Saturday, September 17, 2011


The Gillard government has struggled since its formation.

Now the agenda has turned to climate change. 

This is the one area where Tony Abbott's weak points are displayed most prominently, as this column makes clear . . . 


Some weeks ago Tony Abbott was dining with a small group of Liberal supporters in Sydney. They were happy enough to contribute financially to the party but at least one of them felt this wasn't enough. He asked what more he could do. “Just keep banging on about the carbon tax", Abbott had replied. “Keep on repeating it's a tax on everything."

The supporter was nonplussed, but as far as Abbott is concerned nothing else matters. The Opposition's simple, destructive message is getting through. And, according to the polls, it's working. Nevertheless, bussing small, unrepresentative groups of people down to Parliament so that they can chant mindless slogans and interrupt proceedings like spoiled children demanding more toys isn't the same as constructing an effective argument to persuade the electorate. Instead of surfing the crest of a wave of popular support, Abbott seems to be caught in the steely embrace of those on the fringes of society. That's never more apparent than when the politics turns to the critical, overriding issue of climate change.

It's not particularly fashionable these days to talk about the meaning of life. No one wants to get to troubled about arguments for the existence of God, let alone his (or her) denomination. This “ live and let live" approach has worked well for society, but it leaves a troubling vacuum in the centre of our existence; it doesn't and serve the enduring question, “why are we alive?" Instead, we successfully manage to avoid the issue by finding the answer in the glibness of a shopping spree; placing consumerism at the centre of our modern industrial society. 'I buy therefore I am'.

Those who don't like change and are happy with things the way they are represent the targets of Abbott's strategy. He thunders warnings Julia Gillard is threatening their way of life. The introduction of a new tax supposedly interferes with their inalienable right to consume more, and more. These people are a myopic crew don't bother with the view from from the highlands, they're too busy threading their way from one Special! to another. They don't want to be bothered by the bigger questions of existence and find change threatening. Unfortunately, whether they like it or not, their world is breaking down.

While they were out on their shopping expeditions they obviously missed the news that the jury has returned and climate change is occurring. There is still some slight argument about how it's happening, but there's no doubt whatsoever about the vast majority of scientific opinion as to why. This comes down firmly (and irrevocably) on the side linking the increased production of CO2 gases with the warming of the atmosphere. More proof of the linkage is coming in all the time, of course, but the evidence about what is happening is unequivocal.

The ANU's Dr Paul Tregoning has actually done a calculation to determine the correct proportional amount of media time that should be offered to the skeptics in a debate. "If [as seems to be the case] there are at least 100 scientists for every climate skeptic, then in order to have a balanced discussion you'd need to listen to a fifty minute documentary on the linkage between carbon and climate change before you heard a quick, thirty second sound-bite from someone who didn't believe in it."

His note of exasperation is perhaps understandable. Tregoning is engaged in measuring, “to the accuracy of 1/10th of a human hair" the changing distance between satellites whizzing through space in order to estimate the gravity field all over the earth. “If the continental ice melts there's less gravity at that location, because there's less mass on the surface. This allows us to measure the loss of water; the highs and lows. Everything from drought in the Murray Darling Basin through to the melting glaciers in the Antarctic". This week it was announced that Tregoning's team will be participating in the science of NASA’s GRACE mission which hopes to reveal more about what's actually happening down below.

“It's an exciting time to be a geodesist", says Tregoning. That all depends, I suppose, on your view of excitement. Nevertheless, another of his assertions can't be faulted. "We take the measurements that show, definitively, exactly what is happening on the earth." 

And this is the key to understanding the new political dynamic that's unfolding. This week came further evidence revealing the Arctic ice sheet is shrinking. Ice coverage of the polar regions is already the second lowest we've experienced since measurements began in 1979. Unfortunately, after a wave of heat and aridity blasting across the US it's expected that even the previous record, set as recently as 2007, will evaporate within a couple of weeks.

Everything might be different if you're earning so much money for that you're profiting greatly from the current consumer society. Somehow, observing the little crowd that Abbott had brought in to Parliament the other day, I didn't get the impression that they were masters of the universe. Rather the contrary; battlers doing it tough, nursing angry resentment against those others who have so much. People who are angry. Although, when you take the time to penetrate through the red haze that's obscuring their vision, it's sometimes difficult to work out exactly what they want. Getting them to articulate a positive agenda proves difficult, just as it has for Abbott.

The climate change legislation represents crunch time for the Liberals. By the end of next week it will have passed through Parliament. Abbott will suddenly be transformed from a statesman into a gambler, because he will be betting the Lodge on the hope that voters will believe he can extinguish the legislation. But he won't be able to. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, industry demands certainty (demonstrated by statements made this week by the peak business organisations). Secondly, the actual document itself is a legal minefield. It effectively creates property rights. Attempts to get rid of this will create horrendous financial costs that will have to be borne by the Commonwealth. Finally, the coalition is highly unlikely to get control of the Senate before July, 2014. The permutations of possibilities take too long to run through, but the reality is clear. Julia Gillard has ensured, finally, that the country will take action to combat climate change – like it or not.

Until now the party has supported Abbott unconditionally. That's because his tactics have worked, although one suspects that this is at least in part because of the low degree of difficulty provided by the current government. But the height of the diving board has suddenly been raised. His old-style of plunging in regardless can't be relied on to blast away the competition any more. On both climate change and refugee policy Abbott is being forced to choose between policy and populism.

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