It's Not All Smooth Sailing For Abbott


“The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next,” said the renowned doctor, William Osler.

We’ve seen rather a lot of that sort of thing in the first weeks of the Abbott Government. Most new governments like the sweep of a new broom, but this one is more enthusiastic in its philosophical spring clean than most. The early actions of the Abbott Government have been almost entirely ideological, as the new Prime Minister and his Cabinet have sought to reframe the political discussion to the benefit of their incumbency.

Climate science, government-funded research, asylum seeker boat arrivals: all have been targeted as part of the new reality of the incoming government. This appears to be a conscious effort by Tony Abbott and the Coalition to ignite a new war on culture and science, and thus drag Australian political discussion to the right.

Another aspect of the post-election strategy has been a tighter and sparser media presence. Abbott has consciously withdrawn himself from daily media appearances, and tried to clamp down on his cabinet ministers too. Getting politics off the front page, the theory goes, will only highlight the Coalition’s sound-bites about sensible, prudent governance. Let the lefties fume on the sidelines. A sober presentation will reinforce the idea that the adults are back in charge.

So far, this tactic appears to be failing. Fewer media appearances have yet to work to the Coalition’s advantage, and three weeks into the new administration, events are not panning out quite as smoothly as the Coalition had hoped.

In Scott Morrison’s Immigration portfolio, there’s been considerable disquiet over the lack of official information about boat arrivals and maritime search and rescue missions. Over the weekend, when another boat sank off the coast of Java, the vacuum formed by an absence of government comment was instead filled by heartbreaking stories of deaths of sea.

It was 36 hours before Morrison moved to respond to widespread reports that the Australian Government had ignored mayday calls from a stricken vessel. Abbott was even snapped running away from a reporter asking questions about the tragedy. It’s a reminder that asylum seeker policy will be just as difficult for the new government as it was for the old.

Then there have been the usual pitfalls for winning back government, as media outlets turn up the scrutiny and new ministers feel their way in unaccustomed roles. The revelation over the weekend that George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce spent taxpayers' money on attending the wedding of right-wing shock jock Michael Smith is not, in the scheme of things, a major scandal. On the other hand, it’s hardly a good look for the new Attorney-General – one of whose roles will be to draw up a new ministerial code of conduct. Brandis’ relentless pursuit of Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper over their alleged financial improprieties now looks hypocritical, to say the least.

But the Abbott Government’s biggest problem may end up being the issue that helped win it government: carbon. Like asylum seeker policy, carbon is a far easier issue for an opposition than for a government.

Abbott knows this, which is why he tried to turn the 2013 election into a referendum on carbon policy. The tactic began even before he won. Believing he had the election in the bag, Abbott spent the last week of the 2013 campaign declaring victory on climate change. The idea was to present the Coalition’s Direct Action plan as the will of the people. There was even a last-minute admission that the Coalition wasn’t really serious about its 5 per cent emissions reduction target, with Abbott telling the National Press Club on the Monday before the election that if Direct Action policy couldn’t deliver the 5 per cent for the money budgeted, the Coalition would let emissions blow out.

So far, carbon policy has not been the trump card the Coalition expected. Greg Environment Minster Greg Hunt’s abolition of the Climate Commission was initially cheered by the climate skeptics of the far right. But the decision unexpectedly led to a huge community crowd-funding campaign that quickly established a new Climate Council.

Hunt tried to play down the successful campaign as a win for free speech, but in reality the remarkable groundswell represents the Abbott government’s first bloody nose. The new body, unconstrained by the need to keep faith with government policy, will undoubtedly be more damaging to the Government than it cold have been as a Commonwealth agency. Indeed, its very first step will be to put out an analysis of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That analysis is bound to make damaging assessments about the Government’s climate change credentials.

The real problems for Hunt and Abbott are still to come. Not the least of them will be a hostile Senate, with Nick Xenophon and a number of Palmer United Party Senators willing and able to make merry hell with Coalition legislation. It’s entirely possible that the Coalition could successfully repeal the carbon tax, only to be unable to replace it with Direct Action. Left without a workable policy to reduce emissions, the Government would be increasingly vulnerable to criticism that it has no solution to climate change.

The Coalition skated through the election campaign with little real scrutiny of the unworkable Direct Action. But in the six years since 2007, the renewable energy industry has grown exponentially. There is now a large and much more influential lobby group prepared to campaign for the retention of carbon pricing.

If Direct Action was a workable policy, this might not matter. But it’s not. It simply can’t achieve the carbon reductions Hunt says he remains committed to. This will become very obvious long before 2016, however Hunt tries to frame matters.

Then there’s the science. Like it or not, the Coalition simply can’t wish away the accumulating evidence of global warming. The new IPCC report will have a big impact on the global climate change debate, if only because it further firms up the science, and continues to sway international opinion. In opposition, Abbott and Hunt were able to stick to a stereotyped repertoire of carbon tax criticism. In government, that’s not going to be nearly as easy.

One factor that the Coalition may not have considered is the weather. When it comes to climate change, public opinion is unreasonably swayed by short-term trends in the weather. This is not rational, but that doesn’t mean it’s not influential. Australia is due for some very hot summers in coming years, with a new El Nino cycle getting underway. The previous La Niña cycles were particularly wet and mild, building up considerable fuel loads in many regions. Hot, dry summers and dangerous bushfires are almost certainly in the offing. That may help to swing public opinion back towards action on climate.

Straws in the wind? Perhaps. But there is early evidence that governing will prove much more difficult for the Coalition than many expected. Sketchy early poll data suggests that the Coalition is not enjoying a honeymoon. Neither is Tony Abbott, whose approval ratings have only just started to climb into the positive. With the ALP enjoying a renaissance of grass-roots engagement via the tonic of a primary ballot for the new opposition leader, the left looks surprisingly upbeat about the coming three-year contest.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.