Abbott Scrapes In, But Rudd's The Real Winner

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Tony Abbott is now the 13th leader of the Liberal Party of Australia. His ascension to the Liberal leadership is a win for climate sceptics.

In a three-way leadership battle in which Joe Hockey was knocked out early, Abbott won the leadership 42-41 in a vote in which Victorian Fran Bailey was away sick, and didn’t proxy. It has also been reported that one Liberal parliamentarian simply scrawled an informal (if hilarious) "NO!" on the ballet paper. In other words, Abbott did not even achieve a majority of the party room.

After his win, Abbott then asked the party room for a secret ballot on Labor’s emissions trading scheme, forcing the party to make a decision which he must dearly hope it can stick to. The defeated moderates in the party are currently keeping their heads down and appear unlikely to white-ant the new leader immediately. The possibility that any moderates will cross the senate floor on the ETS vote appears remote. Indeed, a federal election may now be soon enough to force the party to unite behind Tony Abbott at the risk of electoral oblivion.

But that doesn’t mean the divisions will go away.

The upshot of today’s spill is that the ETS will get voted down. The Liberals will seek to refer the bill to a senate inquiry "for further scrutiny" if they can get the minor parties to agree to that. If they can’t, they will vote the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme down. As Abbott said in his press conference today, "Oppositions are not there to get legislation through." But that will also give Labor the trigger for a double-dissolution election.

What should we make of Tony Abbott? The new leader has considerable strengths. Abbott is one of the most intellectually significant figures in the contemporary Liberal Party. As a politician, he’s generally prepared to state his personal position, and it’s generally a coherent one based on a consistent foundation of conservative thought. Abbott is an heir to the party of Menzies and, more distantly, the political thought of Edmund Burke.

But Abbott also brings many weaknesses to the leadership. His 2007 election campaign was disastrous. He famously turned up half an hour late to a health debate with Nicola Roxon and then audibly swore at her. After the election loss, he went into hiding for more than a year to lick his wounds and re-think his political philosophy. He’s also potentially tarnished from 11 years as a key member of John Howard’s cabinet — and as a supporter of Work Choices. More damagingly, Abbott has never polled well as a potential opposition leader, and is considered the least electorally attractive of the three candidates today. Many think Abbott has a problem with women voters; his views on abortion are well-known.

Joe Hockey has been hurt badly by this leadership spill. He clearly didn’t want to run for both personal and political reasons. Drafted in by party power-brokers and given an anointment by John Howard, he grudgingly agreed to stand if the party voted for a leadership spill. The speculation and publicity surrounding his reluctant candidature then allowed a desperate and vengeful Turnbull to unleash over the weekend his most trenchant rhetoric against Hockey, Minchin and the climate sceptics. Phrases like "fringe party of the right" are attractively wrapped gifts to Labor’s coming election campaign.

The next months will now test the electorate’s approval of an emissions trading scheme. Labor has done an appalling job of explaining the scheme to voters and has been far too silent in rebutting the dangerous mistruths of climate sceptics and deniers such as Andrew Bolt. Now, under Tony Abbott, the Coalition has the green light to campaign hard on the issue right up and into the next election. "I am not frightened of an election on this issue," Abbott said a number of times today.

But on the evidence of Abbott’s first appearance as leader, his likely campaign agenda will be going negative. Everything suggests that Abbott wants to attack. But what will he attack? The issues he mentioned in his press conference include some of Labor’s most popular policies: policies that were clear winners at the last election, or in this term in the polls. Action on climate change, the National Broadband Network, the education revolution, new buildings for primary schools, the cash splash handouts: all of these have been electoral winners for Kevin Rudd. How successful will Abbott be opposing them? And while Abbott was prepared to state that "Work Choices is dead," he then went on to defend the unpopular policy strongly in his media conference.

"The fundamental job of government is to run a good economy," Abbott remarked today, which is in many ways the nub of conservative opposition to action on climate change. When it comes to the crunch, many in the Liberal party are simply not prepared to believe that the environment is more important than the economy. As electricity bills rise, many Australians will agree with them.

But can the Opposition really cut through with a scare campaign on the ETS? Political history, geography and demography say that’s unlikely. Historically, as Mumble‘s Peter Brent points out in the Oz, scare campaigns are most effective when they are run from government. Polls in 1998 showed John Howard’s GST was quite unpopular, but a number of voters clearly believed that it showed that he stood for something, and Howard scraped enough votes together to get re-elected.

The geography and demography of climate change also runs against the Opposition. Voters opposed to the ETS are primarily older, white males clustered in regional and rural seats: in other words, people who already vote for the Coalition anyway. Younger voters in the cities and suburbs — the voters the Coalition desperately needs to win back seats from Labor — are overwhelmingly in favour of action on climate change.

Climate change is an issue that is not going to go away. On the contrary, it will dominate the political agenda of this century. This is because climate change really is a bigger issue than the economy, affecting as it does the very nature of the human habitat of the planet. The science tells us that substantial global warming is already locked in, and that without massive emissions reduction action by the world’s biggest polluters, 3 to 4 degrees of warming will soon be upon us, perhaps by mid-century. Long before that happens, politicians who can be shown to have once been climate deniers will become electorally toxic. This means that in the future, the many statements by Liberal and National Party politicians attacking the science of climate change will come back to haunt the party. In this respect, Malcolm Turnbull is correct when he points out that a major party simply must have a viable position on climate change.

Once the electorate gets sufficiently frightened about the consequences of global warming, it will be easy to run a "sceptics under the bed" campaign against conservative parties. This is precisely why Malcolm Turnbull has fought so hard to move his party forward on the issue.

Turnbull failed. The sceptics won.

Australians will get their say on the issue next year. Events in the Liberal Party of the last week have ensured that the 2010 election will be a referendum on climate change. They have also irrevocably damaged the Liberal Party’s credentials on that issue. As everyone can see, the real winner of today’s leadership change was Kevin Rudd.

 

New Matilda

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