes were still being counted. While no records had been broken in the election itself, we saw yet another record for extreme weather events: the hottest start to spring in Sydney since records began.
And with these fires, this irony quickly turned to farce, as the News Corp press launched a new kind of offensive on carbon reduction policies by singling them out as the sole cause of Labor’s loss.
On the front page of the Weekend Australian, the services of former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty were enlisted to endorse the thesis that the carbon tax was responsible for Labor’s punishment on polling day.
Does this argument make sense? Yes, if you look at the influence of climate change denialism in the Murdoch press. No, however, if you examine the carbon politics leading up to the election and the surveys measuring the importance of carbon reduction to Australian voters.
Kevin Rudd’s first step in taking back the Labor leadership was to neutralise something called a “carbon tax” as an issue. Voters had long forgotten that the so-called tax was introduced as an emissions trading scheme in November 2011. It was Abbott and the press that later labelled it as a tax, setting up the mantra to “get rid of the tax”.
But because of the effectiveness of the mantra, Rudd’s focus groups told him to bring forward the abolition of the fixed price on carbon trading himself, which he did.
If anything, it is more likely that Labor’s constant backflips on carbon policy translated into the protest vote that went to the Greens, not the Coalition.
Abbott could see this by the final week and, after having said barely anything about carbon policies except for the slogan, suddenly declared that the election was “all about carbon”.
And this final message of Abbott’s campaign has now been echoed by the News Corp press, both in Australia and overseas. There is now a manufactured but concerted campaign to make carbon policy and global warming an issue that is guaranteed to lose an election for any party that dares take it on.
Last Monday in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, the editorial was entitled Aussie Restoration: The perils of a carbon tax and other lessons from Down Under. It made a pitch not seen before in News Corp papers: an editorial-led push to banish climate change reform from electoral politics altogether. US politicians were advised:
One lesson is to beware the faddish politics of climate change’ which supposedly proved to be a turn-off for voters who ‘will figure out that the politicians are merely looking for one more way to tap into their incomes.
Whilst we have seen the Murdoch press aggressively oppose climate change reform and consensus science systematically for years now - in parallel with extremely wealthy private think tanks and lobby groups - we have not witnessed this kind of attempt to scare politicians off dealing with climate change. The US website Media Matters even reports the case of a US senator who has avoided climate change legislation for fear of facing the wrath of Fox News’ ongoing campaign against climate change action.
Importance of carbon policy to voters
But actually, climate change is important to mainstream voters, and Abbott himself knows this. He personally may not believe it, but he does believe that a majority of Australians are concerned about it. Activists often quote Abbott’s famous Beaufort speech where he declared that the argument for human-forced climate change is"‘absolute crap" but fail to quote the next two sentences:
However, the politics of this are tough for us. Eighty per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.
Hence, Abbott will retain some kind of minimalist policy toward the issue, as long as the surveys are showing voter concern about it.
As of August 27, the ABC’s successful Vote Compass survey of 900,000 participants found that 61% of Australians believe the government should do more to tackle global warming. And in case you think that this just reflects an ABC audience that is assumed to mirror a Left political class, Vote Compass also handily breaks down the doing-more-about-climate-change question into Green Voters (82% support), Labor (71%) and Coalition (24%).
A CSIRO survey on the importance of climate change to individuals conducted in late 2011 showed that 65% of Australians believed climate change was either “somewhat”, “very” or “extremely” important. The 22% that believed it was not that important strongly correlated with a view that climate change was happening but that it was “natural”.
But you wouldn’t know this from reading News Corp papers. News has been consistent in peddling climate change denial for almost five years now. The difference now is that there is an attempt to influence the political process directly by labelling it an issue for political losers. To the extent that this is true, Australia and the US (the two countries that did not sign up to Kyoto from the beginning) really are heading down the road of climate policy suicide, which will one day be held up to ridicule by the rest of the world, where it hasn’t been already.
Of course, as many commentators point out, carbon tax, ETS, CPRS, (take your pick) are not as important as the carbon footprint created by Australian coal exports. And they are right. But at an ideological level of struggle, carbon reduction policies connect symbolically with crucial questions of public awareness, ongoing initiatives in the future, civic responsibility, and policy around renewable energy.
That carbon reduction could possibly become a taboo topic, right at the moment when the earth’s energy imbalance is more visibly translating into some of the most extreme weather we have ever seen in Australia is as inconceivable as it is farcical.