By Cam Walker, Friends of the Earth’s campaigns coordinator.
As an environmentalist, it’s easy to say that the election of the Coalition to power is akin to the country being ‘under old management.’ The modest steps forward on environmental protection and climate change achieved under the previous government are already being swept away, back to the days of John Howard, when Australia was a pariah amongst the global community as one of the worst actors in the UN climate negotiations.
As an old school conservative, his primary focus was the culture war around the ideas that frame the national political debate. He was astute enough to make noises on the need for action on climate change towards the end of his time as PM, even though he has recently announced his scorn for the “alarmist” scientific consensus on climate change in a speech to a gathering of British climate sceptics.
The evidence suggests that Tony Abbott will be far more radical at prosecuting an anti environment agenda than his predecessor.
If we want to see what an Abbott government might mean for the environment, we would be well advised to look to the example of the USA, where a highly ideological Tea Party movement continues to drive government agendas. If you want to imagine the future years under the new government, think Sarah Palin, not John Howard.
And while the right wing Institute for Public Affairs does not actually hold a seat in parliament, it may as well, given its influence on key thinkers in the Liberal Party. A growing number of corporate sources have said it is hard for companies to support the institute due to its hardline positions on many issues, yet its agenda is supported by many of the key players in the Coalition. One corporate source described its position on climate change as ”nuts” and ”lunacy” and embracing ”fringe” elements.
This won’t stop the Coalition from drawing from the IPA’s wishlist of anti-environmental measures. In April, Mr Abbott explicitly endorsed the IPA’s 75 Ideas for a Better Australia, giving it a ‘big Yes’ in a speech.
The new government has moved fast to implement a comprehensive anti-environment policy, which started long before the first day of parliament and the introduction of legislation to repeal the price on carbon. Some of these actions are catalogued here.
Clearly the environment movement is already being forced to line up against the actions of the new government. But there is a deeper aspect to this story as Mr Abbott turns against the progressive traditions within the Liberal party and broader constituency, and confronts the tensions within the Coalition. Ultimately these are as likely to influence his actions as an emboldened, united and mobilised environment movement.
The anti science agenda that is obvious suggests that the Party is not controlled by economic rationalists any more, because of the evidence that it is willing to protect fossil fuels and mining at any cost. Ideological opposition to action on climate is likely to trump the opportunities presented by renewables and the smart grid. The depth of hatred expressed towards wind energy by a growing number of Liberals is troubling but also difficult to fathom. Do they hate the wind industry because it proves that the green movement was right all along? Or is it just sloppy and poorly thought out popularism that sees them supporting the anti-wind movement?
Worryingly, in Mr Abbott’s first public comments on wind energy and renewables, he wheeled out a number of easily disproven myths, straight out of the tool box of the anti-wind campaign.
One of the great ironies is that this new war on the environment will see the Abbott government abandon successful renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar PV, thus damaging the economy, and potentially alienating significant sections of the corporate community.
Polls continue to show that the majority of conservative voters support renewables. Even in the toxic debate around the carbon price in the build up to the 2013 election, a decent percentage of Coalition intended voters (42%) wanted the government to take more action on climate. Even in the US, where powerful religious and conservative forces that are sceptical of climate change dominate, 57% of small businesses believe climate change and extreme weather events are an urgent problem that can disrupt the economy and harm small businesses. And renewables show that a green economy is a better economy; with less pollution, less risk, more jobs and opportunity spread across many regions rather than centralised in a few communities. There is the risk that the hardliners will also alienate many of these small business core traditional allies on social as well as environmental issues.
There is a green tradition within the Liberals, and a considerable number of urban Liberal voters veer towards the Greens. The Coalition alienates these people at their peril, especially with the example of Greens MP Adam Bandt, who has a strong profile as a good local representative, proof that there is a Third Way, even in the Lower House. The risk of substantial bleeding of preferences as we get closer to the next election could force many Liberal MPs and candidates to adopt a stronger call for action on climate.
Finally, there is a major dilemma for the Coalition as new coal and gas operations spread across rural Australia. Amongst the grassroots of the National Party there is an unprecedented politicisation of rank and file members, who are finding common cause with environmentalists in opposing the onslaught of coal and gas. The Lock the Gate movement is a potent and largely progressive force that has filled much of the political space taken by right wing popularist Pauline Hanson in the 1990s. How the arrival of newer, more right leaning parties like the Palmer United Party will influence the dynamics at play is yet to be seen.
It appears that the NeoCon faction that is controlling the Liberal party is determined to tear down the slow work of decades – by millions of Australians and political parties of all hues – by gutting the minimal environmental protections we currently have in place. It has turned its back on meaningful action to reduce greenhouse emissions. The power balance within the Coalition is clearly skewed towards the NeoCons. But as pressure builds both within and outside the Coalition, there is a real chance that the hardliners will be forced to give way in the face of ever growing opposition to their anti environment policies.