As the struggle intensifies over whether Australia is to put a price on carbon, competing conceptions of the nation may be every bit as significant as disputes over science and economics.  Increasingly, the debate is over two competing framings of Australia, as Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard wield nationalist rhetoric in support of their respective positions.

Consider the Opposition Leader’s performance at the “No Carbon Tax” rally last week in Canberra.  Abbott, with his infamously incoherent stance on climate change, has long abandoned any pretence of a credible or morally serious position on reducing emissions.  In addressing the rally, the latest flap in the Opposition Leader’s trajectory of opportunistic flip-flopping on climate change began with the following carefully chosen words:

“As I look out on this crowd of fine Australians I want to say that I do not see scientific heretics. I do not see environmental vandals. I see people who want honest government.”

In starting his remarks to the throng in this way, Abbott implied that climate change denialists are no more than patriots and defenders of democracy.

Needless to say, there is something viscerally troubling about a mainstream political leader offering exculpation for anti-rational beliefs under the cloak of nationalism, particularly given the vitriolic ad hominem tone of the No Carbon Tax Rally, and the broader context of extremism and hatred now associated with the politics of climate change in Australia.  People’s revolt anyone?

But Abbott’s rhetoric is deliberately calibrated to reach a certain constituency of Australians who are weary of cosmopolitan globalisation, and yearn for a return to a more predictable communitarian past.  It is a constituency that once saw Pauline Hanson as their champion, making her attendance at the rally unsurprising and intellectually consistent.

Against Abbott’s inward and backward looking Australia, the Prime Minister offers a vision of Australians as good entrepreneurial globalists: “Australians are hard workers. Australians are innovators. Australians are determined.”  In launching her proposed carbon price reform (in a speech covered by one of the top US’s climate bloggers under the heading “Aussie PM Gillard gives climate speech Obama won’t”) Gillard chose to explicitly situate the proposed carbon price as a continuation of the liberal economic reforms introduced during the Hawke and Keating years:  “[w]e can’t freeze our economy in time, any more than we could lock ourselves behind tariff walls while the world changed outside.”

Rather than challenging Abbott’s response, Gillard’s words merely serve to confirm the suspicions of the atavists in the rally crowd.    And there seems little doubt that Gillard will continue to communicate the necessity for a carbon price in the language of business reform, combined with the sort of “aspiration nation” pro-globalisation rhetoric favoured by third way social democrats in the US and the UK over the past couple of decades.  In Australia, this kind of framing is exemplified by a paper that came out of the Per Capita think tank last year, an outfit that Gillard is reported to favour.

On the other hand, Abbott’s demonstrable preparedness to abandon serious reform to reduce emissions, is not because of any wider antipathy to economic transformation per se (never say never on a return to Work Choices), but — reading from the US Republican’s playbook — because he sees strategic political advantage in making climate change a cultural argument about the nation.

There is obvious irony here:  Gillard, with her rhetoric about open economies and “the ingenuity of markets” sounds every bit the liberal; while Abbott — the true radical free market fundamentalist — ends up hawking sentiments attuned to the ears of one nation protectionists.

Peter Fray

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