Wednesday, September 21, 2011


This column (which appeared in the CT yesterday) isn't meant to suggest that Tony Abbott is under any threat from Julia Gillard.

Nevertheless, the demands for some positive policies will continue. As will, I suspect, concern about the way the coalition is being hi-jacked by a small minority of loud extremists . . . the sort of people who deny the science about climate change.


Until recently, Tony Abbott has provided the template for successful opposition leader. Neverthelss, as the weather warms, it’s becoming obvious that he’s only one scorching summer away from a slow and lingering erosion of popular support. If he fails to begin articulating good policy soon, particularly on climate change, he will be forced to watch as the wheels slowly fall off the bandwagon which has brought him so far.

Everyone knows the difference between the long-term climate statistics and the weather we experience around us every day. Nevertheless, if today is overcast and yesterday was cold, it's difficult to remember what it felt like in the middle of a hot, dry summer. There's something intensely human about our natural inclination to privilege direct experience over dry statistical fact, and it happens all the time.

The weather affects our mood and this inevitably transfers itself to our political leanings, although not in necessarily obvious ways. A study of the 2004 election, for example, found a small yet nonetheless statistically significant correlation between good weather and a higher vote for the government. Conversly, in electorates where rain was falling John Howard’s party received greater punishment. It seems that a pleasant day, not too hot and not too cold, makes everyone feel positive. When some voters feel good they're more likely to forgive any government its (many) failings and re-elect the incumbent, regardless of other factors. Not everyone, but certainly some people anyway, even if it’s just just one percent of voters. The thing is that in a hard-fought election this might just be enough to make a crucial difference.

Of course the politicians didn't need a study to tell them this, they've known it for years. Bob Hawke was the last politician who ignored the weather, back in 1987. Labor won, of course, but its success was never really in doubt. John Howard’s first leadership of the coalition had turned into a shambles after his comments on immigration, an infamous recorded car-telephone conversation by Jeff Kennett left the opposition leader further weakened, and finally the improbable ‘Joh for Canberra’ campaign had only just burnt itself out. Despite all these advantages, Hawke didn’t triumph and no-one has ever dared tempt fate since then. That's why the last eight elections have all been held in the pleasant months of spring or, alternatively, March, after the summer heat has evaporated and before the cold winter sets in across the country.

This year may prove to be the turning point. If the summer is hot and dry, leaving the country baking and partched, it may prove the reality of climate change to voters better than any number of stastics. And it will quickly become evident that only one party has any sort of an answer to the problem – at least while the coalition is led by Abbott.

Although global temperatures have continued to increase, yet again breaking the old records set so recently, it's been difficult to accept these scientific findings. The reason is simple. It’s because they haven't reflected our own immediate experience. All the news over the past three months of record-breaking heat waves in the northern hemisphere hasn't made much sense while we've been shivering in the cold. And, after the downpours and floods that have spread across the countryside for two years now, it's been easy to lose track of the long-term warming trend. It's like that old story of the frog in the saucepan. Although it would jump straight out of boiling water, if the temperature increase remains slow and gradual it won't attempt to escape. Until it's too late.

Some people are naturally conservative. They don’t like change. It threatens them. Once they’ve worked out how to get on in the the world they don’t want anybody smart telling them they’ve got to change everything now. This is Abbott’s natural constuitency. They are the people who disrupted parliament last week and the small number of drivers who formed the ‘convoy of no confidence’ last month. But they’re not representative enough to win an election. This is the loud constituency Abbott has captured and inspired through his campaign of protest and anger. His greatest moment of danger is, however, about to arrive. It will come not from anything Julia Gillard does, but rather from his own side. His future now depends on the weather.

Like the frog in the boiling pot, he needs to jump but can't bring himself to make the leap.

There are many problems with the government's legislative plan to curb carbon emissions, but none of these are sufficient to overcome the great triumph the bills before Parliament actually represent. Here, for the first time, is a plan that at least makes some attempt to deal with the greatest crisis facing our world today. Abbott is bereft of anything other than a token covering to cloak his nakedness on this vital issue. His so-called “direct action" plan quickly falls apart the minute it is placed under close scrutiny. The reasons for this are obvious. It doesn’t represent a genuine attempt to do anything. It won’t create water for the farmers and nor will it encourage other countries to cap their emissions.

The opposition leaders greatest asset is at the same time his fatal flaw: the ability to speak honestly, encompassing a broad idea in a tiny soundbite. No one will ever forget his pronouncement that “climate change is crap". These are the words on which he will, inevitably, face his final political judgement.

Abbott will have his tactical victories. With Green support he will be able to scupper the government's wide-ranging attempt to process asylum seekers offshore. At time of writing it seems likely that the Liberals will attempt to restrict the government's ability simply to implement the Malaysia deal. This will demonstrate Julia Gillard's impotence while leaving Nauru on the table. Voters will not forgive the government for its continued failure to deal with the increasing number of arrivals since Labor, under Kevin Rudd, changed the policy back in 2007. This is, however, a second-order issue by comparison to climate change and it is on this strategic issue that Abbott risks being judged a political failure by voters.

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