Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Climate of fear as election campaign begins

At the end of the gruelling eight-week election campaign in 2016 an exhausted Malcolm Turnbull assured his assembled staffers, “We’ll never do that again.” His words were prophetic, though not in the way he meant them to be. Turnbull is gone but his point was that a protracted campaign is simply not in the interests of the incumbent government. It’s something Bob Hawke discovered in 1984. But events have taken that decision out of the hands of the current prime minister, Scott Morrison.

The 2019 election campaign began in earnest last Sunday. There is a feeling among government politicians that Morrison will go to the polls on May 11. If he does, that’s an 11-week campaign. Liberal MPs need no persuading they are in the fight of their lives. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, facing a challenge from independent Liberal climate change advocate Oliver Yates, already has his posters up in prominent places around his electorate, Kooyong.

According to GetUp!-sponsored ReachTEL polling in Tony Abbott’s and Peter Dutton’s seats, Warringah and Dickson, the incumbent candidates are behind. In Abbott’s case, a long way behind independent Zali Steggall, 43–57. Dutton is closer but trailing Labor’s Ali France 48–52. Both men are believed to have accumulated war chests close to a million dollars each to repel their challengers.

Sources say Liberal polling in Health Minister Greg Hunt’s seat, Flinders, has him behind a yet-to-be-named Labor candidate, 47–53. They say he has been warned he will have to spend much of his time in the seat to shore it up rather than on the national campaign. He is facing Liberal renegade Julia Banks and her open ticket preference flow could well see the Labor candidate win.

As the Wentworth byelection showed, one of the key issues exercising middle-of-the-road voters is climate change, and they believe the government is not doing enough to address it. Their convictions are bolstered by the fact their previous member, Malcolm Turnbull, was rolled by elements of the parliamentary party opposed to every attempt he made to do something about emission reductions in a comprehensive and permanent way.

Certainly the party’s failed candidate at the byelection, Dave Sharma, has got the message. In a speech to the Coalition for Conservation on Tuesday, the former diplomat said Australia should play a bigger role internationally on climate. He said Australia should be “persuading countries that have pulled out of the Paris agreement – including the United States – to come back in”. Besides saying his skills could assist in this if elected, he made the telling point that it would be a “bit hard for us to convince other countries to stay the course if we flip-flop around, and we have been for the last 12 years”. He said there was plenty of “blame to go around on all sides” and he singled out “ideologues on his own side of politics”.

Sharma’s observation has real potency in the current context. It was Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2009 “flip-flopping around” on his emissions trading scheme – the much-vaunted carbon pollution reduction scheme – that led to him being deposed from the top job. But it was the bigger reversal from the Liberal opposition that precipitated his demise. In the run-up to the 2007 poll, John Howard and his environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, took to the election “a world-leading emissions-reduction scheme”. Howard assured voters he was not “waiting for the rest of the world to act”. And yet after the election, the Liberal Party reverted to its climate scepticism and brought down Turnbull’s leadership for his support of Rudd’s much weaker scheme.

Tony Abbott was then installed as leader. He famously once said climate science is “crap”. But even he, in the run-up to the 2013 election, had to pay lip-service to climate change action. That’s when he promised a $10 billion emissions reduction fund (ERF) for direct action on abatement. Turnbull, who crossed the floor to vote for Rudd’s scheme, slammed Abbott’s policy as “a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale and a fig leaf to cover its determination to do nothing”. Once he attained the treasury benches Abbott’s fund was significantly trimmed.

In what looks like an eerie rerun of that script, a Liberal prime minister who once held up a lump of coal in parliament and taunted the opposition that it wouldn’t hurt them has spent the past week trying to persuade voters he is “fair dinkum” about energy policy in a time of climate change. No doubt prodding him to this new marketing strategy is the latest batch of opinion polls, which, according to polling analyst Kevin Bonham, average 53–47 Labor’s way. This embedded six-point gap is reflected in the betting markets, giving the Liberals very long odds to win the election.

Morrison is attempting to do what Turnbull failed spectacularly to deliver. He is trying to keep all sides of the fractious Coalition party room happy. So he is giving us a bifurcated policy that lacks internal coherence and hopes the voters don’t notice. On Monday he unveiled a $2 billion climate solutions fund, a top-up and rebadging of Abbott’s ERF. Undermining his seriousness is the fact he is slashing funding for the scheme. The $2 billion over 10 years is less than half the $2.55 billion Abbott’s fund is set to churn through in five years. Government figures going back to 2004 show the only period when our emissions actually fell was with the Gillard government’s carbon price, falsely dubbed a “carbon tax” by Abbott. Since its scrapping, emissions have risen and are projected to keep rising, precisely because direct action ignores fossil fuels.

The surest sign of the direct action plan’s failure is the exponential rise in electricity prices since the Coalition came to power and after the scrapping of the “carbon tax”. The nation is now being promised prices will fall in July – two months after the election. Six years too late, surely?

But on Tuesday, having paid homage to the Abbott climate sceptics and deniers, Morrison hot-footed it to the Snowy Mountains to announce $2 billion in investment to progress Snowy Hydro 2.0. Then on Wednesday in Tasmania he announced a $56 million feasibility study for a second interconnector to bring clean hydro electricity to the mainland.

Hidden from view were details of the Snowy business model making it economically viable. The Commonwealth has already spent $6.2 billion buying Victoria and New South Wales out, with build costs to come. As with the NBN, any underwriting will be kept off the budget – something the Liberals condemned when in opposition.

Labor’s Mark Butler told ABC Radio “the fundamental contradiction” in the announcements was the work done by the Snowy and Tasmanian engineers that has “made it very clear that these projects only stack up with about a 50 per cent renewable energy share in 2030”. That’s in line with Labor’s target that Morrison and his ministers say will put a “wrecking ball through the economy”.

In all likelihood Morrison is talking renewables this week to lay the groundwork for his government also underwriting a new coal-fired power plant. Energy economists say it would compete with this week’s commitments for market share and delay the transition to a battery-backed renewable energy grid. One of the big business groups, the Australian Industry Group, is unimpressed. Its chief executive, Innes Willox, while welcoming direct action as a useful step, told The Age it was “not a comprehensive or permanent approach to climate policy and it is likely to be expensive and impractical to try to make it so”.

Bill Shorten is on the mark when he says the “reason why we’re not getting it right is the current LNP government are fundamentally divided at their core about climate change”. He agrees with business that the only way to encourage investment in new energy generation is if the rules are agreed upon. He says the real missing link for lower energy prices and real action is to have “what they call a ‘national energy guarantee’ ”. That was Turnbull’s policy, which Labor says it will put to the parliament if it wins the election. But unlike 2007, this time there is not even a Howard or Turnbull proposing anything like it to voters. A Liberal opposition dominated by deniers and sceptics will reprise the destructive play of 2009.

There are signs that this government knows its days are numbered. Attorney-General Christian Porter has followed his predecessor George Brandis’s example and continued to stack the administrative appeals tribunal with former Liberal parliamentarians and staffers. While it is true Labor governments have appointed their mates in the past, too, Porter, with the clock ticking down, has made it very blatant. All of Abbott’s appointments have had their terms renewed and now, of 250 members, 50 are Liberal Party linked. Only two have a Labor pedigree.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Climate of fear". Subscribe here.

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