Climate change is to Australia what Brexit is to Britain. That’s because, just like on Brexit, perspectives on climate policy are as much about one’s views on the future of the economy and society as they are on with the merits of the issue itself.
Because most of the inhabitants of the Canberra press gallery bubble can’t see past the froth on their cappuccino, Tuesday’s vote for the parliamentary leadership of the federal National Party has been presented as basically the product of Barnaby Joyce’s ego and personality. Maybe. But something much bigger was at stake.
Under one leadership candidate, the Nationals would continue to follow the Liberals’ climate change policies, which place a priority on adherence to the Paris Accord. Pursuant to the accord, Australia has agreed to impose the deepest per capita cuts to CO2 emissions in the developed world.
Under the other candidate, the Nationals’ position on climate change would instead have prioritised cheaper energy and industrial development. A majority of the National Party MPs and senators voted for the first candidate.
These two positions reflect vastly different assessments of the politics of climate change and vastly different worldviews. It seems that to several Liberal MPs (and presumably a few National MPs, too), if the Coalition somehow did more on climate change, many of the political challenges posed by climate change would go away. This might be true, but history has demonstrated that more action on climate change never seems to be enough to satisfy those demanding further reductions in emissions.
Furthermore, the evidence that the public is demanding action on climate change is more nuanced than commonly assumed.
The evidence for this is not only the outcome of last year’s federal poll, which was presented by many as the climate change election. There’s also data from surveys such as that by JWS Research reported in this newspaper in November: when respondents were prompted on what they thought were the three most important issues the government should focus on, the environment and climate change was ranked fourth, behind cost of living, hospital, healthcare and ageing, and employment and wages.
When respondents were unprompted, 34 per cent nominated the environment and climate change, 28 per cent named healthcare and 22 per cent said employment and wages. It is incredibly revealing that despite all of the attention devoted to climate change in nearly every single walk of life in this country, only about one-third of people rank it as one of the top three issues on which the government should focus.
When for example, former United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change executive secretary Christiana Figueres said climate change policies provided “the chance to re-create the economy, to re-create the world”, it’s not unreasonable for those who believe the world could be better but who don’t think it should be re-created, to take people like Figueres at their word and push back.
‘The party for workers’
This is the point that Nationals senator and former resources minister Matt Canavan made this week when he talked about the future of the Nationals as “the party for workers … workers in coalmines, workers in shipyards and workers in factories’’.
Canavan was one of the four people most responsible for the Coalition’s federal election victory in May – the others being first and foremost Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and the Liberals’ federal director Andrew Hirst. Canavan’s work went largely unnoticed in Sydney and Melbourne but he was the one who turned the debate about the future of Australia’s coal mines into a vote for or against economic development in regional Australia. A large part of the reason the Coalition won 23 seats in Queensland to Labor’s six is because of Canavan. One outcome of the Nationals’ leadership vote this week is that he is now on the backbench.
A re-created zero-emissions economy consistent with the vision of someone like Figueres has little place for workers in factories and definitely doesn’t have room for coalminers.
At least for the British, as of Friday last week when Britain officially left the European Union, Brexit for the moment is settled. In Australia though, there’s no end in sight to the so-called climate wars.