A Rock and a Hard Place: Global Warming versus Tony Abbott
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
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
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.