Paul Bongiorno
Abbott saving the world and killing the planet

There was a dramatic reality check this week at the United Nations in New York. It came from United States President Barack Obama at the climate summit, the one Tony Abbott didn’t attend. Saving the planet from dangerous climate change is simply not our prime minister’s priority. Saving the world from Islamic extremists is much more engaging.

There was no such head in the sand from Obama. “The urgent and growing threat of climate change” would ultimately “define the contours of this century more than any other issue”, he said. More than terrorism, instability, inequality or disease. But this was not from some bleeding heart greenie. As the president addressed the UN Assembly, his ships were firing Tomahawk missiles deep into Syria and his warplanes were raining bombs on Islamic State targets.

Much to the frustration of Australia’s Climate Institute, Australia’s representative at the summit, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was putting up in neon lights brighter than the glare in nearby Times Square that her nation saw saving fossil fuels as much more important than saving the planet. She restated Australia’s commitment to reduce global warming emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels. But that still leaves us as one of the biggest per capita emitters and puts Australia in the top 20 of polluters.

Earlier in the week, the foreign minister cut across the bows of the Obama administration by telling Secretary of State John Kerry any abatement action should not be at the cost of economic development. Something she repeated more formally at the summit. “We are striking the responsible balance of safeguarding economic growth while taking action on climate change,” she proclaimed.

As the Climate Institute’s John Connor said from New York: “With this disappointing statement, Australia risks being bogged in the backwaters as other countries and capital move on in serious climate action, investment and opportunities.”

Connor cites the independent Climate Change Authority slamming Australia’s minimum target as “inadequate”. But it gets worse: far from aspiring to be a world leader, as John Howard promised back in 2007, Connor laments “Australia’s only commitment to share a post-2020 target was after it reviewed that of all its trading partners and competitors – without a specific time line.”

Connor takes great heart from the Chinese representative – their head of government gave the summit a miss, too – indicating a peaking year for its emissions “as soon as possible”. That will send shudders through the coal industry already reeling from a slowdown in Beijing’s demand for the commodity. It should also prompt the Abbott government to abandon its fossilised thinking and keep its election commitment renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020. The future is clearly there, as more nations show that they agree with this Obama sentiment: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”

Labor says it’s time for Tony Abbott to wake up and listen to the rest of the world: climate change is happening and genuine action needs to confront it. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says, “He can start by placing climate change on the agenda at the upcoming G20 leaders’ meeting in Brisbane and avoid being embarrassed by the world’s largest economies.”

But shrouding the prime minister from any humiliation is the fog of war. Australia is now in anti-terrorism overdrive. The nation is panicked as its leaders urge us to get on with our normal lives. That glib exhortation shattered as Tony Abbott was dashing to New York for that other summit. A refuelling stopover in Hawaii saw him roll out his special TV backdrop and Australian flag to comment on the killing of a “terror suspect” in Melbourne.

“Obviously this indicates that there are people in our community who are capable of very extreme acts. It also indicates that the police will be constantly vigilant to protect us against people who would do us harm.”

A federal agent and Victorian police officer were seriously injured in the incident. The Islamic community, far from being impressed by a midnight news conference where senior police revealed the dead teenager was a “person of interest”, accused them of drawing conclusions.

The Islamic Council of Victoria’s Ghaith Krayem told the ABC, “Unfortunately ... as soon as you label somebody like that, people don’t want to question what occurred.”

“We don’t know really what happened when this young man arrived at the police station,” he said. “There needs to be a proper process, as there always should be when police are involved in a fatality.”

Repeated assertions from the prime minister that “everything we do at home and abroad is directed against terrorism and not a religion” doesn’t ring true enough to assure law-abiding Muslims.

Parliamentary secretary Concetta Fierravanti-Wells explained why as she introduced into the senate more laws infringing on our traditional freedoms: “For more than two years, the civil war in Syria, followed by the conquest of much of northern Iraq, has provided a fatal allure for predominantly misguided and disenfranchised young Muslim Australians.”

Sydney lawyer Adam Houda, representing six people detained in the country’s biggest counterterrorism raid, accuses police and agencies of treating Muslims as the enemy. No charges have been laid against his clients and they didn’t even know the man who was charged.

He sniffs a political conspiracy, telling the AM radio program, “The raids happen to fall on the day that our troops went to Iraq and also at a time where the government is trying to pass through the parliament some very draconian and controversial laws, so is that a coincidence? You tell me.”

There is also pushback coming in the parliament. The opposition and some on the crossbench believe aspects of the new laws go too far. The Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm told the senate they restrict freedom of the press – a key bulwark of a democratic society.

 “When considering these disclosure offences, we should remember that keeping secrets is ASIO’s job. It is not the job of everyday Australians. It is most definitely not the job of media organisations. We must not forget that it is the role of ASIO to serve the public, not the role of the public to serve ASIO.”

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus says outlawing travel to designated countries would be unprecedented in Australian and international law.

Also unprecedented was the lockdown at Parliament House, Canberra. For the first time in the 26 years of the new house, specialist response group police in menacing black, armed with highly visible M4 assault rifles, Glock automatic pistols, body armour, Tasers and batons are patrolling the public entrances. The prime minister’s office says they are not there for show. A military expert says their presence anticipates the threat of some form of armed attack.

A security briefing for occupants of the house was told during the week there was no specific threat to any individuals or the building. That didn’t stop the AFP commander then advising that blinds and curtains should be closed at all times and people should change their routines coming and going to work.

It was enough for one woman to say she didn’t feel safe bringing her children to the parliament. Old hands in the press gallery say the isolation of the ministerial wing even from accredited journalists has never happened before. Not in Gulf War I or II, not after 9/11, not after the Bali bombings. The message is unequivocal: someone is afraid, very afraid.

Tony Abbott told parliament that if we change our way of going about our daily lives then the terrorists have won. Too late. They clearly have in Canberra. The Israeli news agency Haaretz reports the Islamic State jihadists have recruited more than 6000 new fighters since American air strikes began.

The opposition until now has been in lockstep with the Abbott terror agenda. The prime minister’s handling of it seems to have won over the public to the extent they are giving him the benefit of the doubt. The Coalition has made up much lost ground in the opinion polls, though it still trails Labor.

Essential has noted majority support of 52 per cent for our military commitment to Iraq, but a slim majority of 51 per cent believe it will also make us less safe. That should be an amber light for any protracted involvement. Senator Cory Bernardi sounded a note of caution in the joint government party room about the public’s willingness to accept a long-term commitment. If heeded, that may save the government a voter backlash.

But if the overwhelming consensus of scientists on the need for urgent action to contain catastrophic climate change goes begging, nothing will save the planet. Just ask Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Then again, accepting unpalatable evidence isn’t this government’s strong suit.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 27, 2014 as "Saving the world and killing the planet".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.