As Australian school children marched in the streets this week to protest the nation’s lack of climate action, a quieter and potentially even more powerful revolution emerged from an unlikely source – the Liberal Party.
As observers of Australian politics know, the Liberals have the notorious distinction of assassinating their party leader, not once but twice, over moves to strengthen climate action through energy policy.
Both times it was Malcolm Turnbull who found himself at the pointy end of the knife, first when he advocated support for an emissions-trading scheme proposed by Kevin Rudd’s Labor government, and later when his own government tried to establish the National Energy Guarantee.
Ever since Tony Abbott weaponised voter concerns about climate action hitting the hip pocket, with threats of the Great Big New Tax on Everything, Liberals have tended to steer clear of doing anything that looked like, well, action on climate change.
Once in government, Mr Abbott scrapped Labor’s ‘carbon tax’ and abolished as many of the former government’s climate action agencies and programs as he could. However, the Senate blocked the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and Australian Renewable Energy Agency, both of which went on to become largely responsible for the nation’s current surge in renewable energy projects.
Those projects have helped to reduce the cost of electricity from wind and solar farms to levels lower than the cost of electricity from a new coal-fired power station.
This development has been a bit of a mind-bender for the Liberals, who’ve tried to weaponise voter concerns this time using high electricity prices as the threat.
Along with the energy troglodytes in the Nationals, Liberals have relied on voters’ understandable lack of knowledge about the highly complex electricity industry to falsely claim power prices can only be brought down if new coal-fired power stations are built.
As a result, coal has become the symbol of the Liberals’ ongoing resistance to ‘expensive’ climate action. (It should also be said that to some voters, particularly those in regional Queensland, coal also means jobs.)
But the times they are a changin’, particularly when it comes to voter views on the need for climate action. The extended drought, extreme heatwaves and raging bushfires have returned the issue to the forefront of voters’ minds.
Nearly two-thirds of all Australians now believe climate change is happening and is caused by human activity, including 53 per cent of Liberal voters. And 34 per cent of Liberal voters believe Australia is not doing enough to address climate change, compared with only 15 per cent who think we’re doing too much.
If the results of the recent Victorian state election and Wentworth byelection are any indication, the Liberal voters who want more climate action are willing to vote for Labor or an independent in the upcoming federal election to make that happen.
Recent events suggest the Liberals’ private polling confirms this, essentially transforming coal from an asset to electoral poison for the Coalition government.
This is the reason for the PM dropping coal like a hot potato this week. Mr Morrison not only pushed back against the Nationals’ call for the government to promptly announce it would subsidise the construction of a coal-fired power station in Queensland, he also avoided naming the dreaded fossil fuel altogether. Instead, the PM referred to coal as a “traditional energy source”, which it is.
Then senior Liberal cabinet minister, and nominal head of the party’s arch conservatives, Peter Dutton, also rejected his Queensland colleagues’ call by abandoning coal this week. Mr Dutton essentially argued there were better things on which to spend taxpayer funds, saying “the question is whether the federal government should be building a coal-fired power station? I don’t agree with that; I don’t think we should be.”
This follows on from the stunning reversal last week by anti-climate action warrior Tony Abbott, who backed down on his call for Australia to leave the Paris Accord on climate action.
Incidentally, both Mr Dutton and Mr Abbott are under significant pressure from climate-action supporters in their electorates, and may even lose their seats to these forces on polling day.
If these reversals and retractions were genuinely heartfelt, they could potentially prompt a revolution within the Liberal Party that reconnected its climate-action policy with the concerns and demands of Australian voters.
But it will take more than avoiding the c-word to convince voters that the Liberals have changed their colours on this issue. The party will actually have to take real climate action to achieve that.