I was stopped at the pub a few weeks ago by a middle-aged bloke, who identified himself to me as a long-time Liberal voter. He was not happy. He commended to me the leader article in that week’s Spectator Australia despairing of Malcolm Turnbull’s obsession with decarbonising the economy. (The Great Betrayal, Part II – 28 July 2018).
Having also read the editorial, I was able to sympathise with this chap, whom I had never met before. However, I felt he should also be sympathising with me and other Australians, who, for as long as both major political parties engaged in manifest madness, were denied an effective government. After all, we are an energy-rich nation, yet here we were once again turning a competitive advantage in cheap power into a competitive disadvantage.
Since then, the country has been relieved of the controversial climate policy as well as the prime minister who wanted to legislate big cuts to emissions. The episode brought to mind my time as editor of The Spectator Australia. From 2008 to 2014, Canberra’s enlightened class was pre-occupied with man-made global warming. Yet just as we’ve recently witnessed the end of Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee, in 2010 we issued last rites to Kevin Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme and in 2014 Julia Gillard’s carbon tax.
When the member for Wentworth lost the Liberal leadership the first time round, in late 2009, over his complicity in prosecuting Labor’s ETS, our editorial bid him ‘Good riddance.’ Time proved that we were badly wrong. But fast-forward nine years to Turnbull’s second downfall, and this magazine’s leader says ‘Thanks for nothing, Malcolm.’ Or, I suppose, ‘good riddance… again!’
The trademark of Australian politics during the ten-year life of The Spectator Australia is that both major parties frequently kill their leaders, and their leaders often betray their friends. In 2010, Gillard shocked Australia by toppling Kevin Rudd in a premeditated and ruthless Labor party coup. Three years later, the assassin herself was fatally knifed – by the very man she herself had stabbed in the back. That saved Labor seats at the 2013 election, but the regicide injected a virus into Canberra’s bloodstream that has made life hell for every prime minister since. In 2015, journalists lauded Turnbull as a messiah, yet he has been the victim of the most brutal assassination since he himself stabbed Tony Abbott to death three years ago. When you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
The French phrase, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same — may be hackneyed, but only because it is often true. Somewhere, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the French writer who coined the phrase, is laughing.
When Turnbull was first undermining the Liberal leader, in the winter of 2008, Peter Costello was lobbied. ‘I won’t back him,’ the former Treasurer told Turnbull supporters. ‘Malcolm Turnbull will destroy the Liberal party.’ That prediction nearly came true. For had Turnbull remained leader, the Liberals would have found themselves cast into the wilderness, wailing and gnashing and rending themselves apart.
A rule of politics is that a leader should not treat his party’s base with contempt. If your true believers don’t vote for you on polling day, what hope do you have to win a general election? By unilaterally imposing his view on a significant group of Coalition colleagues, Turnbull had alienated the party faithful. In 2009, this happened with respect to the ETS. This year, he aroused their anger with his NEG.
For me, writing about the politics of emissions reductions induces a feeling of déjà vu. I keep thinking that I have written this before. Once again, the media critics argue that the world has moved on and Australia needs to catch up with global opinion. Yet once again the politics of climate change are changing rapidly in the other direction.
Climate sensitivity – which measures how much the climate will warm – still appears to be at the low end of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s range. Since Abbott jettisoned the carbon tax in July 2014 – which, as it happens, marked my last month as editor – there has been no cause for alarm. The most prominent doomsayers, from American James Hansen to the Brit George Monbiot, have expressed their dismay at the toothlessness of the Paris international agreement of 2015.
The 196 nations only agreed to volunteer their carbon-cutting promises to the IPCC every five years. They don’t have to set ambitious goals, not least because there are no common standards for measuring improvement. Nor are they required to meet their targets, largely because there is no penalty for non-compliances. Unlike Kyoto, Paris is not legally binding.
The views of the conservative rebels – aided and abetted by this magazine both in 2009 and 2018 – reflect those of a public that cares about the environment but not at the expense of higher power prices and lower economic growth. Unfashionable though it is to say, the electorate does not want to bear inordinate costs for lower emissions when we produce about one per cent of global emissions. The sophisticates denounce people like us as deniers or worse. However, the Australian experience – both during my editorship and more recently – shows that the real obstacle to decarbonising the economy is democratic consent.
Which brings us back to Malcolm Turnbull. Most leaders are plotted against at some point and leaders must handle discontent.
However, there was an intensity to the malcontent among Liberals and conservatives that was particular to Turnbull, both in 2009 and 2018. He was out of kilter with the grassroots, irreparably so, and it was only a matter of time before the party activists took matters into their own hands.
There is, of course, one crucial difference between then and now. He has not just fled the country, as he did in 2009; this time, he really has resigned from politics. To paraphrase a former US president, we won’t have Turnbull to kick around any more.
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