Flesh and Gore

The tapestry in the Great Hall at Parliament House is a wool rendition of one of the messy sclerophyll landscapes Arthur Boyd took to painting in the last decades of his life. Off to one side, a slice of similarly garish tapestry is pinned to the wall, with a sign encouraging schoolchildren to touch it rather than tarnish the original.

It does not take terribly much to scratch together an analogy between this and the meeting of Clive Palmer and Al Gore, whose curious joint press conference this week took place under Boyd’s Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape).

The former US vice-president’s presence beside the Palmer United Party’s leader says a lot about the state of climate policy in the world. From across the Pacific, it was clear Australia was obstinate in its desire to become the only developed nation moving backwards on action on climate change. Tony Abbott’s grandstanding in Canada made it clear his position could not be talked around with sense.

But there was someone maverick enough to reconsider at least some of his wrecking: Clive Palmer. Gore, it became clear, was here to encourage the children away from completely destroying Australia’s climate management mechanisms.

The Gore Moment was more than two months in the making. Its brokering involved former staffers to Tony Windsor and Bob Brown. And while it was imperfect – certainly inelegant – it was still an achievement of kinds.

Gore was here anyway, hosted by the Australian Conservation Foundation to train “climate leaders” as part of his Climate Reality Project. Several times he reconsidered his willingness to stand next to Palmer. After all, this was the miner whose voting bloc would dismantle Australia’s carbon price.

But the concessions Gore won were clearly deemed worth it: an undertaking to re-introduce a carbon price once key trading partners had one also; a commitment to vote against the scrapping of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which invests in renewables; and a promise not to vote down the Renewable Energy Target, which forces energy providers to buy a certain amount of renewable power, should such legislation be introduced.

Gore’s part in this cannot be understated. He had two elements potent to Palmer’s worldview: celebrity and the fact of his participation in American history. What Gore salvaged by standing there beside Palmer on Wednesday night was substantial.

The commitment to a carbon price in the future could prove important. And spending on renewable energy is undoubtedly a positive in the meantime.

But, equally, Palmer got what he wanted. This is one of Palmer’s knacks. A major polluter, he will no longer pay the tax he had held out on paying anyway. His fleshy business interests are again protected. Meanwhile, he has wedged Abbott on what are ultimately cosmetic measures, convincing at least some voters that he is not entirely self-interested.

As publishing impresario Felix Dennis, who died this week, once said: “What is negotiation but the accumulation of small lies leading to advantage?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 28, 2014 as "Flesh and Gore".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.