Tony Abbott’s not the first Opposition Leader to be embarrassed by his party’s base outside federal parliament.

In 1996, Kim Beazley was caught out when a mass union rally in Canberra turned violent and CFMEU protesters smashed their way into the front of Parliament House. A bloodied union official, the CFMEU’s Davie Thomason barged onto the stage down on the lawns where Beazley and then-Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot were addressing the official rally and, waving a police shield, yelled “look what we got from the coppers”. You could see the fury on Beazley’s face as he realised how the whole day would now play into John Howard’s hands.

Tony Abbott had less excuse yesterday, except that he was let down terribly by his staff, who first with the “sh-t happens” interview and then yesterday with that foul, illiterate, misogynistic sign given pride of place behind him, have twice in the space of a couple of months failed to do the basics. They should never have let anyone hold up something like that behind their boss.

Still, this was Abbott’s crowd. He’d demanded a “people’s revolt”, a childish, offensive demand while very real “people’s revolts” were under way across the Middle East, with real massacres and real grieving. It’s his good friend Alan Jones who has been egging it on. It’s Liberal Party supporters who have organised it.

What was interesting about the crowd wasn’t so much its average age — 60, at least, meaning most of them would likely 1. be over-compensated for a carbon price and 2. never live to see the really serious effects of climate change — but its colour. If you didn’t know that climate denialism was primarily a feature of the over-55 demographic, you could explain the age thing away by saying it was a weekday rally and lots of other supporters would have been at work. But there was no multiculturalism here, and not just among the small One Nation contingent forlornly holding up “Pauline was right” signs. This was a monocultural crowd, overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic in the old phrase.

Why don’t people from European backgrounds reject climate science at the same rate as old white people? Why not Asians?  Why weren’t there elderly Italian women railing against Ju-liar (and one assumes, out of respect for Christopher Pyne, that’s not a subtle anti-Semitic reference).

It’s the same reason that Pauline Hanson showed up, trying to parasite off another cause as part of her campaign to live off public election funding for, apparently, the rest of her life. These were once her people, not because there’s any endogenous link between xenophobia and climate denialism, but because it’s not really about climate change or immigration, but about social change and the social and economic transformation of Australia in a way that older, white Australians resent. This crowd grew up in a monocultural, British country that relied on protected industries — particularly the “real jobs” to be found in manufacturing. They grew up with a political system dominated by old white men. Australia has changed beyond recognition for them and because of their education levels and their age, they aren’t as well equipped to handle it as others are. They therefore feel disoriented, dispossessed and resentful, particularly because they don’t hold the same pre-eminent position they used to hold socially, economically or politically.

This is why there’s such a strong conspiracy theory fringe to climate denialism. The placards about UN and IMF plots yesterday weren’t coincidental. Like most conspiracy theories, they’re driven less by paranoia than by a desperate search for reassurance that someone, somewhere, however evil, is actually in control of what’s going on, and the right order of things could be restored.

In the end, it’s not even really about climate change for these people. It was immigration for One Nation. It was the republic before that. People disoriented by rapid change will always find an issue to take up in their search for reassurance.

Faced with the revolt of these people in the form of One Nation, John Howard exploited the asylum seeker issue brilliantly as a form of a bait-and-switch — he took a tough line on asylum seekers, while massively cranking up  permanent and temporary immigration, as the economy demanded. He convinced One Nation voters he was one of them, while doing the very thing that they were most aggrieved about, in the interests of good economic policy. It was one of Howard’s political masterstrokes.

Malcolm Turnbull’s approach to the same people was all switch. He simply ignored them and insisted he would not lead a party that wasn’t as committed to climate change as he was. His party base, much of which was on display yesterday, agreed with him and he was punted.

Tony Abbott has his own bait-and-switch — he parades as a denialist to these people, but maintains he wants to do something about climate change and his “direct action program” will achieve a 5% cut in emissions. Problem is, Abbott hasn’t got anywhere near the political skills of Howard, and it’s too big a leap anyway. That’s one of the reasons why so few senior Liberals joined Abbott at the rally. He had to make do with Bronwyn Bishop and the woman who wants to be Bronwyn Bishop, Sophie Mirabella. They complemented the offensive placards perfectly.

But the placards weren’t the only thing on display yesterday. So was an ongoing problem for the Liberals.

Peter Fray

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