The Coalition Has Misled The People On Climate

5 Sep 2013

The Coalition Has Misled The People On Climate

By Ben Eltham

Tony Abbott admits his Direct Action policy won’t work and wants a mandate to scrap the carbon tax. Looking for a difference between the major parties? Here it is, writes Ben Eltham

It’s taken until very late in the campaign, but the Coalition’s climate policy fig leaf has finally fallen off.

For years now, the Coalition has tried to convince voters that its “Direct Action” policy would be able to achieve a 5 per cent reduction in carbon emissions – the same environmental outcome as Labor’s carbon tax, but without the dreaded tax.

Of course, Direct Action was always basically bullshit, in the very specific meaning of that term advanced by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Frankfurt’s point was that a lie is a conscious intention to deceive. Bullshit, on the other hand, is not really about truth or falsehood, but about providing cover while advancing some particular interest.

Direct Action is a perfect example of this. The goal of the policy wasn’t to fool voters into believing the Coalition could deliver meaningful action on climate change. After all, many Coalition voters don’t believe in climate change in the first place. Its real aim was to obfuscate and misdirect, in order to provide an intellectual smokescreen for the Coalition’s relentless assault on Labor’s carbon tax. That’s why the dubious and untested science of soil carbon, which lies at the centre of Direct Action, was so useful. Soil carbon could work. Or maybe it won’t. I don’t think Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott really care.

It’s basically impossible to find an independent analyst who believes Direct Action can work. On the other hand, as Labor’s Mark Butler has noted, there is an avalanche of evidence that shows it will fail. If we take just the example of soil carbon, the University of Western Australia estimates it will cost farmers something like $80 per tonne of sequestered carbon to implement. The CSIRO’s Michael Battaglia has made a similar argument – that carbon farming is highly sensitive to carbon prices, as well as interest rates and the stability of future carbon legislation.

Independent modelling by SKM–MMA – a firm best known for its work for the fossil fuel industry – suggests that Direct Action will most likely result in a 9 per cent increase in carbon emissions, and still cost billions more than the Coalition has budgeted.

Now we know the Coalition doesn’t really believe in Direct Action either. On Monday Tony Abbott revealed he wouldn’t be too concerned about whether Australia met its 5 per cent emissions reduction target by 2020. Speaking at the National Press Club, Abbott dropped any pretence of concern about the long-term consequences of climate change. Instead, he railed against the “almost unimaginable” economic impacts of a carbon price, and told journalists bluntly that the Coalition will be spending no more than it has budgeted on reducing carbon. If that doesn’t produce a 5 per cent reduction, so be it.

“The bottom line is we will spend as much as we have budgeted, no more and and no less. We will get as much environmental improvement, as much emission reduction as we can for the spending we have budgeted,” Abbott said at the National Press Club. “We are very confident we can achieve the 5 per cent target … but in the end we have told you the money we will spend – and we won’t spend any more,” he said.

That’s a massive backflip by any standards. Direct Action can’t work, and Abbott has now admitted it. Really, it reveals that the Coalition has been misleading voters all along on climate. In a close campaign, such an admission might have been devastating.

The Coalition is so far ahead in the polls, and many sections of the media are so biased against the current government, that the stunning backflip generated little more than a ruffle from certain sections of the online media – led by Lenore Taylor at the Guardian and Tristan Edis at Climate Spectator. It was mentioned only in passing elsewhere.

Indeed, so confident is the Coalition of victory, Abbott has flicked the switch to incumbency this week, defining his own election mandate before even getting elected. On Tuesday he was telling the media that this election is a “referendum on the carbon tax”, and that if he did win, “the last thing the Labor Party will do is commit political suicide twice by continuing to support this absolutely toxic tax”. On Lateline last night, the Coalition’s climate spokesman Greg Hunt was backing him up, again threatening a double dissolution election if Labor did not wave through the Coalition’s plans to repeal the carbon tax.

Mandates are always a slippery concept in representative democracies, in which voters delegate governance to politicians and then trust them to do the things that they said they would. Both Labor and the Coalition went to the 2007 election, for instance, promising emissions trading schemes. That didn’t stop the Liberals from dumping Malcolm Turnbull, installing Abbott, and then frustrating Labor’s attempts to legislate exactly that policy. A bipartisan mandate meant nothing when it came to attacking Labor in government.

For a political animal like Tony Abbott, the significance of the m-word is not so much in winning Saturday’s poll – Coalition strategists appear to believe they’ve got it in the bag – but in putting down markers for future battles. The Coalition would dearly love to use carbon as a club to beat Labor with mercilessly once in office. Claiming a mandate on carbon is a handy tactic that will allow Abbott and his cheerleaders in the Murdoch tabloids to argue that the question of carbon pricing has been settled, and that Labor is on the wrong side of history.

In fact, precisely the opposite is true. Carbon policy is not settled, and Labor is right to claim it will stick to its guns in opposition. Climate change is real and worsening, with the IPCC’s Rajendra Pachauri recently telling the world we are at “five minutes to midnight” when it comes to saving the planet. An Australian government that walked away from its binding 5 per cent target on reducing emissions would be a huge symbolic blow to international action. In the meantime, the sophisticated infrastructure that Labor has painstakingly built on carbon – the Climate Commission, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, even the Department of Climate Change itself –  will be dismantled. The war against carbon will even spill over into academia, with reports today that the Coalition would start vetting Australian Research Council grants to make sure they weren’t wasted on research on public art and climate change, to take one very specific example.

As Fairfax’s Ben Cubby observes today, for all its carbon contortions, Labor eventually teamed with the Greens and independents to put in place a policy framework that had the ability to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. After the wrecking ball of an Abbott government moves through, Cubby writes, “in all likelihood, this policy infrastructure will have to be rebuilt from the ground up in three or six years’ time.”

We constantly hear reports of how disengaged voters can’t see the difference between the Coalition and Labor. On climate policy, there is a clear difference. The difference is not just over the narrow issue of the carbon tax. It is now about which party will actually reduce emissions. More broadly, it is about whether Australia will play its part in helping to stabilise the climate, or turn up the burners on a cooking planet.

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 13:17

Labor and Ben are also bullshitting.

Under Labor our domestic emissions excluding land clearing will in 2020 be 43% higher than they were in 1990.

And under Labor we could export enough coal to provide 30% of the carbon needed to take the world to 2 degree warming.

Of course Abbott will be worse than Labor. But as Labor have Australia leading the western world in taking us to 4 degree or greater warming, Labor are not much better than Abbott.

If you care about climate change don’t be fooled by Ben or Labor – vote 1 Green.

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 13:34

Coalition may have misled — but did it ever state that climate change was the greatest moral challenge of our times?  Neither’s policy will do much good — but at least you can get a good laugh out of the absurdity of Direct Action actually being championed by a future PM

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 13:51

I’m voting Green too but the choice for government for most people is currently between Labor and the LNP. And Labor has at least headed down the road to cutting emissions. They haven’t gone very far but god knows it took enough effort from all of us (including Labor and the Greens) to get the jalopy that is Australia this far. Abbott wants to pretend the road doesn’t exist and we will all have to go back to square one. So calling this article bullshit on behalf of the Greens is just silly. Especially when this is one of the few journalists writing in an informed way on this issue. There is a real difference between the LNP and Labor on this issue.

I’m frankly tired of the Greens and Labor attacking each other like this. It’s something that’s left the field to Abbott and his ilk. And I bet they love it. It would be much more powerful for Labor and the Greens to work together—oh wait, they have been for the past 6 years. Let’s keep going .. I know .. Labor is difficult on this at times, but we need to build bridges from both sides.

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:02

I think it was a big mistake for the Greens to sell the ‘look what we achieved’ message when the diffrences between what the Greens want and what Labor did are so huge.

Labor’s inaction on climate change is so huge that it doesn’t make much difference whether Abbott gets in. Yes, Labor really are that bad.

I’ll be voting Labor ahead of Liberal. But I won’t be fooling myself that a Labor victory is a vote for the environment.

After all, is there any other western country which is increasing its domestic emissions (excluding land clearing) by 43%? Is there any other western country wanting to export enough coal to take us 30% of the way to 2 degrees?

Labor has been more a continuation of Howard than a party of the left. I see that Labor has more in common with Abbott than with the Greens. And this is why I’m a passionate Green voter.


Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:12

Unfortunately Ben, your article, and others of its ilk will fall on deaf ears – the average Australian just doesn’t care about what may happen to the whole earth and society in ‘the future’. They want confidence that their personal daily consumables will be cheaper tomorrow. That’s what they are voting for, and that’s all they care about. The future well-being of humanity can look after itself….. probably.

Science – they don’t appreciate it’s value to our lives, don’t understand it’s philosophy, and are suspicious of those who do.

Abbott fits this definition nearly perfectly. And he knows that not enough people care to matter – he’s going to get voted in anyway.

Of course, before too long, the average Australian will be very concerned about Climate Change, but only because rampant warming collapses a food-chain, burns down a few suburbs, cyclonically decimates a city, or floods a sea-front, rendering previously valuable land worthless. Even then, it will only concern those directly impacted – the rest will continue to look the other way.

It’s pretty much the same rationalisation and denial smokers use to keep smoking despite the demonstrated strong possibility of long-term health risks.

It’s the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and the reason why the global environment is no doubt doomed to massive damage.

Greg O
Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:12

It has always been strange that the party allegedly of the free market advocated direct action and the social democratic party eschewed government intervention in favour of a market mechanism, but there is a real difference between the majors on climate change. But in they are not the only players with the Senate being vital. Obviously there are the Greens there, but at the other end of “difference”, there is Family First. Preferenced by the Climate Sceptic party and a gaggle of Christian, conservative and right-wing parties, they have managed a Senator in the past, and where I live (SA) they have two state MPs and an outside chance of taking the last Senate seat. So on climate change it is worth reporting (direct quotes from their website):

  • Claims that ‘there is a scientific consensus’ and ‘the science is settled’ are not true
  • Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, it is plant food. The more crops can get of it the better they grow.
  • Carbon dioxide has had no discernible influence on the world’s climate in the past and there is no reason to believe it should in the future.

So presumably it won’t matter if Tony Abbott’s direct action won’t work. And I guess if we stuff up this planet, God can always make us another one. But it is cold comfort for those of us who believe in science not religion.

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:19

This year for the first time in my life I am handing out HTV cards for the Greens.

Dont get me wrong I dont believe that they are Fantastic but it seems to me that Abbott… nay the Liberals are aware of their own deceptions. Kevin has ousted the best of his potential team and is quite possibly the most electable nutter in Labor. At this moment the Greens are the most Honest and electable If only Bob was still around. Given what the Climate scientists are saying we need to live a much less consumerist life or the s*it will hit the fan much much faster.

So I too will be voting 1 Greens In the insecure hope that it will make some difference. After all what is the use of a ‘better life’ if all those bushfires join up and wipe usall out. I just want to live a simple life. Its really just a survival strategy.


Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:24

Ben, why is it so difficult to understand that in order to do something about climate change on has to put the infrastructure in place. Labor has done that. If they win we wil be going to an ETS.

When necessary adjustments within that framework can be made, in fact must be made urgently now, in order to succeed in reducing pollution and accelerating the introduction of renewables.

All that effort will be for nought if the Murdoch and Fairfax supported Mob gets its hand on the tiller of government.

We find out soon if we are a “stupid” society or not!

Hello citizens,

Have the IPA and their club members (Murdoch, Rinehart, Abbott, Pell, Jones,LNP,MSM,ABC etc) made up your mind how to vote?

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:29

Direct Action could work- the only way is improve the efficiency of our coal fired power stations- easily give us 20% and lower bills- such power stations are restricted by greenie actions and limited investment (its just the actual policy that’s garbage) A favourable nuclear energy environment would also help over the long term. I wonder if greenies ever notice that we aren’t the biggest consumers and producers of coal- that’s China by a long way- biggest exporter means nothing. Renewable energy is worse than totally ineffective for CO2 reduction- for reliable power system you produce more CO2.

Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013 – 14:56

I very much fear that, in 2013, Australia is about to enter “The Barry MacKenzie” era of political achievement and diplomacy.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.