You’ve got to hand it to Malcolm Turnbull. He might boast an ego the equal of anyone in federal politics — surely an accomplishment in itself — but he is never less than eloquent when it comes to expressing his own opinions.
No-one on the conservative side of politics has yet been able to describe the issue of climate change as succinctly as Turnbull did last night, when delivering the inaugural Virginia Chadwick Foundation speech, in memory of the state Liberal minister of the same name.
"The question of whether or to what extent human activities are causing global warming is not a matter of ideology, let alone of belief," he said. "The issue is simply one of risk management."
The phones must have started ringing in Tony Abbott’s office almost immediately. In mounting a passionate defence of the science of climate change — indeed, of reason in political debate — Turnbull has struck a blow at Tony Abbott, the man who replaced him as opposition leader.
After all, it is Abbott who has been all too happy to embrace the siren call of irrational rage and conspiracy theory in his quest to tear down Julia Gillard and get his hands on the office of the prime minister. It was Abbott who marshalled disquiet among the climate denialist factions of the Liberal party to challenge Malcolm Turnbull in November 2009, when a deal with Kevin Rudd on the CPRS had already been done. It is Abbott who has regularly tweaked his message to appeal to those who don’t believe in climate change, whether it be regional audiences seduced by Ian Plimer, or seniors enraged at Julia Gillard.
And yet, what was remarkable about Turnbull’s speech last night is how unremarkable it was. Believing the scientists? Protecting the environment? Perhaps not burning quite so much coal? This is hardly a radical agenda, as Turnbull pointed out with references to Margaret Thatcher, an early supporter of action to address climate change.
"If Margaret Thatcher took climate change seriously and believed that we should take action to reduce global greenhouse emissions," he argued in last night’s speech, "then taking action and supporting and accepting the science can hardly be the mark of incipient Bolshevism."
But that’s the problem with climate change politics in 2011. In large part because of politicians like Abbott, the issue has become so thoroughly politicised that many conservative voters really don’t believe Australia’s top scientists. They really do see a sincere attempt by the government to embark on a moderate reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions as a kind of conspiracy to withdraw liberties and increase taxation. In short, they are irrationally angry.
And one of the key stokers of that conservative rage has been the utter political expediency of conservative politicians like the leader of the Opposition, and his cheerleaders in the media. Driven by ruthless ambition, Abbott in recent times has entertained few qualms in his pursuit of the government, to the degree where he has been willing to attack the government with virtually any weapon available.
Much like the US Republicans, the Liberal Party in Australia has recently seemed surprisingly content with advancing positions that clash with the legacy of the party’s more noble traditions of reason and prudence in a libertarian assault on the foundations of government itself. It is hard to believe Robert Menzies, with his firm beliefs in the value of conserving and preserving social institutions and the common wealth of the nation, would support any of the current Liberal rhetoric.
In recent weeks, Abbott has attacked economists for not supporting his risible "Direct Action" plan on climate change, as well as scientists who have disagreed with his analysis. He has talked down the economy in an effort to exaggerate the impact of the government’s carbon tax, even arguing recently that it will cause house prices to fall.
There have been few in the mainstream media willing to hold Abbott to account for his wild overstatements. One of them has been the ABC’s Stephen Long, who examined Abbott’s claims on the carbon tax in a brilliant report for the ABC’s PM program this week.
Long pointed out that the Opposition Leader has been "aided and abetted by journalists who’ve continued to report unchallenged claims that appear to contradict facts."
Long singled out Tony Abbott’s claims that the carbon tax would be "toxic" for the economy, and that it would shut down the coal industry. There is no factual basis for either argument. According to Long, "every credible analysis including the industry’s own says the coal industry is going to enjoy a massive expansion despite the Government’s carbon price."
Long’s piece appeared before Tony Abbott appeared to walk away from the Opposition’s 5 per cent emissions reduction for 2020. Abbott has since restated his commitment to that goal, so perhaps his speech to seniors in Queensland was simply another example of his self-confessed tendency to make things up under pressure.
It’s a tendency Abbott will have to work hard to reign in over the coming months and years, particularly if the government’s fortunes in the opinion polls improve. Given that they could hardly get any worse, it seems likely that eventually the political tides will start to turn against Abbott, if only because the law of averages suggests that his charmed run cannot continue indefinitely (as Kevin Rudd discovered at the end of 2009, after of the most favoured series of opinion polls in Australian political history).
If and when that happens, we know that Malcolm Turnbull will not be shy about putting his own leadership claims forward.
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