After barely two weeks in office, the direction the Turnbull government is likely to take on climate is beginning to emerge.
Remembering that Malcolm Turnbull would not have had the numbers for a spill without pandering to the radical conservatives that he would stay the course – their course – on climate policy, we should not expect Turnbull to overcome his personal hypocrisy on climate any time soon. After all, it was an emissions trade scheme (ETS) that lost him the leadership in 2009 – even if by one vote.
Yet there are small signs that Turnbull is slowly turning around the ship on climate. First, the future of both the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has been secured by their move to the Department of Environment. Wind power is open for business again, as Environment Minister Greg Hunt confirmed a change of focus in favour of renewables and public transport.
Tony Abbott’s move to block environmental groups to use “lawfare” in opposing large mining projects is as good as “dead, buried and cremated” under Turnbull, according to independent senator Nick Xenophon. And outspoken climate sceptic Maurice Newman has not been re-appointed as chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.
So many of these changes have been made under the radar and certainly not in anticipation of legislative change, such as replacing Direct Action with something on par with global expectations. The parochial stigma that a carbon price and ETS are given by our tabloid media ensures that, for the time being, Turnbull will not mess with Direct Action.
The really hard climate questions, like addressing the gap between current policy and post-2020 targets, may be something that Turnbull will put off until a second term in government, if that’s what he gets.
But now that Turnbull is the leader he has a much stronger basis to take the lead on climate than Abbott did on any issue. This is to say, his prime ministership is not under threat from either the polls or in his own partyroom. Unlike Abbott, Turnbull has no obvious successor to challenge him. Whether this means Turnbull’s autocratic reputation will succeed his declared new era of consultation remains to be seen.
But the lack of a challenger certainly gives Turnbull the power to lead by his convictions. These could even conceivably be based on a rational approach to problems rather than personal loyalty.
What has also emerged in the past two weeks is Abbott’s core problem – the infatuation with personal loyalty. Many on the liberal side of politics laud this trait as a virtue, but it is clear that loyalty blindsided Abbott even from the danger he was in politically.
As even The Australian newspaper complained about so often, the Abbott government had turned the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) into a fortress. Contact with the world had become so controlled and scripted. Trust was reduced to political loyalty, leading with advice from Peta Credlin, Maurice Newman, and the inner cabinet. It only fed those media outlets – such as the Daily Telegraph – that were doing the heavy lifting for the Abbott agenda.
This acute political closure was excruciatingly painful for Australian democracy, with News Corp being the first to sign up to the groupthink treaty, which had become an all-too-cosy media-political complex. The support for Abbott had been solid, except for four editorials in The Australian offering exasperated political coaching on how he could get back on track.
But what has also emerged is the cult-of the-leader friendships between Abbott and conservative journalists such as influential News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt. In the most popular story running in the Daily Telegraph on Monday – reproduced across News Corp – Bolt avowed his adoration for Abbott.
I must declare straight up – I call Tony Abbott a friend … I don’t think Abbott is a great man because he’s my friend. He’s my friend because he’s a great man.
Bolt is inconsolable about the loss of Abbott, who he says is:
… not a thug, bully, racist, fool, liar, woman-hater, homophobe or bigot. He’s not cruel or lacking compassion.
As evidence of this, Bolt offers some rather embarrassing examples, including:
Just minutes after Malcolm Turnbull told Abbott he was challenging for his job, Abbott still honoured a promise to meet girl guides, rather than hit the phones to save himself.
Bolt’s declaration of political love for Abbott completely vindicates critics of the government who held that the attempted repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was a gesture for Abbott’s friendship with one man.
Bolt defended Abbott against charges of being:
A crash-through insensitive bully with no people skills? Ask my children how gentle he was when he called around.
Powerful radio hosts Alan Jones and Ray Hadley have also been enraged by Abbott’s removal. Their partnership with the most radical far-right government in Australian history is over.
The influence of these radio shockjocks – but also The Australian – on the government’s climate change policy is substantial. It is not that such media outlets and programs have directly guided climate policy. Rather, it is that Abbott’s PMO was falling over itself trying to please them in return for their support.
This was the case with Jones and windfarm policy, but also the recent revelations that Abbott’s own department ordered an inquiry into the Bureau of Meteorology following claims in The Australian newspaper last year that the bureau was “wilfully ignoring evidence that contradicts its own propaganda”. You couldn’t invent a better case of the influence of News Corp’s masthead on Australian climate politics.
But now that Turnbull is in power, News Corp has become internally divided as it mourns the loss of its prime ministerial quisling. “Civil war” is breaking out between Bolt and The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell on how to cover Turnbull.
But curiously, the divisions within News Corp are a flipside of the opportunity that a Turnbull government now has – to depoliticise climate change in Australia.
For more than a decade, the tabloid press has been at the centre of the politicisation of climate change in Australia. Coalition governments are promoted as responsible economic managers who see climate change as incompatible with growth, while Labor is wasteful and irresponsible and burdens the economy with carbon and mining taxes. The binary has even spread to politicians being divided on acceptance of climate science, the aesthetics of renewables, and causes of extreme weather.
Whenever Labor and the Greens do anything on climate, the tabloid media ramps up an attack that rivals news coverage of climate in the US. When Labor or the Greens propose climate solutions, it is like, “well of course they are going to say that” – after all, environmentalism is socialism in disguise, as Abbott once put it.
With the legacy of this seemingly immovable binary in Australian politics, strangely, the one government that can move to depoliticise climate is the Coalition. If a Coalition government can take leadership on climate, we might be able to break out of the binary mess we are in, which is the immediate precondition for Australia taking effective action on climate.