Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott loosens his collar at Thatcher Lecture

For a great many Australians, Tony Abbott didn’t have to go halfway around the world to persuade them his party got it right dumping him. But he did. In a fulsome and spectacular fashion.

There he was at the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London likening Europe’s massive challenge in dealing with millions of displaced people to Australia’s boat people issue. Like a recurring nightmare it was back, ringing a discordant note in decent ears. The over-inflated play on xenophobia. The denigration of Islam. Ridicule of diplomacy and the United Nations. The prescription of more military force and boots on the ground. Never mind that the whole Middle East disaster was originally triggered by such myopic thinking. He evoked Thatcher’s success in the Falklands as a template for dealing with Iraq and Syria. The naive simplicity of it all.

What shocked many was “Captain Catholic” ditching the precept the founder of his church put out there as essential for salvation: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” He said, “right now this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error”. In Germany’s Angela Merkel and other continental leaders he diagnosed compassion as “misguided altruism”.Of course it appealed to other politicians who have sought and failed to achieve success by playing to similar fears and prejudices in their electorates. Britain’s Nigel Farage comes to mind. The ABC thoughtfully sought out the founder of the far right United Kingdom Independence Party for comment. “Heroic,” was his response, “and absolutely right.” A man is known by the company he keeps. Fortunately for Britain, voters preferred the more sensible David Cameron’s Conservatives to Farage’s outfit, which failed miserably at the general election.

Malcolm Turnbull’s response was delivered with a straight face: “He’s obviously had a remarkable career in public life, including two years as prime minister. We owe him a great debt for that, and his views are in hot demand everywhere in the world.” If nothing else, it shows the prime minister has learnt from Labor about how to deal with a knifed leader. Julia Gillard tried to ignore her felled predecessor until she unleashed the dogs of war on him 18 months into Labor’s fraught second term. Remember a procession of senior ministers talking of Kevin Rudd’s “dysfunction,” “disrespect of colleagues,” “chaos” and “hubris”. It was extremely untidy – and too late – and put out there for all to see a bitterly divided government.

It’s early days yet and Abbott has promised no undermining. Turnbull is wise to take out insurance against those on the right of his party who are as deluded as Abbott and think his brand of conservatism, having failed once, would appeal to voters again. Better not to yank on their chains by criticising their hero. The lesson of Labor’s last three years in power is surely that any appearance of being a disunited rabble is political death.

Not that the prime minister is utterly beholden to his party critics. The department of foreign affairs, for instance, was steeling itself to welcoming another senior politician into its diplomatic ranks. Right-wing powerbroker and senate leader Eric Abetz, before he was unceremoniously dumped by Turnbull, was being lined up as our ambassador to Berlin. That Abbott project has been quietly shelved.

That probably explains the Tasmanian senator’s outspoken attack on plans Turnbull was considering to produce enabling legislation for marriage equality. The idea was to have everything in place to green-light same-sex marriage should the promised plebiscite after the election endorse it. Abetz was none-too-subtly threatening a revolt by up to 30 members if the prime minister attempted anything of the sort before the next election.

The appointment of Dr Alan Finkel as Australia’s next chief scientist is another strong signal from Turnbull that the nation is under new management. There is little doubt that the entrepreneurial innovator and scientist wouldn’t have been favoured by the old regime. Imagine Abbott allowing his industry minister to appoint someone with views like this: “My vision is for a country, society, a world where we don’t use any coal, oil, natural gas because we have zero emissions electricity in huge abundance, and we use that for transport, for heating and all the things we ordinarily use electricity.”

With Turnbull and minister Christopher Pyne not demurring at the news conference that unveiled him, Finkel went on: “The best way to get rid of coal is to introduce alternatives that deliver value at a reasonable price, rather than just arbitrarily turning it off.”

The appointment was announced on the day 61 prominent Australians published an open letter to world leaders to negotiate a global moratorium on new coalmines and mine expansion. The logic is simple: if all are agreed on limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees, we have to start doing something more substantial about emissions sooner rather than later. Expanding coalmines is clearly not helpful in that regard.

But Turnbull wouldn’t have a bar of it. If Australia, the biggest on-water coal exporter in the world, stopped shipping the stuff, other producers would fill the breach. Besides a massive loss of income for the nation, it wouldn’t help the cause. The prime minister ran a line that would have made his predecessor proud: an Australian moratorium would arguably increase global emissions, he said, because “our coal, by and large, is cleaner than coal in many other countries”. In fact, Abbott often ran that line. It was derided by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists at a Canberra forum earlier in the year.

Turnbull, like opposition leader Bill Shorten, is counting on the market to do the heavy lifting in dealing with coal. It almost certainly will work, as they are at the same time encouraging renewables, which will lead to reduced demand domestically for coal-powered grid electricity. It will just take a lot longer.

The Australia Institute think tank points out that if governments – state and federal – continue subsidising coal producers the new mine will compete with the old mines, bringing down the export price. This will make the commodity more attractive not less, as the science is demanding. Hard-pressed miners such as Glencore have made it crystal clear they don’t need more competition in a market that is expanding, if nowhere as fast as in the boom times of yesteryear.

Adding weight to the argument is analysis that shows the giant Adani Carmichael coalmine in Queensland would not be a goer without government building the rail and port infrastructure and providing a royalty holiday. The test will come if the federal government dips into its Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to help Adani. The Queensland government seems even keener to help out the project.

A struggling Bill Shorten believes the whole issue of climate change gives him an opening over Turnbull. Even before Abbott opened his mouth in London’s Guildhall, the Labor leader certainly didn’t need any reminding that his best chance of being our next prime minister was 17,000 kilometres away. Newspoll saw the Coalition open up an election winning 52-48 lead. And the other signs of political life were even weaker for him. He’s 46 points behind as preferred prime minister and a massive 67 points behind on performance approval. When confronted with these devastating results, he brushed them aside. “I know that if Labor keeps working on the right policies, then the polls will work on themselves.”

This weekend Shorten is heading off to Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati. An unprecedented drought in PNG’s rainforests and rising sea levels threatening the Pacific Islands will be the setting for his message to voters back home that he has better policies to combat climate change. His key exhibits are a market-based price on carbon and a 50 per cent target for renewable energy by 2030.

Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, may take a fair bit of persuading, especially as he and his ally, President Christopher Loeak of the Marshall Islands, are calling for the new coalmining moratorium and for much more ambitious emission reductions from Australia and other developed nations.

Undeterred, Shorten is targeting the prime minister’s apparent contradictions. “I don’t understand what happened to the Malcolm Turnbull of 2009,” he says. “[He] was willing to stake all on ... having policies which were sensible on climate change. Now he’s stuck in government backing in Tony Abbott’s discredited Direct Action plan which just pays big polluters to keep putting out more carbon emissions.”

But the problem for the opposition leader is grabbing people’s attention away from a rampant Turnbull. Shorten’s a bit like Abbott in Guildhall, preaching to his cheer squad. And there just aren’t enough of them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2015 as "The Abbott loosens his collar".

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

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