A few years ago, the conventional wisdom down under held that Tony Abbott and his centre-right Liberal Party were crazy to oppose the notion of carbon pricing. The view was so commonplace among Canberra press gallery pundits that it seemed reckless to contradict it.
Those were the days, remember, when global warming alarmism was all the rage around the western world. From Sydney to Southampton, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was a blockbuster. An Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, had declared that climate change was the world’s ‘greatest moral challenge.’ Nigel Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason, was rejected by every British publisher, to whom it was submitted. As one rejection letter told the former chancellor: ‘My fear, with this cogently argued book, is that it flies so much in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy that it would be very difficult to find a wide market.’
Someone forgot to tell Tony Abbott. Having won a landslide election on the issue of opposing the carbon tax last September, the Australian Prime Minister and his conservative parliamentarians have just legislated the repeal of the hugely unpopular policy to de-carbonise the Australian economy.
The story of the rise and fall of global warming alarmism in Australia in many respects mirrors the six-year experience of the Australian edition of The Spectator. Founded in 2008, The Spectator Australia took a leaf out of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955 and stood athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’. We yelled because like a few lonely conservatives, including Melbourne columnist Andrew Bolt, Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones, and the Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne think tank, we hoped to be heard in a stifling and intolerant political climate.
For years, the climate debate in Australia had been conducted in a heretic-hunting, anti-intellectual atmosphere. We Australians had heard a lot of science, much of it poorly explained. But the ‘dismal science’ had been conspicuously absent from the carbon debate. There was very little serious analysis of the economic consequences of climate change: what choices did we have to mitigate its effects, and how much would these choices cost us? Labor ministers had emitted a lot of hot air about global warming and the urgency with which resource-rich Australia (which accounts for only 1.2 per cent of global emissions) must act.
All of this changed dramatically when Abbott won the Liberal Party leadership on the eve of the Copenhagen UN gabfest in late 2009. By raising questions about the high costs of living when trade competitors were chugging along the smoky road to prosperity, Abbott almost overnight transformed Australia’s debate beyond the religious fervour and feel-good gestures that had held sway all too often. Suddenly, political strategists were thinking the unthinkable: far from presaging an electoral debacle that was inevitable under Abbott’s green (Cameron-like) predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, the issue had become a political godsend for conservatives in the Antipodes.
Abbott — an Anglophile, Rhodes scholar and protégé of former Prime Minister John Howard — came very close to defeating a first-term government in 2010. When Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard betrayed a key election pledge not to introduce a carbon tax, the scene was set for a landslide Liberal election last September. With the new Senate this month, the controversial carbon tax’s days were numbered. Today, the Senate issued last rites to one of the most unpopular laws in Australian parliamentary history.
The lesson here, as The Spectator Australia and I have long argued, is that voters are not easily deceived when politicians try to conceal the costs of their environmental ambitions. Nor do emissions restrictions grow more popular the more politicians try to sell them. Another lesson is that real political leaders are prepared to challenge a stifling and intolerant consensus. Tony Abbott, much to the angst of the nation’s climate enthusiasts, had the moral conviction and political nerve to take issue with the accepted wisdom. The result was a landslide election and today’s keynote legislation. David Cameron could surely learn from his experience.
Tom Switzer is editor of The Spectator Australia.