Wedge politics can’t cure climate change

By David Threlfall. Correspondence and Communications in Chancellery at the University of Melbourne, and completing Honours on environmental politics in the School of Social and Political Sciences.

Saturday’s election hasn’t made much clear yet, except that Malcolm Turnbull’s double dissolution ploy has failed dramatically, with key seats lost and an extremely problematic Senate predicted. And all this despite campaigning hard on the need for stability under a returned Coalition government.

So what does the election result mean for climate change? And what can the tactics of the past two months teach us about the direction for environmental politics in the uncharted waters of this 45th Parliament?

Wild weather competing with traditional priorities

2016 has already been full of unfortunate records for the environment.

We’ve seen unprecedented mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, record flooding in England, wildfires in Canada, both floods and fires in Tasmania and drought in India. Plus, maximum temperature records have been smashed worldwide at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile in Australia, the leaders of the two major parties spent the election talking about jobs and growth on the right, and health and education on the left.

Despite playing a central role in the last three Federal election campaigns, the fractious politics of climate change were largely absent in 2016.

Perhaps this is an acknowledgement of chronic failure.  A bipartisan approach to effective climate policy in Australia has long been held to ransom by populist, partisan politics.

Granted, the third week of the campaign did see the two major parties joining the Greens in making substantial (yet likely inadequate) funding commitments to curb pollution in the Great Barrier Reef.  But this brief climate-related intervention and an occasional ALP focus on renewables failed to derail the agenda for long.

Lost bipartisanship

In the lead up to the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd argued strongly for the moral imperative of action to halt climate change. His campaign message and modern image resonated with the electorate, and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and work on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme began in earnest.

A brief period of bipartisanship on climate action and emissions mitigation followed.  This anomaly, however, came to an abrupt end in late 2009, when Tony Abbott became Liberal leader, defeating then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote.

The development of an effective national climate policy framework essentially stalled at this point—and never fully recovered.  Abbott’s brutally effective construction of a simple binary—protect the economy, or the environment—was successfully used as a wedge issue.  It has been the key tool in a longstanding Coalition scare campaign: enjoy increasing living standards, or suffer under mountains of green tape.

Labor’s new strategy of attack

Turnbull’s rise to the office of Prime Minister was another lost opportunity to press reset on this climate impasse.  Instead, it provided Labor with a new line of attack.  In the leaders debate on 29 May, Bill Shorten tried to turn the tables on Turnbull:

“Whatever happened to the old Malcolm Turnbull on climate change? You were so impressive when you were leading on climate change. Now you're just implementing Tony Abbott's policies.”

A recent ALP attack ad went further, using Turnbull’s words against him to hone in on his lack of climate leadership.  Who better to argue Turnbull has sold out the climate than Turnbull himself?

“Our efforts to deal with climate change have been betrayed by a lack of leadership, a political cowardice, the like of which I have never seen in my lifetime before.”

The ALP’s campaign strategists clearly saw the contradiction in Turnbull’s past statements as a significant weakness.  Labor, as a result, has been arguing more confidently for effective climate policy than it has for years.

Turnbull has been forced to defend both his contradictory legacy and the Coalition’s Direct Action policy, which he branded "bullshit" in 2010 from the backbench.

While Labor failed to put climate change consistently onto the campaign agenda, Shorten’s climate barbs did strike home. Turnbull sounded hollow in his attempt to revive an Abbott-era climate scare campaign.

"This is yet another economic handbrake that Labor is putting on our economy," might be a smarter line than Abbott’s “axe the tax”, but it doesn’t have quite the same venom.

Turnbull’s internal dilemma

What remains to be seen is just how precarious Turnbull’s position is post-election, with the balance between slim majority and minority Coalition government sitting on a knife’s edge.

Assuming he retains office, the Labor strategy to pin Turnbull between his party and his past will continue unabated. Authority in the party room will be a live and pressing issue, and an angry conservative wing will be emboldened with a fresh count of the numbers in caucus.

Any discussion of climate policy will only highlight these internal divisions. The Prime Minister must avoid reiterating his belief in the science of climate change, or risk further distancing himself from the skeptics in his party.

“I have always supported the science… I recognise that we must take action.”

Such statements provide minimal wiggle room in future Cabinet discussions. Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz has labelled the environment movement as “Chicken Little type hysteria”.

Hamstrung by the party’s right wing, Turnbull’s inability to deliver on climate change helped feed a substantial credibility gap among voters. The electorate noted the contradiction between his old beliefs and his actions once in power. The result has been almost fatal: a dramatic fall in his approval rating, and a surprising and unnecessarily tight election result.

Fear of a feral Senate?

Many observers have suggested the Coalition will need to dial up the safeguard mechanism of the Direct Action package into a quasi-cap and trade scheme if Australia is to meet its lowly emissions reduction targets.

Vocal internal opposition is only the first challenge on this front. The task now has an added degree of difficulty—negotiations with a splintered Senate.

While the final composition of the cross bench will remain unclear for some time, early predictions suggest whoever forms government will inherit a far more fractious and conservative Senate than before the election.

Initial results point to the Greens losing one of their 10 Senators, with Labor and the Coalition also returning in fewer numbers.  Instead, small independent parties will benefit most from record voter dissatisfaction—Australia’s answer to the populist revolts seen in Brexit and Donald Trump’s rout of the Republican primaries.

Predictions at this stage should be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism, but 2016 will likely see the return of Pauline Hanson, along with three Nick Xenophon Team Senators, Derryn Hinch, Jacqui Lambie, and even ultra-conservative Fred Nile.

Result spells further trouble for climate policy

What is certain is that the wedge politics of the past are a sure recipe for further climate inaction. A more conservative Senate means substantial new road blocks in the path of effective climate change policy.

So the election result is likely disappointing for the environment, especially since recent polls (here and here) suggest public support for serious climate action is rising, although not to the levels seen during Rudd’s early period in office.

As the picture slowly becomes clearer after this cliffhanger election, the window of opportunity on climate change mitigation continues to slip away.  The need for political leadership and bipartisan climate governance is matched only by the urgency of real action.

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