A change in the political weather?

Forecasting the future of climate policy

IN RECENT YEARS, a figure has begun to emerge from the dark recesses of Australia’s colonial history – one of the most progressive and courageous people from Queensland’s violent pastoral and logging frontier. Danish-born Carl Feilberg was a journalist and fiction writer of elegance, an environmentalist and Indigenous rights campaigner who confronted Queensland’s politicians and their vested pastoral and logging interests with ugly truths about their killing of the country and its custodians. Feilberg is colonial Queensland’s most notable early non-Indigenous human rights activist, and perhaps this continent’s first campaigning environmentalist; yet he has remained an obscure figure until recently because most of his advocacy appeared anonymously, without by-line, in a range of Queensland newspapers.

However, another Dane, the Queensland-based political historian Robert Ørsted-Jensen, is now reintroducing Feilberg to Australia through a forthcoming biography. Feilberg, born in 1844, survived childhood tuberculosis and migrated to Australia in the hope that the climate might bring him longevity. He wrote for and edited papers in Queensland including The Queenslander (the weekend literary edition of The Brisbane Courier, later The Courier-Mail). Between May and June 1880, he published a provocative series of thirteen editorials titled ‘The Way We Civilise; Black and White; The Native Police’ about widespread atrocities against Aboriginal people.

Feilberg paid a heavy price for his activism. The fallout from the editorials forced his exile to Melbourne, where his health suffered in the bitter winter climate. He returned to Queensland a few years later, still preoccupied with Indigenous rights and a deep concern for preserving the forests, soil, air and water of the country from which the people he cared so much about were being dispossessed. Feilberg thought colonialism and development inevitable, but he railed against their brutality. He possessed an understanding of the spiritual significance of country to Indigenous custodians, along with a scientifically rooted preoccupation with its health, which make his (failed) quest to gain political protection as relevant today as it was at the time of his death, more than 130 years ago.

‘He was…frequently found arguing strongly for the necessity of preventing soil erosion and desertification by securing responsible government legislation for the management of forest resources,’ Ørsted-Jensen writes. ‘His arguments included an in-depth and often strikingly modern approach to the issue of natural diversity and balance of nature. He even drew attention to woods as a regulator of carbon and oxygen and the notion of possible climate change.’

Feilberg was concerned with the sustainability of industries that were voraciously consuming Queensland’s forests and displacing their custodians, and recommended harsh legislative measures for regulation. He cared about environmental protection as both an end in itself and in the interests of balanced Earth science.

‘Woods are to the earth what the lungs are to the human body. Without them there can be no healthy respiration, transpiration or circulation. The part they play in the purification of the atmosphere is too well known to be insisted on. A full-grown tree eliminates from it an almost incredible amount of carbonic acid, fixes the carbon in its tissues, disengages and liberates the oxygen for our use, and transpires a certain amount of moisture in the shape of vapour,’ Feilberg wrote in The Queenslander.

But it has other equally important uses. Its roots loosen…and penetrate the subsoil, and thus every tree serves as a natural conduit for rainfall to subterranean springs and reservoirs…by its shade it lessens the evaporation, and thus modifies and equalises the annual precipitation… The balance of nature being disturbed by the destruction of the woods, which have a powerful influence in regulating the velocity and direction of atmospheric currents, violent storms occur: and instead of the orderly course of the seasons there are severe droughts and calamitous floods; inflicting incalculable injuries…

These prescient words were written in 1875. The politicians paid no heed.


FEILBERG WAS WRITING about climate change and the urgent need to maintain environmental balance through government regulation a century and a half ago. His government lobbying failed. His efforts to protect the Aboriginal people of Queensland from colonially sanctioned murder proved fruitless. The powerful vested interests he was up against when it came to Indigenous rights and the environment – pastoralism, mining and logging – had an iron grip on government. Despite potent scientific evidence and moral persuasion, Queensland would not permit anything to impede colonial economic advancement. Then, as now, successive governments invested in belief rather than fact. Political denial allowed killing and deforestation to continue unabated. Massacres occurred until well into the mid-twentieth century, and old-growth forests are still being logged today. And some of the nation’s most influential federal politicians still regard climate change a simple matter of belief.

Federal parliament and its major parties of government have failed Indigenous people. They’ve been equally remiss in addressing this continent’s human and moral responsibility to the global warming crisis. Opinion polls have indicated for more than a decade that voters regard climate change mitigation as a first-order public policy priority, equal with – even superseding – education, health and border protection. Yet in the past decade, as leaders of major federal parties have risen and fallen, and, in some cases, risen and fallen again on questions of carbon mitigation policy, federal electoral representation has been enigmatic for its disassociation from public sentiment on climate change.

In March 2007, Labor’s ascendant leader Kevin Rudd, attuned to the electoral vibe, declared climate change ‘the great moral challenge of our generation’. John Howard, then prime minister and a nimble skater between ideology and pragmatism, proclaimed that if re-elected he’d price carbon with an Emissions Trading Scheme. Just a few weeks earlier, Howard’s Cabinet had, instructively, rejected Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s proposal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions after a decade of government intransigence.

As a political writer for The Bulletin, I followed Howard during the last few frantic weeks of his 2007 campaign, in which he crisscrossed Australia trying to cast himself as progressive on climate change while also trying to shore up his seat, Bennelong, which he’d lose along with the election. The Bulletin’s cover caricatured him as a dinosaur fleeing the impending comet, portentous of his demise. I wrote, ‘Climate change, the dinosaur and a comet – could it really be that simple?’ It wasn’t; election losses never are. But Howard’s apparent climate change conversion was too late to convince voters he was anything but a man of the past, aloof from fears about a hotter future of floods and droughts, crop failures, famine, submerging island nations and disappearing coastlines.


THE HINDSIGHT OF ex-politicians – in memoirs and other public reflections – contains an invariable measure of self-service, blame-shifting and obfuscation. But sometimes, unshackled from parliament and party, they open up with a candour that exposes the profound cynicism that success in binary, adversarial politics seems to demand. Five years after he lost, Howard addressed Britain’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, one of the many think-tanks to coalesce around climate change scepticism. The foundation was established by Nigel Lawson, a former Thatcher government minister and the author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Overlook, 2008), the only book Howard had ever, to that point at least, read on climate change. Climate experts (that is, scientists) had challenged Lawson’s book as something of a flat-earthers’ treatise. Having tried to convince Australians to re-elect him five years earlier partly on the basis of his new progressiveness on climate change mitigation, Howard told journalists as he prepared to deliver his speech, titled ‘One Religion is Enough’: ‘I’ve always been agnostic about [climate change]. I don’t completely dismiss the more dire warnings but I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.’ Those who advocated the dire consequences of climate change were ‘zealots’ for whom ‘their cause has become a substitute religion’, he said.

Science and politics are unnatural allies. This reality was illustrated with scarifying eloquence by David Watson, a professor of ecology at Charles Sturt University, as he quit the New South Wales Threatened Species Scientific Committee in mid-2018 after the state government ignored his and others’ advice on the damage to native flora and fauna by wild horses in the Kosciuszko high country. Watson wrote in his resignation letter, ‘Science is not a special interest group. Scientists don’t lobby for favours, nor profit from political decisions. We are ambassadors for knowledge, the conscience of the natural world.’

The foundation of science is evidence-based fact. It’s religion that thrives on belief, feeling, ideology, instinct and emotion. Federal party politics in Australia, especially on the conservative Liberal National side of the parliament, has made scientific truth – about human-induced climate change and global warming, about carbon and the urgency of abating it – fodder for realpolitik.

Howard, the antipodean T-Rex seeking safe harbour from the comet in London’s Jurassic Park, was attempting to up-end that fundamental, ageless tension between religion and scientific belief. But he was also, as had always been his wont, packaging it up with domestic politics.

Truth has always been, and remains, the first casualty of the Australian political debate around climate change and environmental protection.


THROUGHOUT 2007, MALCOLM Turnbull had spent an anxious election campaign working his electorate, Wentworth – the second smallest, wealthiest federal seat. It has a high proportion of gay and lesbian, and Jewish, voters. It may also be one of the more beautiful and compelling urban seats, incorporating harbour and ocean front, and including some of the country’s most exclusive suburbs and sought-after real estate. Wentworth has been conservative (Labor has never won it) since Federation, but today it is also eclectic and socially progressive.

Having had his margin cut to just 2.5 per cent after redistribution, Turnbull was being haunted by his approval, as environment minister, of the Gunns Pulp Mill on the Tamar River in northern Tasmania. The Australian Greens and a plethora of environmental groups hounded Turnbull, questioning his credentials and his failure to guide ratification of the Kyoto protocol through Cabinet. Geoff Cousins, the businessman, environmental activist and former adviser to John Howard, targeted Turnbull as well. Cousins, who would later become president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, never eased up on this member for Wentworth, shadowing his political career – especially his eventual prime ministership – and insisting he lacked courage and commitment on climate change mitigation.

In 2007, Turnbull’s ministerial decisions were emblematic, nationally, of growing concern about government abdication of environmental responsibility. Wentworth cared. Government strategists were muttering that the ‘doctors’ wives’ (the leisure-wear-clad partners of Wentworth’s wealthy breadwinners) would undo Malcolm. But while Howard’s majority was evaporating in the pro-Rudd landslide, Turnbull, helpfully, on election night called the prime minister (who was about to lose his seat) to share the good news: he, Malcolm, had apparently been returned with a slight swing!

Among Rudd’s first initiatives were the ratification of Kyoto and a reiteration of his intent to price carbon dioxide with a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). From day one in Opposition, Turnbull positioned himself for Liberal Party leadership – an inevitability, given his juggernaut of ambition and destiny, and given the awkward, emotive style of the post-election incumbent Brendan Nelson. In September 2008, Turnbull took over from Nelson and pledged to support Rudd’s CPRS. Turnbull was a top-down political manager, alienated from the start by the Liberal right wing that was always suspicious of his Labor connections and, curiously, for the supposed party of deregulation, of his economic rationalism and extreme wealth. The Liberal right – with its titular post-Howard head, Tony Abbott, and climate change sceptics in the National Party who coalesced around Barnaby Joyce – was reluctant to support Turnbull’s position on Rudd’s carbon pricing scheme.


IF THERE WAS a single moment that might have changed the course of political history in relation to Australian climate change mitigation, some say it came in June 2009, at the Midwinter Ball in Canberra – an annual event where journalists, politicians, political staffers and lobbyists drop partisan guard, drink, laugh, dance and raise money for charity. Turnbull, suckered by a fake email trail supplied by an idiosyncratic former Treasury official, Godwin Grech, confronted a Rudd adviser at the ball and warned him not to cover up for the prime minister and then Treasurer Wayne Swan over their alleged improper assistance to a Queensland car dealer’s bid for financial assistance from the $2 billion taxpayer-funded OzCar scheme.

In parliament, Turnbull fallaciously claimed Rudd and Swan had ‘used their offices and taxpayers’ resources to seek advantage for one of their mates and then lied about it to the parliament’. Having staked his credibility on Grech’s faked trail of corruption, Turnbull’s already faltering leadership entered its terminal phase and his authority in the Liberal Party and the electorate diminished.

Adversarial politics gives rise to various wisdoms that don’t apply in other workplaces – aphorisms like, ‘Never prop up an opposing leader for short-term political gain because the next one might be weaker.’ Rudd’s Labor made no concessions to Turnbull. In the second half of 2009, as the Rudd Labor government prepared to legislate its CPRS, it also relentlessly attacked Turnbull while dissenting Nationals and Liberals undermined him from within.

Turnbull was Labor’s best ally on the CPRS. He had even declared in October 2009, ‘I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.’ This proved something of an epithet for his first spell as Liberal leader; in December, Tony Abbott, insistent it was the Opposition’s job to block Rudd’s legislation, won a party-room ballot for the leadership by one vote.

Since the beginning of Turnbull’s leadership, Abbott had been the lightning rod (within the Liberal Party and among many shock-jocks, News Corp columnists and anti-renewable energy lobbyists) for dissent over pricing carbon. As leader he ran a relentless scare campaign against Rudd, and later Julia Gillard, on the social and economic cost of pricing carbon. Although, under Gillard, Labor did introduce a price on carbon dioxide (later junked by the Abbott government), its political response was consistently weak.

Elements of the traditionally politically conservative business lobby had begun warily shifting towards support for a carbon price before the 2007 election (all major energy companies are now on-board and are diversifying into, even prioritising, renewables) in order to secure market certainty. But ideological opposition to pricing carbon and promoting renewables abided in the right of the Liberal and National parties, and among their supporters in the commentariat and industry lobby groups representing the biggest emitters. Labor was not immune, either: some MPs from the right and left with strong ties to old-school blue-collar unions were already watching the demise of traditional Australian industry in the shadow of globalisation.

As if to underscore the growing distance between Coalition politics and the politically conservative resources sector, in November 2018 Peter Coleman, chief executive of Woodside (Australia’s biggest oil and gas producer), called for a carbon price. BHP and Rio Tinto had already done so. Coleman said now was the moment to price carbon to ensure ‘the most effective energy gets into the market’. Just a few years earlier, Woodside – under the leadership of then CEO Don Volte – had campaigned against the Gillard government’s carbon mitigation policies, including pricing carbon dioxide.

The Liberal and National parties were left lagging behind voices that have never been called socially progressive, mired in a toxic sludge of ideology and the poisonous politics of leadership.


THE UNEARTHING OF coal and the harnessing of the fire it creates to power the means of manufacturing, the tapping of fossil fuels for combustion engines, the smokestacks billowing into the heavens – all are emblematic for the opponents of carbon pricing of the rise and dominance of Western civilisation. The more conspiratorial right-wing critics of free-market carbon pricing have long cast it as some sort of ‘green-left’ conspiracy to undermine the manufacturing class. The irony of such a proposition would come into sharp relief after Abbott won the 2013 election partly on the back of a carbon tax scare campaign centred around false claims of dramatic price rises of goods and services (remember Barnaby Joyce’s $100 lamb roast?). Abbott also scrapped the Gillard government’s politically hard-won, legislated market carbon pricing mechanism delivered by the 2011 Clean Energy Act, and introduced a ‘direct action’ policy with the now near-expended $2.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund as its centerpiece. The fund is the very antithesis of market economics. It socialised the cost of carbon emissions, using taxpayers’ money to pay farmers and businesses that profited from both their pollution and any voluntarily cuts to their carbon dioxide emissions.

The multilateralism that drives major international initiatives on climate change mitigation, meanwhile, with conferences like Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris, tends only to fuel the opportunity for denialists to find a global conspiracy in decarbonisation. Critics, sceptics and denialists continue to argue that Australia’s contribution to these multilateral agreements make virtually no difference to the global impacts of warming such as rising sea levels, extreme weather and coral bleaching. For such cynics, coal signifies the progress that pulled Western civilisation from the darkness. They consider it, and the power it generates (despite proving to be significantly more expensive than renewable energy), as both an end in itself and a potent metaphor for enlightenment. They believe that the export of coal from Australia gives developing nations (many of which are also advancing their own renewable energy sources with plans to phase-out coal and commitments to lower emissions) their only opportunities for economic and social advancement.

It pays to remember here that in February 2017, then Treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliamentary question time and urged the Opposition not to be ‘scared’ of it.

Amid power blackouts in South Australia, Morrison – a hectoring advertising guy with the authenticity of a door-to-door cladding salesman – might’ve been making a point about the reliability of renewables, the supposed leftist carbon price conspiracy and the cost of electricity…or something. It never was entirely clear. But as a bargain basement stunt it went unmatched, until another cheap political huckster fronted up in the Senate wearing a burqa.

As Australia’s accidental prime minister, Morrison would come to describe coal-fired energy as ‘fair-dinkum power’. He’d also dismiss a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommending global emissions be cut by 45 per cent by 2030 to keep warming within the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the phase out of coal power by 2050.

Despite the best scientific and economic evidence to the contrary, Morrison insisted Australia would meet its Paris targets of reducing emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 ‘in a canter’ by doing nothing more. He then flicked the switch to local politics, saying the international report ‘does not provide recommendations to Australia or Australia’s program, this is dealing with the global program’. As such, we should ‘not forget that Australia accounts for just over 1 per cent of global emissions, so there are a lot bigger players than us out there impacting on these arrangements’.


TURNBULL TOOK MUCH from his first incarnation as Liberal leader that would inform his prime ministership from 2015, after an improbable resurgence as the most popular alternative Liberal to Abbott and a successful challenge. Most instructive, second time around, was his willingness to accede to the demands of his party’s right on the marquee issues – climate change, refugees and same-sex marriage – that had drawn progressive voters to the prospect of his prime ministership. During Turnbull’s first stint, principle compelled him to his detriment on climate change mitigation; as prime minister, party politics compromised him.

But he was not the first post-Howard prime minister to be compromised to the point of ineffectiveness on carbon. That legacy is Rudd’s. It’s worth remembering what happened after the Abbott coalition blocked the CPRS legislation in the Senate (with support from the Australian Greens, which argued it was not ambitious enough), giving Rudd the means for the double dissolution election he’d vowed to hold if he didn’t get his way on the legislation. By early 2010, Rudd’s electoral popularity was waning and his personal shortcomings as an administrator and party leader were manifesting in mutinous rumblings through the bureaucracy and, more importantly, in the caucus. Without announcing it publicly, in April 2010 Rudd withdrew his CPRS legislation. He had failed his own moral challenge.

Two months later, in his Alfred Deakin lecture at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, Turnbull said, ‘Climate change is real, it is affecting us now, and it is having a particularly severe impact on Australia. And yet right now, we have every resource available to us to meet the challenge of climate change except for one: and that is leadership.’ He continued:

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 abandonment of the Emissions Trading Scheme by the Prime Minister [Kevin Rudd] surely must be one of the most remarkable political acts…that we’ve ever seen. Here was a man who came to office with a policy that he said was the answer to the greatest moral challenge of our times. Ultimately, he could not secure the support of the Senate.

Turnbull could, perhaps, be forgiven for indulging such schadenfreude given all the futile support he’d given Rudd’s CPRS at the time Labor was trying to destroy his credibility. But he might well have been prophesying his own prime ministership five years hence.


ON A HUMID spring morning in October 2018, five days before the voters of Wentworth must decide which candidate will replace Malcolm Turnbull, another former Liberal leader and Wentworth member, John Hewson, sits in the atrium of an inner-city Sydney hotel. Just a few days earlier, Hewson publicly urged the voters of Wentworth, a seat he held from 1987 to 1995, to use the by-election as a referendum for the government’s negligence on climate change mitigation and to vote against the Liberal candidate.

Two women stop by his table. One smiles and nods while the other says, ‘Excuse me John, I just wanted to say that I agree with what you’ve been saying about Wentworth. We are both Liberals. Keep going.’

He hears that a lot on the train from the New South Wales highlands where he now lives, and when he ventures into the Sydney CBD and through Wentworth. Hewson has been visiting the electorate during the campaign; he sensed early that not only were voters furious at the treatment of Turnbull (who had managed to increase his margin to 17 per cent since 2007), but that there was also white-hot anger at the Liberal right’s blocking of his efforts to progress policy on domestic carbon abatement. In one of his final acts as prime minister, Turnbull capitulated to his party’s climate change dinosaurs, indefinitely shelving the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), a long-term policy to cut emissions from electricity generation that also aimed to bring stability to the energy market. He left the parliament, the government and the nation without an effective carbon mitigation policy, and since his departure the Coalition has, with barely a fig leaf beyond the dwindling Emissions Reduction Fund, been trying to dissemble its way out. It stands exposed. And Wentworth sees it all. Suddenly the name Wentworth – perhaps more familiar, across many parts of Australia, as a TV drama about a women’s prison – has become a byword for a national mood of bitter disenchantment on a range of issues, the top of which, according to many polls, is climate change.

Hewson, now seventy-two, has heard these concerns and used his status and profile to amplify them. He has also managed to enrage a number of Coalition members, not least that great sage of national sentiment, Barnaby Joyce, who tweeted, John Hewson, total flop as Liberal leader, doubles down and becomes party traitor, but he is very good for Labor on TV. These days, Hewson, who led the Coalition to a loss at the 1993 federal election on the back of his Fightback! policy manifesto, tends to preface his political commentary with a modest concession.

‘I mean I’m no political genius. I lost,’ he says.

But it does seem obvious that if you have a consistent electoral position which you continue to ignore, you are in the end going to be defeated. Never have we seen such a disconnect between what the public is demanding in a policy sense on a certain issue and what party politics responds with, than we see today on climate change. I was staggered that [the Turnbull mutineers] were able to mount the ultimate attack on Turnbull when, if the issue was actually the NEG and energy pricing, he’d actually got the NEG through the party room twice – and I’d never seen such a broad range of businesses and people in civil society in support of the NEG…not necessarily as the best outcome…but it’s at least an outcome that they were desperate for.

The centerpiece of Hewson’s 1991 environment policy in Fightback! was, by today’s standards, politically progressive: a 20 per cent cut in carbon emissions off the 1990 base by the year 2000.

A quarter of a century ago, the public was becoming attuned to the looming global warming threat and the scientific research was pointing to dire conclusions, but the political responses were not hotly contested. ‘It wasn’t contentious at all,’ Hewson says. ‘I don’t remember it becoming an election issue… In fact, I suspect that [then prime minister Paul] Keating, if he’d been asked, would’ve just said “yes” [in support].’

What’s changed?

Hewson says it’s obviously as much to do with political bastardry as ideology, as evidenced by Howard’s admission about his pragmatic attitude to climate change when he spoke in London in 2012 and the inconsistent positions of others who are sometimes cast as ideologically denialist when they might be more essentially Machiavellian.

‘Look at Abbott – he’s the ultimate opportunist. He’ll say anything. He’s been at every point on the spectrum on climate change. He’s said it’s important and he’s said it’s crap,’ Hewson says.

Indeed, as prime minister, Abbott signed up to Paris and sang its virtues. Later, as a backbencher when Turnbull was scrambling for a version of the NEG with some efficacy that might also appease his Liberal enemies, Abbott insisted he’d only signed on to Paris due to lousy advice.

According to Hewson, John Howard’s speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation ‘tells you all you need to know. He talked about his instinct. But it’s not a question of religion is it – it’s a question of science? Why wouldn’t you go on the scientific evidence and formulate an appropriate policy response? This is all just politics.’

Hewson and Geoff Cousins were conspicuous on the Wentworth hustings during the by-election campaign: small-‘c’ conservative businessmen on the streets of Double Bay and Bondi, Bellevue Hill and Vaucluse, as emotional touchstones for an electorate about to mount a ballot-box revolt. A fortnight out and yet another opinion poll warned the government what its private research already had: Wentworth voters were nominating climate change as their most salient issue before the economy, immigration, health, hospitals and education.

A few days later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of a looming catastrophe: limit global warming to a minimum of 1.5 degrees inside twelve years or face a dramatic increase in the risk of floods, drought, extreme heat and poverty that would impact hundreds of millions of lives. The panel’s report was based on the findings of ninety-one of the world’s eminent climate scientists who’d surveyed more than 6,000 contemporary research studies. Morrison, like his Wentworth candidate Dave Sharma, responded with blithe indifference that the government was doing ‘enough’, while Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said that, although he hadn’t read the report, the government wouldn’t alter its (close to non-existent) climate change policy ‘just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow’. Hapless Environment Minister Melissa Price hadn’t read the report either when she declared the IPCC was ‘drawing a long bow’ by calling for an end to coal power to stop warming. Meanwhile, over in the bleachers of reactionary commentary came the familiar cry that those who accepted the IPCC warnings were ‘virtue signalling’.

Writing for Guardian Australia with the novelist Richard Flanagan a week out from the by-election, Geoff Cousins again urged voters to protest government inaction on climate change at the ballot box: ‘If we take our compass from power we will know only despair. But if we take our compass from those around us and their actions we discover hope. It is time we rediscovered not partisan division but a common humanity ready to take on our gravest crisis. It is time we acted, and the Wentworth by-election is the first chance Australians have. Our tomorrows are running out. We have only today.’


SATURDAY 20 OCTOBER 2018: Wentworth by-election day. The electorate’s citizens turn out early, buy their democracy sausages, shun the major parties’ how-to-vote-cards and march into the booths, a storm of fomented anger and protest. Throughout the afternoon, a storm brews. As the day grows later the angry, leaden sky rumbles and groans and crackles with electricity and promise. Such unlikely spring weather for Sydney becomes the irresistible – the only – metaphor for the maelstrom that the politicians and the commentators and especially the voters all know is breaking at the cardboard boxes in the school halls and life-saving clubs and art deco pavilions of Wentworth.

The closing of the booths summons the tempest: thunder booms like rounds from those navy ships at Woolloomooloo; fork lightning sets the ocean and the harbour girdling Wentworth aglow. Then comes the deluge.

It is just a memorable coincidence, of course – albeit one that’s bound to render with added poignancy the new Prime Minister’s recollection of the talismanic loss of Wentworth after an anti-Liberal swing of about 19 per cent – in a seat held by the party since 1944 – to a moderate independent, Kerryn Phelps, who campaigned prominently on climate change.

In the days that follow, the government talking point de jour issued by the Prime Minister’s office to all government MPs contests that the swing was well anticipated and attributable to the ousting of the popular Turnbull, and that Coalition policy on climate change and refugees had little relevance. Publicly, it is as if they can’t accept – or choose not to – the cataclysmic fact of what has happened.

Some Liberal Party moderates break ranks, referencing the green writing on the wall for the forthcoming federal election, talking about the government’s need to save itself by demonstrating some new commitment to climate change mitigation and to soften the policy scourge of the cruel offshore processing of asylum seekers. This reckoning has been a long, long time coming. Suddenly, an electoral outcome has defied the politically convenient beliefs or instincts or feelings of the conservative MPs who, for more than a decade, have shunned the science charting climate change and the fact of its acceptance by most voters. Despite the continued obduracy of the accidental Prime Minister and his ministers, federal politics has been shaken awake to the electoral poison of national political inaction to help mitigate global warming. Other electorates are looking to the Phelps example, as the 2019 federal election looms with all the portents of Wentworth.

Now, in the countdown to 2019’s federal election, the politics of climate change mitigation and the major parties’ corresponding energy and carbon abatement policies are foremost in the minds of voters, strategists, industry and business leaders. Wentworth brought home to the major parties, especially the conservatives, what voters already knew: Australian parliamentary politics can no longer deal with climate change mitigation as a binary left-right political football. If not the issue at the centre of voter sentiment, that place where elections are won or lost, then it is certainly a primary factor as we prepare to vote this autumn.

Yet the ideological divide in the Coalition continues to impede any meaningful policy progress, drawing the ire of traditionally conservative lobby groups including the Business Council of Australia, which dismissed Morrison’s interventionist energy policy as ‘ad hoc and extreme’. Even in late 2018, when Labor announced an energy policy (effectively a top-to-bottom restructure of the market) with Turnbull’s dumped NEG at its centrepiece and with a plea for bipartisan support, the Coalition reverted to the inanity of hypothetical price rises and hyperbolic what-ifs.

As the Coalition apparently marches obdurately towards an electoral climate change cliff, the former prime minister’s son, Alex Turnbull, and Atlassian co-founder and billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes are among the business figures lending electoral influence to political progress on energy and carbon mitigation policies that embrace renewables, radically cut emissions and phase out coal. Cannon-Brookes, weaponising Morrison’s own words, has established a ‘movement’, Fair Dinkum Power, to propose policy suggestions around renewables during the election campaign. Alex Turnbull, meanwhile, has committed to fund local small ‘l’ liberal candidates (in the vein of Phelps) who are willing to advocate climate change action.

There’s always much, of course, in the past that can instruct societies on the present and future. As the archives testify, it’s a long, long time since Carl Feilberg staked his life speaking out in defence of the Australian continent and its custodians, and of the science that even then warned how development could, unchecked, wreck the environment.

The politicians didn’t listen.

But, 135 years after Feilberg died, disappointed, at age forty-three, our conservative mainstream elected officials might, it seems, be under irresistible pressure to shift at last. And when they do, it will be due to the prospect of their own electoral destruction and not the earth’s pending demise.

23 November 2018

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