How Tony Abbott destroyed the Liberal Party

Published in Meanjin, August 21, 2018

Climate change policy has morphed into ‘energy policy’ to make it more palatable to conservatives. But for Tony Abbott it’s not a contest over policy differences; it’s a battle for the nation’s soul. In the United States, conservatives fight a fierce culture war over abortion, guns, sexual identity, God in schools and climate change. Most of these are settled in Australia, the more so after the same-sex marriage resolution.

So for Tony Abbott, climate politics now carry almost the entire burden of defending his view of the world. As early as 2005, his spiritual adviser George Pell attacked the influence of ‘religionless and spiritually rootless’ greens, a year later writing that emission reductions are akin to pagan sacrifices.

But the real turning point in the debate was in 2009. It was the year Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but it was also the year conservative activists in the United States succeeded in transforming an industry lobbying campaign into a phenomenon of political culture and group identity.

Quickly taken up locally by the Institute of Public Affairs, the effect was to transform climate change from an essentially scientific question built on demonstrable facts into a political one of opinion and ideology. Remember that in 2007 Abbott’s ‘father’ John Howard went into the election campaign promising to introduce an emissions trading system. (It would have been better for the climate if he had won.)

But from 2009 it was all culture, and culture always trumps science. So on 2GB earlier this month the Member for Warringah repeated the confabulation, invented by Fox News, that emission reduction policies would mean ‘our country being dictated to, surrendering our sovereignty really, to the green bureaucrats of Paris’.

As prime minister in 2015 Abbott was sufficiently familiar with the annual international climate conferences to know just how dishonest this is. There are no green bureaucrats in Paris, certainly none who could have any influence in Australia. The conference at which the 2015 deal was struck happened to be held in Paris that year. It could have been in Caracas, Budapest or Jakarta.

Being ‘dictated to by green bureaucrats in Jakarta’ doesn’t have the same ring to it. And voluntarily agreeing to a self-proposed, non-legally binding target was an expression of our sovereignty rather than a sacrifice of it.

Yet for Abbott the Fox News trope is a necessary lie constructed on a deeper truth: that joining global efforts to cut emissions represents the defeat of his worldview. It means that the system that saved us from socialism failed to protect us from an even greater threat. It means accepting that the greens, the natural successors to the reds, were right all along.

Recall the feverish words of one of his political mentors, Hugh Morgan—mining company boss, Business Council of Australia president and close confidant of prime minister John Howard—who shared Abbott’s visceral distrust of all things green. In 2002 he described the 1997 Kyoto Protocol as a plot by European bureaucrats to centralise world power in Bonn. ‘Australia would then be powerless to recover the sovereignty that had been de facto yielded up.’

In September 2013, Abbott defeated a demoralised Rudd-led Labor government. As prime minister he set about dismantling not just the carbon price but the entire structure of climate policy legislated by Labor and the Greens. However, if the science was ‘crap’ the politics demanded a veneer of concern.

To bypass the Climate Change Authority’s recommended target of 40-60 per cent by 2030, he set up a new taskforce in his department. (Note: I was a member of the CCA.) In September 2015 it recommended Australia take a reduction target of 26-28 per cent to the Paris conference in December.

In the interim Malcolm Turnbull challenged and snatched the top job from Abbott. But he kept the widely-criticised 26-28 per cent target.

Abbott’s support for the Paris targets are an embarrassment to him now. He’s taken to complaining that Canberra bureaucrats misled him, an excuse invented a year ago by Judith Sloane, who wrote in the Australian that the ‘sneaky modellers’ relied on by the bureaucrats pulled the wool over Tony Abbott’s eyes.

Abbott pursues his soul-devouring vendetta against Turnbull not only because Turnbull humiliated him. Turnbull embodies the enemy culture, so nothing he concedes on climate policy can be enough. It’s what he stands for that must be crushed.

When Turnbull took the leadership back from Abbott in September 2015, the price was that he agree to be hogtied by the conservatives of the party. And the Nationals. A reliable source told me that the Nationals keep a document signed by Turnbull promising that he will never support an emissions trading system.

The leadership battle between Abbott and Turnbull has revolved above all around climate change policy because Abbott made himself the personification among grassroots conservatives of their rage against the ‘cultural left’. And for a decade the grassroots have been fertilised with a slurry of denial manufactured by the IPA and sprayed around by the Murdoch press.

Now, rapidly rising electricity prices are blamed on emissions reduction policies even though the causes lie elsewhere, in network over-investment and profit gouging. Sob stories about green zealotry forcing grannies to go to bed early because they can’t afford heating—stories Barnaby Joyce shamelessly retails—are fables that serve the culture war perfectly: greens hate people, and here’s the proof.

The Liberal Party cannot solve this problem by changing leaders again. In 2016 Peter Dutton was named by BuzzFeed as one of the ‘dirty dozen’ MPs with the worst record on climate science. The only answer is for the moderates out in the branches to prevail decisively. Who knows how long that might take.


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