“Tonight, we have an empty chair on stage, I don’t think I need to tell you who it’s for,” says 14-year-old school climate strike leader Vivienne Paduch to knowing murmurs and encouraging hisses during her opening address. It’s not the last time an allusion to the sitting member for Warringah gets such response.
Tony Abbott — along with the United Australia Party’s Suellen Wrightson, although that escapes mention — has skipped the Monday night climate change candidate forum, held at Mosman Art gallery, an exquisitely renovated and converted old Methodist church, crammed with about 250 people. It’s organised by the Stop Adani movement and Voices of Warringah, both of whom are explicitly running an “anyone but Tony” line. GetUp aren’t official organisers, but they have a little stall at the back. An ABC journo is walking around getting vox pops.
“Have you ever voted for the local member?” she asks a gregarious Englishman with a little halo of snow white hair
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So is climate change policy a vote shifter in Warringah? One wonders if a night like tonight can really answer that question — indeed $25 Stop Adani reusable coffee cups for sale at the back are a lovely little detail for anyone wanting to run a “out-of-touch latte-sipper” line. But what is undeniable is that this is no anarcho-syndicalist leftie student union meeting. The crowd is quite immaculately upper-middle class and, let’s say, comfortably on the the mature side. The volunteers and organisers are largely very young, but among the actual civilians, the under 50s could have probably all gotten here in one car.
So Abbott’s talk of far-left green conspiracy won’t cut through with this crowd. As Bernard Keane pointed out in these pages, wealthier groups will in some ways be insulated from the effects of climate change for longer, but at a certain point no amount of money will buy your kid a new, functioning planet, nor will it hold back the encroaching seas in a coastal area like Warringah.
The right to inheritance — I will not let my children miss out on a life I worked so hard to give them — is a conservative one, and the Liberal party really missed a trick when they missed that connection.
The candidates who are here all perform well. Labor’s Dean Harris is smooth, musical, polished. He never stumbles, is across his party’s policy. In any other context, he’d be the standout. But he sounds so much like a politician and being of “a party of government” (which he only reminds us of, like, eight times) constrains what he can say — so when the topic turns to Adani, he can’t give the audience what they want, talking only of his party’s grave “concerns and skepticism” around the project.
Still, he’s certainly no ring-in, given this is a seat Labor have never been within touching distance of. And the genuine cheer he got after pitching Labor’s franking credits policy is the most surprising of the night.
The Greens have Kristyn Glanville. There are a few hints of nerves in her voice, and she keeps going over the allotted time — but she’s also across her party’s policy and her background as an environmental lawyer gives her cred. She, like all the candidates, makes the economic argument for climate change action a central plank.
Susan Moylan-Coombs sets off from Harris in particular — “As a First Nations woman and an independent, I’m going to speak a bit differently”. She gives an unapologetic primacy to Indigenous science and the circular, reciprocal relationship it has with environment — “we have been warning you for decades,” she says, “but it was an inconvenient truth”.
Indigenous science and Western science “can coexist” and indeed, they must, she argues. She speaks beautifully, and it goes over well, but it’s clear the audience are half distracted by considering a lot of these ideas for the first time — if the other candidates are playing the greatest hits (Stop Adani, put Abbott last, no new coal) this is the difficult new album.
Zali Steggall is the star of the show — I see five or six “Vote Steggall” t-shirts, which might not sound much, but there’s nothing for any of the other candidates and, besides, this is not exactly a slogan t-shirts kinda crowd.
It’s hard to put your finger on what it is that cuts through about her. Steggall’s assurance as a speaker is one thing, and her voice and bearing are classic Australian politics — prepared, but not “polished”, smart but not “elite”, with that slight husky edge that only Australians seem to be able to develop without smoking. She falters slightly on a question about the effect of climate change on those in poverty, seemingly caught between compassion and emphasising the universality of these impacts.
But an illustrative sequence, or at least my favourite, comes soon after, as the candidates are asked about where their preferences would be directed. Glanville said such decisions were made collectively within local Greens membership, but that she could guarantee that “Mr Harris will be above Mr Abbott”; the crowd started ooooo-ing, like it was a ’90s sitcom and two of the characters had just started flirting.
Then Steggall: “Look, I’m a true independent, and I won’t be recommending particular preferences, I trust voters know their own mind”. There are appreciative murmurs. “But I would recommend putting Tony Abbott last.” This gets the biggest, most sustained cheer of the night.
And therein demonstrates, I suppose, why Abbott didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t show up. Like so much about him, this is personal.
Abbott’s first act as opposition leader was to politicise climate change policy and withdraw Coalition support for Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, denying him that victory to take with him to the ill-fated Copenhagen Summit. The move was politically astute, and set off a sequence of events that ended up with Rudd as the first victim of the slasher film approach to political leadership we’ve recently taken in this country.
But it also rendered the debate so fractious and incoherent and loaded that a decade was wasted, and all manner of junk science and fringe conspiracy theories doubting or outright denying climate change gained legitimacy and a place in the nation’s mainstream debate — where, to this day, it stays. Another Coalition MP might be able to turn up to such a debate, and face a rough time but scrape by. Abbott wouldn’t be able to get through a sentence.
While this event is taking place, Malcolm Roberts — a man who used his brief time as a One Nation Senator to frequently demand evidence that climate change isn’t just a conspiracy by the UN, and then retorting that such evidence had just been manipulated when it was provided — is on Q&A, speaking “factually”.
And, across the Spit, at the throat of North Head, Tony Abbott is telling the Manly Yacht club that, “if invited”, he would be willing to lead the Liberal party once more.