Enemy of the Good

For many years I have been furious with the Greens for their sabotage of Labor’s ETS in 2009. Perhaps the policy was flawed. Certainly it did not go far enough. But it would have been a start. Imagine if the CPRS had begun more than a decade ago? Rather than a decade of arguments over whether we should act on pricing carbon, we could have spent the decade refining the targets and methodologies. I’m still mad about it. But in the wake of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m making exactly the same egregious error.

More than one opinion article has been published in recent weeks suggesting the Morrison government might use the fires as an excuse, a trigger, to recalibrate the Coalition’s approach to climate change policy. Each time I read such an article I find myself thinking along a well-worn track:

Don’t do it! Don’t start taking climate change seriously. Don’t deal with the deniers in your own ranks. Don’t suddenly start sounding reasonable!

We know that the bushfires have focussed Australia’s attention in a way never before achieved. We know that the last vestiges of AGW denial are crumbling in the real world. We don’t want the Coalition to be a part of the real world. We prefer our Coalition politicians to be outliers, historical artefacts, easily pushed aside in favour of progressive parties whose policies are obviously simply better.

Fantasy politics

There’s a narrative that has the Coalition remaining intransigent on the issue, clinging stubbornly to coal mines and fossil fuel oligarchs, carbon exports and the revolving door of post-politics coal company directorships. In this fantasy world, Labor drops its own recidivist approach, ceases clinging to coal and instead brings a decent selection of climate policies to the next election. And the Australian public, woken up by repeated disasters and environmental collapse, consign the conservative parties to history where they belong and sweep progressives into power across the country.

It’s a good dream – but it’s little more than a fantasy.

2019 was supposed to be the climate change election. The Coalition came into that election clinging stubbornly to coal and gas. By contrast, Labor brought a stable of progressive climate policies, along with the Greens on the far left. This was supposed to be the election at which Australia stated, loud and clear, that the preceding decade of policy stagnation and climate inaction would not continue.

And we know how that turned out.

When polled about important electoral issues, climate change ranked highly in the estimations of Australians. When push came to shove, though, it was not as important as taxes, cost of living and “death taxes”. (Never mind that the Coalition is higher-taxing, presides over escalating costs of living and entirely made up the threat of death taxes.) The Australian people increasingly understand the importance of climate change, but they won’t vote for decent environmental policies if it means foregoing franking credits.

Obviously there were many factors at play in the 2019 election. But that’s the point. There will always be many factors at play in any election. Climate change may persuade some hesitant Australians that environmental policies are needed, but the Coalition can play that game – they like to wave fig-leaf policies around, just enough to assuage conservative voters that they have the issue in hand, while not enough to actually force any kind of change. The expectation that climate change policies will be a vote-changer, let alone an election-decider, has so far proven unfounded.

It’s seductive, thinking that our dying environment (or, really, any one major issue) could be the defining factor in the next election, in the contest of ideas and the competition for government. It’s always foolish. There are no single-issue elections.

What’s a single-issue voter to do?

For many voters, the exigency of global warming and the existential threat to human civilisation trumps all other considerations. To the extent that if the Coalition had the best suite of climate policies on offer (and any feasible likelihood of being serious at carrying them out) a single-issue voter would need to consider voting for them, against their better interest in every other area of social policy. Climate change is so important that it can take priority over healthcare, education, tax policy or industrial relations.

So far in the 2010s and 2020s, there has not been a need to weigh climate change policy against other progressive issues. The progressive parties have also offered the best climate and environmental policies.

But what if the Coalition were to pivot to a decent environment strategy? How would that impact on the left, who fully expect – nay rely on – them to remain troglodytes on the issue?

The problem with being a single-issue voter is that political operators like to neutralise issues. If climate change is a perceived area of weakness – which it undeniably is, for the Coalition – then they will seek to minimise its impact in any election, through a combination of downplaying the issue’s importance, and offering policies so it can appear to be interested in doing something.

Adopting a single-issue approach willfully ignores and demotes the dozens of other defining policy areas on which the parties compete. It relegates consideration of a rejuvenated NBN. It discounts overt corruption, pork-barreling and electoral tampering. It devalues the Coalition’s continual budget cuts to the ABC, childcare, social security and just about any other area excepting the military and politicians’ salaries.

There are so many other political issues worth our attention. But in this hyper-partisan age it hurts us to consider that in any specific area, let alone the area of possibly greatest consequence for the future of the country, the other team might get something right. If it’s difficult for conservative voters to imagine the Coalition’s approach could be wrong, perhaps it could be almost as hard for us on the progressive side to give credit for things they do right.

Of course, this is likely all academic. It doesn’t seem likely that the Coalition will change its stance. They are too riddled through with entrenched climate change deniers. Too embedded with the mindset that coal is the energy source of the future and will be the backbone of Australia’s economy for the foreseeable future. Too dependent on the financial backing of their masters and supporters in Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and the Minerals Council of Australia. They seem unable to grasp that the market for coal exports will die, suddenly and quickly, and that climate change action can bring economic benefits rather than costs.

Most likely, I’ll never be confronted with the cognitive dissonance of the Coalition finding the way forward on climate change. I just need to accept that there’s a big part of me that hopes they never will.

(Co-posted on The AIMN)