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Throughout all the thrills and spills of federal politics this week, the Coalition’s wilful torching of planned action on climate change escaped scrutiny. By Mike Seccombe.

Cutthroat politics veil climate change inaction

Monday now seems very long ago, at least in political terms.

The events of that day – the day before the long shadow war in the Liberal Party turned into open conflict – have been obscured by the subsequent, spectacular acts of self-harm by the now-Morrison government. But Monday was where it started, and once again the harbinger of political destruction was a fight over climate change. The same issue that destroyed Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership almost a decade ago. The same issue so ruthlessly and cynically exploited by Tony Abbott on his way to government.

The rest of the parliamentary week was taken up with the battle for the leadership of the Coalition government, but Monday showed who had been controling it. And it wasn’t Malcolm Turnbull.

The day began with Turnbull’s final capitulation on what was his signature policy area, as he caved on the national energy guarantee. It was the latest in a series of attempts by the reality-based elements of his government at making Australia’s electricity sector cleaner, cheaper and reliable.

Only a day earlier, Turnbull had boasted: “The target in the NEG is by 2030 to reduce emissions by 26 per cent from 2005 standards. We will meet this in a canter. As Tony Abbott said in 2015, it is a strong and responsible target, environmentally and economically responsible.”

Within 24 hours he had dropped it, cold. Even as he did, he noted – correctly – that the policy had overwhelming support inside and outside the parliament, from business and industry, consumer groups and policy experts.

“In fact,” said Turnbull only slightly gilding the lily, “I’ve never seen an energy policy that has broader support …”

But, he continued, “in a parliament where there is just a one-seat majority, the outstanding reservations of a number of our colleagues, combined with the absence of bipartisan support mean that as long as that remains the case we won’t be in a position to take that legislation forward.”

This part of the statement was not so correct. In fact, Turnbull simply assumed a lack of bipartisanship. His government hadn’t shown any proposed legislation to the Labor Opposition, much less engaged in any negotiation. The only confirmed opposition to the policy came from within the government’s own ranks. In particular it came from barely a handful of anti-science, pro-fossil fuel, anti-Turnbull agitators led by Tony Abbott, who threatened to vote against their government.

Throughout Monday’s question time, Labor bombarded Turnbull with questions designed to elicit a full admission of truth – that the real reason he had abandoned his principles on climate change had nothing to do with the Opposition sitting in front of him, and everything to do with the opposition behind him.

In due course, Turnbull stumbled into an admission of that truth, replying to the shadow environment minister, Tony Burke, that “the fact is … we seek to ensure that legislation that we introduce has the support of sufficient of our party room to enable it to be carried on our own numbers.”

Labor leader Bill Shorten asked the obvious, devastating follow-up question:

“Given that the prime minister has a majority of one, doesn’t every member of his back bench, including the former prime minister [Tony Abbott], now have the same power over government policy as the prime minister himself?”

“That,” said Turnbull, “is the ... practical reality of the situation.”

On the back bench, Abbott smirked. The right of the Liberal Party was already plotting its coup.

What lent an element of farce to the drama was the fact that – between Labor’s questions – various government ministers fielded multiple Dorothy Dixers about the aid allocated to drought-stricken farmers, a total of some $1.8 billion so far.

Yet in none of those answers, and in none of the Labor questions, during the whole of question time, did anyone acknowledge the common thread. No one even said the words “climate change”. No one spoke to the greater tragedy – that the zealots of the Liberal Party right wing were intent on killing not just Turnbull, but any meaningful action on the most pressing issue of our time.

In the rarified confines of Parliament House they all smelled only Turnbull’s blood, but elsewhere in the country, people smelled other things: dust and death and smoke. That day, some 70 fires were burning in New South Wales, 30 of them uncontained – in the middle of winter. The entire state was officially in drought. A total fire ban had been imposed, the earliest such declaration, ever.

Queensland authorities counted 500 fires over the previous weekend and almost 60 per cent of that state was officially in drought. Nationally, it was the driest July since 2002, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Rainfall was the lowest on record for that month across large parts of the northern inland and western slopes of NSW, across the border into the eastern pastoral region of South Australia and patches in the Goldfields region of Western Australia. This came on top of two years of far-below-average rains across most of eastern Australia, large parts of South Australia and the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. In sum, most of Australia’s arable land.

The mean maximum temperature across Australia as a whole was the second-highest on record, more than two degrees above the long-term average.

And the outlook is grim. The bureau forecasts a hot, dry summer. Possibly devastatingly so. The chances of El Niño, the climate variation that drastically reduces rain across eastern Australia, have doubled.

This is not natural variability. Since the mid 1990s, rainfall for the April to October growing season right across the south-east of the continent has declined an average of 11 per cent. In the south-west of Australia, May–July rainfall is down about 19 per cent.

That’s just an average. The report also warned that “the duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events” had increased. So, too, the incidence of “extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.”

It us understood the next “State of the Climate” report, due in a couple of months, will underline those findings, and make even more dire forecasts about extreme weather. This is particularly, though not solely, a concern for the agricultural sector. As Ben Shepherd of the NSW Rural Fire Service points out, the greatest risk in this extraordinary fire season is in the forested parts of the state – all the way from the Victorian border into Queensland, “which of course is where the vast majority of the population lives”.

He expects things will get worse. “So far it is wind and dryness that have been driving the fires. Once we introduce high temperature, there is potential for these fires to become more ferocious,” he says. “It doesn’t bode well, leading into the summer. There is actually a reduced risk west of the divide, in the grassland areas.”

But that apparent good news is actually bad news, according to Shepherd. It’s so dry that there is little grass to burn.

Stories of the big drought are legion. Across much of the country, graziers are destocking, crops are dying or not being planted. Yet the right-wing forces attempting to take over our federal government refuse to acknowledge the need to seriously address climate change, even as the government hands out billions in drought relief. Even more oddly, members of the Nationals – allegedly the party of agriculture – are prominent among the deniers and do-nothingists.

Thus we saw David Littleproud, a rising star of the Nationals and minister for agriculture, denying reality in an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A just a few weeks ago. His vast western Queensland electorate of Maranoa is among the most severely affected areas in the country.

Littleproud said he didn’t “give a rats” whether climate change is driven by human activity, arguing Australia should focus on keeping the “lights on” instead of switching to renewable energy. Asked specifically whether he believed the drought was linked to human-induced climate change, he said: “Look, that’s a big call.” He went on to blame environmentalists for depriving farmers of water but was drowned out by booing from the – rural – audience.

There is growing evidence that Australia’s farmers, as with the broader population, overwhelmingly accept the climate science. Verity Morgan-Schmidt is a farmer, as were her parents, who is appalled by the actions of the right of Australian politics.

“The fact that we have the government saying they are looking after farmers – I believe the quote is, ‘We’ve got farmers’ backs’, while simultaneously walking away from any meaningful action on climate change, is an absolute slap in the face for drought-affected farmers,” says Morgan-Schmidt, who also is chief executive of Farmers for Climate Action.

“Five or seven years ago our organisation couldn’t have existed,” she says. “But we have seen a dramatic change right across the sector over recent years. There is a rapidly growing awareness across the whole ag industry, including the corporates, that climate change is exacerbating the existing risks.”

Now, she says, the rural constituency is well ahead of its elected representatives, and “extremely disappointed” as they watch events in Canberra, “with all sides of politics putting partisanship above sustainable agriculture”.

“I have had farmers ringing me in extreme distress over it,” she says. “They are incredibly frustrated. They are passionate about handing the land on to the next generation, yet they are seeing in quite a lot of cases across Australia, the window for action, to preserve a sustainable agricultural industry, closing as a result of our collective failure to take action on climate change.

“My home property is in the Western Australian Wheatbelt, in really quite marginal country. Last year was the worst year on record, the single worst start to a season, ever. It is getting more marginal by the year.” It is, she says, “right on the edge” of sustainability.

Recently, she says, her organisation conducted research, speaking to more than 1300 farmers across the country. Nine out of 10 were concerned about damage to the climate, says Morgan-Schmidt. “If you say you are standing up for rural Australia, that means standing up for action on climate change,” she says. “And I don’t see that message is penetrating the Canberra bubble at this point.”

So why do farmers continue to vote for conservatives?

“It’s a really, really difficult question,” she says. “We are a strictly non-partisan organisation, and we just want to see good policy that addresses the realities of the situation. And we’re not seeing it.”

She and her organisation are not outliers. The National Farmers’ Federation was among the groups supporting the now-defunct Turnbull NEG policy. And Richard Heath, executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, also sees a big shift in the attitudes of those on the land, between the last big drought in the early 2000s and this one.

“Just looking at the way people are participating in social media I would say that the majority of farm opinion now is very solidly aligning with the science,” says Heath.

Heath is circumspect when asked whether the elected representatives of rural Australians appear to be increasingly at odds with their constituents on the matter of climate. “I am going to make no comment on the politics except to say I have observed the same thing. There is a general recognition that there is a lack of evidence in their policy positions.”

The prospect of that changing, though, appears as remote as ever. Indeed, the signs are that things will get worse. Tony Abbott, who did so much to prepare the ground for Peter Dutton’s ill-fated challenge, would have Australia abandon its commitment to the Paris greenhouse reduction targets. We shall see whether Scott Morrison's ascendancy, with then energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg as his deputy, makes any difference.

At stake in the battle for the Liberal Party leadership was so much more than the jobs and egos of a few rich and ruthless politicians. It was the future of Australia’s farmers, their children, all our children in an overheating world.

Think about that as you smell the smoke this summer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Shadow of drought". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.