The ‘only credible plan‘ is dead. Much like Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) was a spineless compromise between reality and the intransigent conservative elements of his own party. As it passes into the nether realm, our PM is set to soon follow. The future of the Liberal Party and Australia’s action on climate change hang in the balance.
Malcolm Turnbull was to be the great uniter, briding the gap between the recalcitrant factions of the Liberal Party and the general public. That public welcomed his knife in the back of conservative culture warrior Tony Abbott in 2015, as he leapt to an 8 point lead in two party polling. Here was a sensible liberal who would elevate the discourse, and who in 2009 had resigned rather than lead a party which wasn’t as committed to climate change as he was. His economic policy might have been little more than tax cuts for the rich, but on social and environmental issues he was in line with progressive Australia.
In little less than three years, the facade has entirely dissolved, leaving a leader whose primary committment is to his own job. Held in sway by the conservative and authoritarian factions of the Liberal Party, his government has been defined by its inaction. Unable to pass his signature corporate tax cuts through the Senate and needing something to campaign on for re-election, Turnbull devised the NEG in an attempt to provide certainty to energy investment and cut rising power prices.
From the start, the NEG was crippled by the coal lobby inside the Liberal Party. Promising only minimal emissions reductions (sufficient to meet the half-arsed Paris targets, and no more) and including reliability provisions clearly devised to encourage coal, it was, nonetheless, some action on climate change. It seems that even such meager action is anaethema to the conservative faction within the Liberal Party, and in the wake of threatened backbench revolts and continued poor polling, Turnbull today axed the policy. It may have saved his job today, but it seems unlikely he’ll last to the next election.
So where does this leave us? Conservative backbenchers are rightly scared for their jobs, with the latest Ipsos polling showing a ten point gap on two party preferred terms and the government performing poorly at recent byelections. Liberal Party voters are fleeing to One Nation and other far right parties, whose brand of nativism appeals to the poorly educated working class left behind by the major parties’ lockstep neoliberalism. In the aforementioned Ipsos poll, 19% of voters supported parties other than the big three, and recent evidence suggests that the right wing protest votes don’t flow back to the Liberals the way Greens votes do to Labor.
Neither the backbench conservatives nor their erstwhile leader Abbott appeal to this demographic, as demonstrated by the nonexistent support for Cory Bernardi’s Conservative Party. The disaffected want good factory jobs and the deportation of scary brown folks, not culture wars over university curricula and the Lord’s Prayer.
Luckily for the conservatives, the Liberal Party of today is a broad church. In addition to the classical conservative and liberal (or wet and dry) factions, John Howard’s embrace of the 1990s One Nation policy brought another group into the fold. You could call them the authoritarian, or the white faction. Whether their embrace of a police state is justification for their white nationalism or vice versa hardly matters. Peter Dutton is their hegemon, the tough cop on duty to lock up all the foreigners.
Dutton spent nine years as a Queensland police officer before ascending to parliament and eventually cabinet. His growing power was noted when Abbott raised him to the Immigration department, and his penchant for command and control was apparent as he transformed them into the Border Force, complete with para-military ranks and regalia. Not content with merely running Australia’s tropical concentration camps and sending his paramilitary into the heart of Melbourne for a spot of racial profiling, Dutton urged the establishment of and got the new Department of Home Affairs. This one stop shop for security and law enforcement was modelled on the US Department of Homeland Security, and promises similar levels of exhaustive overreach and crushing of civil liberties. Such was the price that Turnbull, once famed for his social liberalism, was willing to pay to keep Dutton’s faction onside.
With Turnbull’s personal brand shattered by his spinelessness, the conservative backbenchers no longer have any reason to maintain their support for a man who doesn’t share their values. But Tony Abbott is no more popular, and the disaster of his prime ministership remains fresh in their memories. So they back Dutton, and his authoritarian faction, in the hopes that his more overt racism will swing them back votes from One Nation, particularly in the battleground of Queensland. It may even work.
Dutton certainly has form, between his tenure at Border Force, Home Affairs and in other pronouncements. He was one of only six MPs to boycott Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. In addition to his work overseeing the human right violations in our concetration camps, he has demonised refugees as somehow both iliterate and taking Australian jobs at the same time. He believes the Fraser government’s intake of Vietnamese refugees was a mistake. He started the recent uproar over supposed African gangs in Melbourne. And of course, there are one group he believes are certainly worthy of refugee status – white South Africans. Though Dutton isn’t whistling quite as loudly as Katter MP Fraser Anning, one can be certain that his beliefs lie in the same ballpark.
In my opinion, Peter Dutton would be the least suitable PM to have occupied the position within my lifetime. But although Dutton as leader would be anaethema to me and many educated professionals, the swathe of voters departing for One Nation and other overtly supremacist parties indicates that there are a fair sized group who could be convinced. The Liberals might lose a handful of seats worth of doctor’s wives’ to the Greens, but if they win the Queensland bogans in exchange then it may be electorally worthwhile.
Crucially for members of the conservative faction, climate change is a joking matter for Dutton. That even such a tokenist policy like the NEG can be enough to trigger a backbench revolt demonstrates the symbolic hold climate change has upon the conservative wing of the party. This is no longer simply a matter of good or bad policy, but an ideological commitment to prevent any action on climate change. It has become as much a cultural signifier as the Safe Schools program or gay marriage – a red line which simply cannot be crossed. Any climate action can no longer be countenanced by the Liberal Party. When Turnbull is rolled for this, it could define the party’s position for a decade or more.
Having one party (in what remains essentially a two party system) ideologically opposed to any action on climate change is a real problem. I may be so far left that I can hardly see the Liberals, let alone vote for them. But even I understand the impact that an intransigent party can have on our ability to produce real results. Chances are that unless something drastic happens, they’ll be in power roughly half the time and desperately trying to dismantle anything which Labor can put in place. It is already 6 years since the carbon price was introduced, and the policy debate has yet to pass beyond that point.
Climate change and environmental degredation are existential threats now. Today. We can’t wait another ten years. New South Wales is in drought and on fire now, in August. We are emptying the oceans, bleaching the Reef and heating the globe. Birds and insects are dying off. Yet the Liberal Party is more interested in ‘owning the left’ than doing anything about it. Can they be this stupid, does the coal industry really have such big pockets, or is there something more nefarious at play? I posed the question last year – is inaction on climate change deliberate in order for the rich to expand their own profits and relative power? Better to be king of a scorched hellscape than merely a company owner today – the king of a dead world is still a king, after all. Shortly thereafter, Tony Abbott declared that ‘climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm‘. The British conservatives are suggesting that a return to feudalism would be a great way to stop the ‘moral preening’ of the left. Now with their intractability against any climate action whatsoever, I think the Liberal Party has answered the question.
Peter Dutton may be an abhorent PM, but how many more will pass through the perpetually revolving door before we welcome Immortan Joe?