Australian Politics & Current Affairs
Tony Abbott once described himself as “a bit of a weathervane” – meaning he would spin and swivel according to the weather of public opinion. But there is a cyclone heading his way that he can’t spin his way out of.
Carbon pollution, and the refusal to act against it, have been the centerpieces of his career since 2009. Thrust into power by the hard right powerbrokers in his party, the most notable of whom was the eternal denialist Nick Minchin, Abbott’s leadership tilt in 2009 was backed entirely on the promise that he would oppose any form of carbon pricing. He routed Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote, committing himself to the status of “Dr. No” for the remainder of his career.
Then, amazingly, he managed to turn climate change into a trump card for the Coalition. This was no less than political mastery. For years, global warming was an Achilles’ Heel for the Howard government, which dodged the issue like the plague, before eventually committing to an emissions trading scheme (ETS) in 2007. By then, it was too late – credibility had been shot, and the problem was second only to WorkChoices as a death knell for the doomed Howard government.
After seizing the leadership of the opposition, Tony Abbott set about creating serious problems for the ALP by thwarting any attempts to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. He avoided a double-dissolution over the ETS, which would have decimated the Coalition had Rudd shown the ticker to push the issue. After this, it was all gravy. The Abbott Coalition scored goal after goal against Labor in an area that, had they used even a touch of salesmanship, Labor ought to have dominated.
Rudd’s backflip on the ETS cost the ALP a million voters overnight. Along with the mining tax, it also cost him his leadership. The debacle reduced Labor to a minority government under Gillard, who was then blackmailed into implementing the Carbon Tax by the Greens in order to survive. Abbott sat back during the hung parliament and played politics more effectively than any opposition leader in living memory. By 2013, the ALP’s credibility was shattered, and Abbott sailed into power.
But now, it is harder to imagine a bigger rock and a harder place to be stuck between. The G20 is to be held right here in Australia in less than a month’s time. Global warming will be one of the major priorities. Negativity, denialism, and attacks on “those opposite” have no place in the international arena.
Even more problematic: the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies and carbon emitters, have just announced a joint decision to lead the world in an impressive, concerted effort to tackle global warming. One is our strongest ally, the other our biggest trading partner.
The global tide has shifted, and Abbott is now leading the only country which has actually gone backwards on climate policy. A country which did so under his leadership, owing to his attacks, with a prime minister who came to power off the back of a relentless assault on the climate policies of the former ALP government.
Remember also, Australian voters are a fickle bunch. This weekend looks to been an absolute scorcher, and an even hotter summer lurks around the corner. The last time we copped a brutal summer and devastating droughts, global warming suddenly became a national priority, before disappearing again as more comfortable conditions returned.
Abbotts’s entire political fortunes have rested on his commitment to doing nothing on climate change. A backflip on the issue would alienate voters and destroy his credibility as surely as it did Gillard’s and Rudd’s. Moreover, Abbott’s position as Liberal leader is owed entirely to the handshakes made in 2009 with the extreme right in his party. He has zero room to move here. Something as random as a hot summer can easily upend the government’s domination of the climate debate in Australia. Against the backdrops of the US-China deal and the G20 summit, it could cripple his leadership completely.