The Electorate Is Going Cold On Abbott's Climate Change Sabotage

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The Canberra Times’ cartoonist David Pope has a cartoon this morning which vividly illustrates the dismal politics of climate in Tony Abbott’s Australia.

Entitled “The Chaperone”, the sketch depicts Julie Bishop in a white dress sitting next to Barack Obama. Trade Minister Andrew Robb looms behind the pair with a ruler, making sure the debutante is kept a respectable distance away.

Pope is referring to recent reports of unrest in the Abbott cabinet. The cause? A climate change conference in Peru. Bishop wanted to go. Abbott said no. He then insisted Andrew Robb accompany her.

As Foreign Minister, Bishop has been the standout performer in an underwhelming Abbott front bench. She’s just finished chairing the UN Security Council. This makes it all the more curious that the Prime Minister’s Office would seek to curtail her role in international negotiations.

But that, reportedly, is what happened. When Bishop asked to go to the conference, Abbott said no. The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t want to send anyone.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised, given Abbott’s well-known disdain for effective climate policies – indeed, for any type of environmental protection. Even so, the Lima conference is a big deal. It builds on the work done at previous conferences, like last year’s event in Warsaw, and will inform the agenda for next year’s critical meeting in Paris. Bishop clearly felt she needed to be there.

When Bishop was knocked back, she asked again. Abbott’s office reportedly then insisted that Andrew Robb go with her. Robb is a well-known climate hardliner, whose anti-climate party room intervention in 2009 proved the beginning of the end of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

The story that emerged is that Bishop “went bananas”, demanding an explanation from the powers that be. The rumours of a split between the Liberal deputy and her leader may be overstated, but there’s no doubt that Bishop felt aggrieved enough about the slight to put it on record in an interview with the Australian Financial Review. “I requested and it was refused so I requested again,” Bishop told the AFR’s Joanna Heath. In fact, Bishop took the rejection to a full cabinet meeting, challenging Abbott’s authority in a council of her peers. No-one spoke up against Bishop’s travel request.

Bishop is an experienced politician who doesn’t grant interviews lightly. The fact that she felt the need to put the refusal on the record speaks loudly to the frustration with the Prime Minister’s Office in government ranks.

The disarray over the Lima conference is more grist to the mill of Liberal disaffection. These are dog days for the Abbott government, trailing badly in opinion polls and increasingly abandoned by its own conservative supporters.

The Lima conference – the 20th in the so-called “conference of parties” that makes up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – is the latest get-together for world leaders attempting to grapple with the seemingly insoluble puzzle of global emissions control.

As New Matilda readers will know, the point of the UN process is to negotiate international action to reduce carbon emissions, in order to prevent devastating global warming in coming decades. Current commitments are nowhere near enough to do that.

Unfortunately for global efforts on pollution reduction, Australia is playing a spoiling role. Under the Abbott government, Australia has repeatedly tried to derail global climate talks.

Last year in Warsaw, our delegation worked behind the scenes to sabotage a 2015 global agreement. International observers were aghast. “There is no intention for Australia to be in any way constructive or really participate in these talks,” Wendel Trio, European director of the Climate Action Network, told respected energy journalist Giles Parkinson at the time.

It’s no surprise to hear complaints that Australia is again trying to derail talks; the French negotiators working towards the Paris meeting are apparently planning to keep Australia sidelined if possible.

The visceral anti-environmentalism of the Abbott government is making Australia an international pariah. It was our disruptive role at Warsaw that helped turn international opinion on climate against Australia, planting the seeds for the G20 humiliation of Tony Abbott on the issue in Brisbane.

Foreign governments and NGOs are also aware of the Abbott government’s policies. They know that Australia abolished its carbon price and removed caps on carbon pollution. They can see that renewable energy companies are abandoning the Australian market in the face of uncertainty over the Renewable Energy Target. And they view Direct Action as the risible green-washing that it is. This is why a report released to the negotiators at Lima last night named Australia as the very worst country in the industrialised world for climate policies.

All of this will make Julie Bishop’s task difficult at Lima. Australia risks being isolated from international discussions. As global giants China and the US move to finally address their emissions, Australia will be ignored. We found out what that looked like in Brisbane.

In the long term, the risk is not necessarily that we might international opprobrium or even trade sanctions – although they are not impossible in some future scenarios. The real risk is that by delaying action now, Australia will face devastating costs later, as our resource-intensive economy is forced to decarbonise rapidly, even while we deal with the crippling environmental impacts of warming.

There are domestic concerns too. After rewarding Abbott at the ballot box for his ruthless campaign against the carbon tax, Australian voters are beginning to worry about climate change again. A recent poll found a majority of voters think Direct Action is not adequate. As Fairfax’s Jacqueline Maley pointed out this week, climate politics isn’t going away. Simple slogans and threadbare policies won’t square the circle: climate change is accelerating. 

And yet the Abbott government remains as wedded to its hatred for climate action as ever. If you don’t think warming is happening, why do anything about it? Ensconced in a right-wing ideological bubble in which environmental concerns are dismissed and ridiculed, Tony Abbott can’t see that the ground is shifting quickly beneath his feet.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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