The best moment in last night’s 4 Corners was when palaeontologist Bob Carter, giving one of his spiels about why climate science is rubbish to a group of rural Queenslanders, asked his audience who was under fifty. Two or three hands went up.
Turn the sound off, and it could have been footage of a One Nation meeting in the 1990s: old, white, rural people, confused and unhappy.
There’s a number of similarities between Hansonism and climate denialism. One Nation supporters were primarily older, conservative, low-income, poorly-educated voters, often in regional areas. Opposition to emissions trading is strongest amongst older and Coalition voters. And they share a similar approach to communication. Both are immune to rational argument, preferring “common sense” and invented or meaningless statistics over verifiable evidence or logic. Indeed, a salient characteristic of Hansonism was its equation of inarticulacy with authenticity.
Pauline Hanson’s verbal maladroitness might have earned the derision of the media but, as with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, it was that very ineloquence that appealed to voters suspicious of verbal dexterity, suspicious of those with “all brains and no common sense”. Barnaby Joyce, not so much inarticulate as clumsy and gaffe-prone, appeals similarly as a “voice of the bush” despite being an accountant educated at a Sydney GPS school.
And both Hansonism and climate denialism are more accurately understood as vehicles or expressions of other, more fundamental concerns. Many One Nation supporters were victims of a decade and a half of economic reform – blue collar workers left jobless by the decline in manufacturing, or regional communities where competition policy and agribusiness had cut employment and national businesses had packed up and left. It was their sense of abandonment by mainstream Australia that fuelled their embrace of Hanson, almost regardless of her views.
Denialism in its more educated form is a resentment of the perceived success of “the Left” on the issue; on the basis of the views expressed last night, in regional and rural areas it’s about resentment toward the treatment of the bush (thus Joyce’s insistence that the CPRS is a giant tax, despite it being revenue-negative and agriculture being excluded from the scheme). And protectionism is common to both — Hansonism wanted to reverse globalisation and restore the cosseted Australian economy of yesteryear; denialism wants to continue subsidising heavy polluters on the basis that everyone else does.
Both are driven by an innate hostility to the rest of the world which, for denialists, should do something about climate change before we do anything or, in its more extreme form, wants to use climate change to destroy Australia’s national sovereignty.
And both, I’d suggest, are an angry rejection of the idea that there are forces beyond which communities and even governments have no control, whether globalisation or climate change. Some people, in the manner of say the 9/11 truthers, prefer the idea that a vast conspiracy is behind such phenomena, rather than forces unamenable to human control. It seems a much safer world if someone is in charge, even if it’s a sinister world government.
But the biggest similarity is that both mean big trouble for the Coalition. Actual Hansonists were few and far between in the Coalition, but climate denialists are everywhere, although we saw a lot of familiar faces last night. Worst of all, two senior Liberals, Nick Minchin (strangely filmed watching his daughter play netball) and Tony Abbott, lead them — as Gerard Henderson has noted several times, Liberals appear to have a bizarre willingness to discuss party matters on the ABC in a manner guaranteed to cause internal trouble.
While moderates wanted to take on Hanson, the instinct of many conservative Liberals in the late 1990s was to try to co-opt her supporters.
“Hanson is a bigger problem for Beazley than she is for us,” one prominent Liberal said in 1998, not long before One Nation ushered in a Beattie Government in Queensland and nearly ruined John Howard’s bid for a second term.
Asylum seekers gave Howard the chance to pull One Nation voters into his camp into 2001, but by then the antics of Hanson and One Nation MPs had already fatally undermined the movement.
But there’ll be no Tampa for denialism (for that matter, any boats that arrive carrying climate refugees will just strengthen the case for action). Denialism is both a political and policy dead-end, something Tony Abbott in one of his more lucid moments earlier this year recognised when he said his party couldn’t move to a policy that was “browner than Howard.” It was John Howard who ultimately decided to criticise Hanson after steadfastly refusing to do so, and who eventually accepted the need for action on climate change via an ETS.
Howard might have been an arch-conservative but it is his pragmatic instincts that his party is most in need of in dealing with climate change.