So the Liberals have sorted out the leadership, at least for now. Tony Abbott may have only beaten Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote, but that’s as good as a landslide. Plenty of other leaders have won only narrow victories. Billy McMahon, Billy Snedden, Bill Hayden, Mark Latham, Brendan Nelson and Turnbull himself .
Hmmm. Perhaps the less said about that the better.
And for now the moderate-conservative divide has been papered over, with the conservatives in the ascendancy, moderates being told to toe the line or have their preselections threatened (“they owe their careers to the party”, their new leader warned yesterday, unsubtly) and troglodytes such as Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella in line for promotion.
That’s two of the three issues that caused this whole disaster. On the third, things aren’t looking so good.
Putting aside its dog of a CPRS and its determination to use climate change as a political weapon, the government has been dead right to point out that the coalition has repeatedly delayed settling a position on the CPRS. As each stage of the debate has unfolded — the Garnaut Review, the Green Paper, the White Paper, the first cave-in to polluters early this year, the introduction of the actual legislation and its inevitable senate committees — the coalition has put off determining a position, saying it would wait until the next stage, or commission its own review (it’s had two of its own reviews or wait for the legislation to appear), or wait for Copenhagen, or wait for the Americans.
Finally, for exactly one week, they had a position on implementing the policy John Howard took to the last election. Then, yesterday, they demolished their own position and began calling the very policy they had negotiated with the government and accepted last week a “giant tax” that they would fight tooth and claw.
This confusion is mirrored in Abbott’s own position on climate change. As Turnbull accurately noted, there isn’t a position on climate change and the CPRS Abbott hasn’t held, despite his reputation as a bloke who says what he believes.
Apparently he wasn’t saying what he believes when he called climate change “crap” or claimed that the science “wasn’t settled”. Yesterday he was back to claiming climate change was real and at least partly caused by humans. He also, crucially, committed the coalition to the same emissions reduction target range as the government — 5-25%.
Anyway, that’s politics, and no one would be able to do anything without a little hypocrisy.
So now Abbott has the same problem that Turnbull and Nelson faced: what will be the coalition’s policy to address climate change? Specifically, how will it reduce Australia’s emissions by at least 5% by 2020, unilaterally? Because that’s what Abbott signed himself up to on his first day in the job.
Turnbull solved the problem. He got the government to agree to an ETS even less effective and even more rewarding to polluters than Labor’s. Now Abbott has to do the same.
He has very few options, and none of them good, and that’s before he even takes it to a party room divided between reactionary denialists, emissions trading sceptics and the 29 who backed the Turnbull-amended CPRS.
A carbon tax is not an option, and Abbott appeared to rule it out this morning. You can’t campaign against a “giant tax” and propose one of your own. The party of the Right can’t campaign for a vast tax while the party of the Left wants a market-based mechanism.
You can’t have another version of the CPRS. Again, it clashes with the coalition campaign against the CPRS if it is proposing a variant of the same thing. And their own, Keatingesque mantra if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it” would apply equally to the coalition variant.
After that, you’re down to non-economic tools: throwing money at technology, which the government is already doing, except Abbott might be tempted by nuclear power, the most expensive technology of the lot, and the most frightening one to voters. Or regulating industries to compel carbon emission reductions. Again, the party of the Right promising big government spending, or regulation, when that of the Left wants a market-based mechanism.
Or there’s voluntary action, which is now being promoted as some sort of silver bullet, both for households and for agriculture.
If voluntary action was going to do the trick on climate change, we wouldn’t be having climate change. All the tree-planting and switching off lights and biosequestration in the world won’t get us within cooee of 5% reductions by 2020.
And you know what’s worse about the coalition’s position? They’ve signed up to a unilateral 5%, but look like they’re walking away from the mechanism that would have allowed Australia to actually increase its emissions while still notionally meeting that 5% target, by buying foreign permits. Abbott seems to have signed up to a far more draconian target, a real 5% reduction, unleavened by trading credits from PNG and Indonesian forests.
Quite the greenie aren’t we, Mr Abbott.
That’s why more sensible Australian businesses are mortified that the chance of passage of the CPRS has slipped away.
Whatever Frankenstein’s Monster of a policy Abbott and his team craft over the summer break — it needs to be done by the end of January, because the government might call a double dissolution election in March — as Christopher Pyne noted last night, that will need to go through the same trial by fire that Turnbull’s went through. Most or all of the Nationals, the denialists, the ETS sceptics and the moderates will need to be happy with it.
The coalition has spent two years running and hiding from having to take climate change seriously, littering public debate with a string of increasingly implausible excuses while they sought a way to deal with their own internal divisions. Turnbull made them stop running and face up to the challenge. Now that they’ve overturned all his work and shown him the door, they’ve resumed running.
But they can’t run forever. Eventually Abbott will desperately wish more Senators than Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce had crossed the floor and got the government’s CPRS over the line.