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Feb 4, 2010

Monckton's Melbourne meeting: a gathering of men in Richie Benaud blazers

What's it like to attend a Lord Monckton meeting? For the cheering crowd of Old-Australia-RSL-club climate change deniers who flocked to see him, it was like a rock concert.

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Outside Lord Monckton’s meeting at the Sofitel Hotel in Collins Street, the young men from Lyndon LaRouche’s Citizen Electoral Council handed out newspapers warning against “Hitler-style genocide”.

“Carbon trading is the British Empire trying to wipe out the nation state,” a LaRouchie explained.

What did they mean?

For the CEC, the theory of human-induced climate change was not merely wrong. It was a lie, a conscious fraud cooked up by, well, Prince Philip, actually, as part of the British Royal Family’s perfidious scheme to depopulate the planet.

But where, one wondered, did that leave Lord Monckton, the man outside whose event the CEC was canvassing? Wasn’t he a British aristocrat? Was he in on the plot, too?

The Larouchie hesitated for a minute.

“You have to realise, they like to confuse people.”

One shouldn’t imply that the CEC was representative of the huge crowds attending Monckton’s tour. That would be unfair. The LaRouchites were much younger, for a start.

Inside Monckton’s Melbourne meeting, most of the attendees looked like Ian Plimer. It was a gathering of men in Richie Benaud blazers, sometimes accompanied by silver-haired wives, dressed up as if for a night at the opera.

Naturally, the attendees didn’t believe in evil plots led by the Royal Family. In fact, they seemed, if anything, distinctly anglophile, in that Old-Australia-RSL-club kind of way. They’d come, after all, not to listen to Chris Monckton but rather to the “Third Viscount of Brenchley”, a man who was touring not “Australia” but (his slide informed us) the “Commonwealth of Australia”, a distinction that, in context, seemed to matter rather a lot. It was a crowd who saw nothing strange in a priest kicking off proceedings with the Lord’s Prayer, nor in the heraldic crest that adorned every overhead, a grisly emblem with a crown hovering majestically above a portcullis.

John Howard battlers, for the most part: the old, the white and the angry. That anger — and it was palpable — provides a potential constituency for Tony Abbott, and perhaps even a large one. When a picture of Kevin Rudd flashed on the screen, the hostility was immediate and unfeigned.

Later, the Viscount asked rhetorically: “Do we want an emissions trading scheme?”

“No!” came the shout. “No!”

Could supporters of the ETS — by its nature, an unhappy negotiated compromise — muster the same passion in its defence? One very much doubts that Penny Wong, these days, attracts roaring crowds.

The deep outrage felt by climate sceptics, their sense of facing a fundamental attack on their way of life, provides Abbott, at the very least, with a pool of active supporters: highly motivated people to hand out how-to-vote-cards, make phone calls, attend meetings.

But whether he can turn that constituency into a majority is a very different question. For while Lord Monckton eschewed, for the most part, the wraparound jumper craziness of the CEC, he nonetheless strayed regularly into X Files territory. Copenhagen, he explained, represented an attempt to impose world government by bureaucratic coup d’etat.

He put on a Nazi accent. The real plan at Copenhangen was, he said, all about “the New Vorld Order!”

Indeed, the fascist jackboot seemed to have already come down on poor old England, which was now ruled by “commissars” (a word he repeated several times) from the European Union.

“We in Britain are no longer free.” His voice turned mournful. “I know what it feels like to lose my democracy. Make sure you don’t let your democracy go so cheaply.”

In some respects, this kind of black helicopter nuttiness might have seemed like an add-on to the main message but in other ways it was central. For Monckton was there to explain that there was no climate crisis at all. The temperature was falling, not rising. The sea ice was just fine. So, too, the Eurasian snow cover and the Antarctic ice and the hurricanes and the polar bears. They were all as right as rain, and there were graphs and charts and formulas to prove it.

And that, of course, raised a second question, one that necessarily haunts climate sceptics. If, as Monckton said, the majority of scientists are scandalously and incompetently wrong about global warming, why does the scientific community go along with the charade? What about the media and the political mainstream? Why aren’t they embracing the truth?

The answer doesn’t automatically involve a conspiracy but it certainly marches you a long way that direction. You’d think that a researcher who could allay the world’s fears about global catastrophe would be crowned with laurels. But, no, apparently not. Someone must be getting to the scientists, forcing them to toe the party line. Someone is making sure that the journalists don’t dare speak out. Why, it’s probably the same people who turned Britain into a dictatorship without anyone noticing!

You can see the difficulty for Abbott.

The attendees at the Monckton performance might seem, at first, the traditional pillars of the Liberal Party, an organisation that’s always done well with old, comfortable, white folks. But there’s a big difference between Menzies’ people and Monckton’s people.

Once upon a time, the Liberal Party, an organisation temperamentally suited, after all, to hierarchy, accorded an almost royal deference to Big Science. Menzies presided over an Australia that wondered at atom splittings and Sputnik launchings, and not in the sceptical sense of that word but with genuine awe, with the mysteries expounded by clipboard-carrying oracles understood as evidencing the remarkable advances of the modern age.

Under Howard, however, the party embraced a populist anti-elitism, in which the instincts of ordinary folk always trumped the hoity-toity pronouncements of over-educated know-it-alls. Throughout the culture wars, the high falutin’ elitists in their inner-city apartments, those whining postmodernists confounding the common sense of you and me and the bloke next door, were a perennial punching bag for the Liberals and their mouthpieces.

The climate debate thus arrived with an oppositional script already well-prepared: on the one hand, the fancy-dancing, silver-tongued scientists and ideologues, with their incomprehensible graphs and statistical charts; on the other, the hard-working traditional Australians forced to feel bad about SUVs and air travel by self-righteous scolds.

Slapping down some scientific poindexter became, then, a reflexive defence of values associated with the ’50s, even as it manifested an attitude to the research establishment that Menzies would have found incomprehensible.

Right-wing populism is neither new nor confined to Australia. As a political tactic, a demagogic anti-elitism was imported from the US where it served Republicans for decades, and accordingly it’s in the US where the consequences can be seen to their fullest. George Bush might have been the fortunate son of a political dynasty but his political career centred on a “just folks” persona in which Bush, a brush-cutting Texan cowboy, fronted as the kind of guy with whom you could have a beer — in contrast with, say, John Kerry, who’d undoubtedly clear the entire bar by, like, talking about politics and stuff.

As a touchstone for electability, the “would I go drinking with this man?” test was, of course, spectacularly insane: a moment’s thought would suggest that proving yourself affable company for alcoholics would not, in and of itself, qualify you to control a nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, it won Bush two elections and, in the process, shifted the way that the US — and hence the world — thought about power and politics. For, whatever other promises he may have reneged upon, as President, W remained true to an anti-intellectual populism. He was a man with a swagger, an avowed non-reader, a Decider who did his deciding by gut rather than by brain. The political consequences of a presidency ruled by a stomach might be increasingly apparent from New Orleans to Baghdad, but, as Charles Pierce argues in his book Idiot America, the implications for science are even worse.

“If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress,” he writes, “we have done so by moving empirical debate into the realms of political, cultural and religious argument, where we all feel more comfortable because there the Gut truly holds sway. By the rules governing those realms, any scientific theory is a mere opinion and everyone’s entitled to those. Scientific fact is as mutable as a polling sample.”

If your instinct tells you that climate change is a fraud cooked up by leftists still angry about the fall of communism, well, who or what could convince you otherwise? As Pierce points out, the populist disdain for authority means that everyone is an expert — and thus no one is. Worse, in a debate centred on gut feelings, real knowledge becomes a manifest disadvantage, a palpable signifier of inauthenticity. You trust some wingnut blogger precisely because they’re not a research scientist — that’s why they can speak so freely!

Monckton’s supporters might protest that, actually, his tour was all about science. There were graphs, there were charts, there were statistical analyses.

Well, of course there were. But you can’t actually do science that way, can you! How many people in the Sofitel audience knew what a Stefan-Boltzmann Equation called itself when it was at home? Not so many, one presumes — but we all knew how to hiss demonstrably when an outraged Monckton revealed that, throughout the 1600-page UN report of 2007, there was no mention (not one!) of said equation. (It was, one presumes, crowded out by all the plans for a world government!)

You might think that Monckton should be publishing his equations and graphs to the peer-reviewed literature, the traditional route for challenging a scientific paradigm. Ah, but he can’t, because the journals and the university and the other government-funded institutions prefer to foster apocalyptic projections rather than the arguments of a man who says the environment’s just peachy the way it is. Why? Well, now we’re back to interesting theories about commissars and the collapse of democracy and the rest of it.

Abbott thus faces a ticklish dilemma. On the one hand, the deniers bring a passion that an Opposition sorely needs. On the other hand, the climate sceptics teeter on the verge of overt hostility to the very establishment that the Liberal Party needs to win over. Populists, after all, despise and mistrust not only greenies and EU commissars but Big Media and Big Business.

The Liberal Party, well, not so much.

John Howard managed — most of the time — to present himself simultaneously as a populist and a man of the establishment. Perhaps Abbott can do the same. But it doesn’t seem likely, at least partly because the rhetorical tenor of the sceptics has grown so shrill.

Afterwards, when the crowd shuffled out, the LaRouchies were still on the street spruiking.

Did they know that Lord Monckton also opposed the New World Order?

They were pleased to hear it.

But what about the Royal seal on all his slides. What did they make of that?

The LaRouchie thought for a moment and then he brightened. “Perhaps he’s an agent,” he said. “Prince Philip has agents all over the world, you know.”

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