Comment: Tony Abbott's climate change struggle

Prime Minister Tony Abbott touches his face as he addresses the French President at the National Gallery of Australia, November 19, 2014. (AAP)

It's been hard to keep climate change off the agenda.

It’s amazing how many governments stumble over climate change. And it is most ironic that the Abbott government, and Tony Abbott in particular, who came to power off the back of a relentless campaign against the ALP’s climate change policy, should find itself so wrong-footed on the issue.

A month or so ago, Liberal Party advisors would have been planning for this week to be a glorious few days of basking in the warm afterglow of the G20 conference in Brisbane, replete with having first the Chinese and then the Indian leader speak before parliament. Best of all, the Prime Minister would get to announce a free-trade agreement with China that would get loads of positive coverage in the press and make him look like he was getting on with the job of being the leader.

Yet climate change came along and rather wrecked it. Or, more to the point, President Obama did last week when he spoke at the University of Queensland and made climate change a major part of his speech, including the announcement that the USA would contribute $3bn to a Green Climate Fund.

“Even the most sceptical Treasurer would at least warrant that there is a risk management aspect to climate change. A smart Treasurer, who was on his game, would also never give an absolute answer to anything.”

It rather wrecked the party, as given Abbott’s clear distaste for climate change policy other than one which everyone knows is just a farce disguised as action, the media were keen to focus on the issue because it was one of the few aspects of the G20 visit that would elicit anything other than platitudes about having “no greater friend than [insert country of person standing next to him]”.

He clearly struggled with how to respond. But he was not alone. Joe Hockey on the Insiders program was asked a pretty easy question from Barrie Cassidy: “do you accept climate change potentially is one of the biggest impediments to growth?”

Yet rather than acknowledge, “yes, but ...”, Hockey responded with an absolute:

“No. No, I don’t. Absolutely not.”

It was a bizarre response, given pretty much the main reason most people care about climate change is that it's going to wreak havoc on our economy. If all it meant was a few less glaciers, few would care, but climate change means more than that. It will drastically change what crops we can grow. It will affect our tourism industry through possibly losing the Great Barrier Reef. Our economy in a couple decades might also have to cope with refugees from low-lying Pacific islands.

Even the most sceptical Treasurer would at least warrant that there is a risk management aspect to climate change. A smart Treasurer, who was on his game, would also never give an absolute answer to anything.

But no. Joe saw “absolutely” no impediments to economic growth from climate change.

The troubles followed into the week. Climate change remained a pesky topic of questions to Tony Abbott during press conferences with both the Chinese and Indian leaders. On the back of a poor Newspoll, which saw both the LNP vote and Abbott’s own approval fall, he seemed anxious to appear like a man with a plan on climate change.

By Wednesday, when telling reporters about his meeting with the French President, Francois Hollande, Mr Abbott attempted to pre-empt questions on the issue by saying “Yes, we discussed climate change. I raised climate change.”

So rattled had Tony Abbott become on the issue, he was desperate to get across the message that he was the one who brought up the topic. He then went further suggesting that “It’s very important that we get strong and effective outcomes from the conference in Paris next year. Climate change is an important subject. It is a subject that the world needs to tackle as a whole”.

Woah, slow down there, hippy.

But when asked about the Green Climate Fund, Mr Abbott made the rather extraordinary assertion that “we’ve also got the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), a $10 billion institution which is in the business of funding various projects which have economic and environmental outcomes”. 

The reason this is extraordinary is it is the government’s policy to abolish the CEFC. The only reason it hasn’t is it was part of the deal done with Clive Palmer to vote against the carbon tax and for the direct action legislation.

But, as Guardian Australia’s Lenore Taylor noted, after winning the election, Tony Abbott wrote to the CEFC advising it that “The Coalition does not support the CEFC nor its expenditure of $10bn of borrowed money on projects that the private sector deems too risky to invest in.”

And yet now it is something which he brings up in an attempt to boast about how good a story Australia has to tell about climate change policy?

It suggests a man struggling.

But for him and the government the troubles have only just begun. The disintegration of the middle part of the Palmer United Party’s name through Jacquie Lambie being kicked out of the party room means getting legislation through the senate has become a much more larger exercise in cat herding.

Thus far they have not done well – losing the vote to disallow its “Future of Financial Advice” laws.

It’s not a time for a government or its leader to be rattled; yet this week Tony Abbott most certainly has been, and it started with the one topic he would have thought upon becoming Prime Minister that would never see him struggle.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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