The rising temperature of climate change politics

It is not yet clear to me whether Scott Morrison is slavishly following the urgers from News.com or it's the other way around. Perhaps given the way The Australian is barracking for the Abbott-Dutton tendency within the party, he should be very careful.

In any event, commentators from the Murdoch soviet have been unanimous in independently concluding that it is upon the costings of Bill Shorten's climate control policies that responsible people should vote. Liberal. From Monday's debate in Perth, Scott Morrison has followed the cues.

But it is hard to think it is going to do any great harm to the Labor campaign. It allows Labor to segue into the need for serious concerted action on climate change - something on which the majority of the electorate and the science community agree, and to hammer the argument that whatever passes for a Coalition climate change policy is not a fair dinkum policy at all.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud throw hay to feed cattle on Eumungerie Farm. Picture: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud throw hay to feed cattle on Eumungerie Farm. Picture: AAP

That is because the Liberal and National parties are still full of climate change deniers, many of whom are prepared to split the party if there is anything more than a cosmetic policy.

Morrison can argue until he is blue in the face that the very limited measures he is taking represent just the right balance between maintaining a healthy economy and doing something. But this is a subject on which he is largely talking to himself.

His distraction tactics - of arguing either that the Shorten policy will bankrupt the economy, or has been so hopelessly costed that it shows Shorten, and Labor, to be too naive, reckless and silly to be trusted with the reins of government - only serve the purpose of reminding everyone that Labor has a policy and he does not.

Morrison claims the election is not a referendum on the need to do something about climate change. He says he agrees something should be done. The Coalition was taking action and would continue to do so. The question was whether the exciting, positive and good (and, no doubt, agile and flexible) measures the government was taking were appropriate, or whether we should have the reckless 45 per cent emission reduction target Labor was proposing, which would force Australians to choose between the economy and the environment. But it has been only belatedly that Morrison has seen any need to be on the side of history in the matter, and many voters, outside his own bubble, will remember him for the stunt promoting the use of coal.

Labor starts with the advantage that a majority of the population, along with the scientific community, national and international, and a good deal of industry, agree on the need to take effective action on world temperature increases and enormous local environmental damage.

Tony Abbott's political arguments against carbon pricing - and his argument that Australia should not get ahead of international action - may once have helped stall concerted action to put prices on activities contributing to emissions. But Coalition measures have not been based on the science, but on the determination of a significant rump in the party that nothing be done that inhibits coal extraction - from which substantial donations come to the party.

Putting out the projections of partisan economists, and effectively denying there will be serious costs to the Australian economy, and Australian governments, if Australia does nothing is not, of itself, enough to prove bigger targets for reducing emissions will ruin the economy. Indeed many sober people - not given to apocalyptic panic - fear disaster for our economy and our environment if Australia does nothing or so little that it has no impact on world emissions. The fear increases as effective action is delayed.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Mark Butler talk to Wilson Burns at the Southern Sustainable Electric solar farm in Whyalla, South Australia. Picture: AAP

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Mark Butler talk to Wilson Burns at the Southern Sustainable Electric solar farm in Whyalla, South Australia. Picture: AAP

Labor may have once, care of Kevin Rudd, proclaimed climate change as the moral issue of our time. For many voters, it remains that. But Labor is not promoting the issue as a moral imperative so much as the sensible and sound reaction to the scientific evidence of what is occurring, including evidence of more unpredictable weather. It's not panicky, or ideologically driven by advocates opposed to any form of mineral extraction or private enterprise. Rather it is in accord with the consensus of scientists, economists and industry and public policy experts all around the world, even if almost every continent has a significant denier standing in the way of sensible action.

Hysteria and refusal to believe in climate change, or to countenance any change are now rather more in the domain of the conservatives. Worst-case scenarios, even assuming the assumptions that have been fed into the models, are presented as the likely outcome. The misrepresentation does the Morrison government little credit, even in an election context. Morrison is perfectly entitled to seek to score points from some Shorten faltering on cost matters, but for most voters the debate belongs inside what Morrison would normally call "the Canberra bubble" - intricate detail for policy wonks, or, alternatively, matters that Morrison does not want to answer questions about.

But while Labor has shown some courage in making climate change one of the significant points of difference between itself and the Coalition, it can hardly be said, so far, that Labor has succeeded in making this the climate change election. It is merely one among five pillars of a Labor platform, and Labor has, as yet, to get out and positively sell it. It acts as if there is some doubt that it really is a plus for the party, even if it represents a consensus of all but a few reactionary unionists, focused only on short-term job security and sceptical about jobs for their members in an economy focused on emission reduction. Beyond being popular generally in the party, having a policy with some teeth is, or ought to be, a selling point in taking first preference votes from the Greens.

Labor policy is not as comprehensive as the Greens, but is perhaps better crafted for political reality. The Greens' history of letting their demand for perfection stand in the way of significant advances over the status quo has not been forgotten.

Labor has not shrunk from defending its policies, or the virtues of doing something, while it has been under attack over claims that it will act as a wrecking ball on the economy. But it should be doing more in mobilising support for itself around its policies, and in accepting and agreeing that the policies mean business. Opinion polls show that this is exactly what people want.

Labor policy is not as comprehensive as the Greens, but is perhaps better crafted for political reality.

As it happens, others are doing their best to keep the issue to the forefront. In most of the contests in which high profile independents are running against sitting Coalition members, climate change has been the chief issue used to differentiate the candidate from the incumbent. These have not been challenges the incumbents, such as Tony Abbott, have been keen to accept. He has himself moved significantly from his denialist positions, at the same time arguing that a vote for his opponent, Zali Steggall, is effectively a vote for Labor. The others - in Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps is campaigning to retain the seat won at a by-election when Malcolm Turnbull was a victim of the determined opposition within the Coalition to effective climate change action, and Helen Haines is running for Indi to replace the popular independent, Cathy McGowan.

Kerryn Phelps and Zali Steggall, the two indie candidates for Wentworth and Warringah. Picture: Edwina Pickles.

Kerryn Phelps and Zali Steggall, the two indie candidates for Wentworth and Warringah. Picture: Edwina Pickles.

These are candidates who describe themselves as likely to support the Liberal Party particularly on economic issues. But they have made the need for action on climate change the central point of their platforms, and the prime point of differentiation from their Coalition opponents. It is the attention given to these contests that has the issue front and centre.

Also helping keep the issue to the fore, perhaps particularly in NSW, is the distress of many in the rural sector that the National Party, and the Coalition, seem more focused on supporting extractive industries, including coal and gas, than agriculture. In more closely settled areas, the argument has been about fracking, and the loss of valuable pastoral land by farmers. More widely, it has been about water mining, about abuses with irrigation water, particularly by big scale cotton farmers upstream of the Darling (or Barwon) river. Large scale fish kills and prolonged drought brought cries of cronyism, favouritism, a failure to enforce the law.

It's not, as usual, a picture much helped by reports of sales, under policies pioneered by Barnaby Joyce, in which tens of millions have been paid for non-existent water, the money in question disappearing to tax havens overseas. Only a month ago, National Party incumbents in the state election lost seats to the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party, primarily over perceptions that the National Party was not serving the interests of rural people. Rural people do understand climate change; it has been a reality for years. Many are frustrated that so little is being done about it, primarily because of the active opposition of National members. While the threat to the very continuance of the National Party is obvious enough, and there is ample evidence of their being warned about the risks, it is far from clear that the party leadership (and alternative leadership, in the form of Barnaby Joyce) are addressing the problem.

For Labor, climate change should be a crusade, in both positive and negative terms.

To draw attention to Independents, or the bad example of the Nationals in the face of serious climate change is not to diminish Labor (or Green) activity on policies to combat climate change. But it is time that Shorten, and Labor, went positive and attacking on the issue, rather than defensive, seeming a little worried by the way Morrison has been focusing on it as a weakness. Shorten has been calm and unapologetic as he has been under assault. He is not usually at his best in dealing with forecasts, baited assumptions, and suggestions that he is withholding something from the community. Under immediate assault, it may be hard to change the subject. But if he is leading with the need for, and the value of the policy, he has a wider capacity to focus on the general case.

For Labor, climate change should be a crusade, in both positive and negative terms. It represents what citizens, as well as the research (and much of industry) community think is needed. But it also underlines the shambles of Coalition government, with three prime ministers over two terms because of prolonged brawls about whether there is to be any serious action taken. Action to deal with the effects of changes to the environment with the capacity to hurt Australia more than any of our neighbours.

The crusade cannot, or should not, be a series of actions by government remote from the effects that they have in different communities. In much the same manner that Paul Keating took the electorate along with economic reforms in the 1980s, concerted action should be part of a continuous dialogue with the wider community, in which the situation is repeatedly explained, new and emerging science is publicly seen to be brought to bear, and benefits and trade-offs, for example in relation to energy prices and the electricity market, to work to restore environments, are explained along with explanation for any adverse action.

It could also lead to some revised ways of organising climate change action. A propaganda point against action, for example, has been the suggestion that dour scientists, or pointy-headed intellectuals, will be seeking to take control of the lives of people working in productive industries. It would be a better sell, and easier on able and committed scientists, if what was described was a new sense of partnership, in which scientific skill and knowledge was added to the existing expertise of, say, farmers, who were acknowledged for work they had already done to improve the sustainability of their land and efficiencies with hydrocarbons, water consumption and tree control.

We know from the experience with the carbon tax that there are many in industry, and mining, who will adapt their behaviour, and significantly reduce emissions with clear price signals and transitional support. Many do it because they themselves see the problem and the imperative for action, rather than because they feel coerced. Many see the potential for economic benefits in the shifts to sustainable energy.

Labor is still the favourite to win this election, even as polls show some softening of support. This represents some success in efforts by Morrison to scare voters about risks to the economy if the dreaded socialists win. Labor has to give people reasons for voting for it, as much as it reminds people of the reasons why its opponents should be thrown it. It should own and embrace its policies, not dive for cover.

  • Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times