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How Abbott still haunts climate policy

  • 24 April 2019


For someone who once dismissed climate change as 'absolute crap', Tony Abbott sure has influenced our response to it. As prime minister, he repealed laws that were working to cut pollution, started a war against renewable energy that hobbled investment for years and created a smokescreen of a policy to obscure the fact that Australia's emissions are still rising.

Even as a backbencher, his legacy continues. The Morrison government's characterisation of Labor's electric vehicles target as a 'Car-Bon Tax' is straight out of Abbott's playbook. By setting the boundaries of what is considered politically acceptable, Tony Abbott has influenced the level of ambition in every party's climate policy, including Labor's.

Now Abbott's rein is coming to an end. Public concern about climate change is at the highest level in a decade, Abbott has lost credibility with voters, and he is even fighting off a strong independent in his own seat. Before we dismiss him as a political dinosaur, though, it's worth recapping how he shaped the debate and what lessons we can draw for future action on climate change.

Abbott's rise began in December 2009 when he rolled Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal leadership. It's hard to imagine now, but at the time Labor and the Coalition were working together on a bipartisan policy to reduce greenhouse pollution. Abbott broke this attempt at compromise and turned climate change into a partisan left/right issue like it has been in the US.

After the 2010 election, the Gillard government created a cross-party committee of Parliament to establish a carbon price, but Abbott chose to boycott the process and launch his 'carbon tax' crusade instead. Coalition leaders spouted lie after lie about the impacts (Barnaby Joyce famously claimed a lamb roast would cost $100) and major lobby groups like the Business Council of Australia backed them up. It didn't help that Labor delayed publishing details of the policy, creating an information vacuum that the Coalition could fill with myths.

Previous Liberal leaders had at least engaged with the detail. They would pay lip service to climate change but propose inadequate emissions targets or seek out loopholes to shirk our international responsibility. Abbott simply ignored the issue and changed the topic. As his chief of staff Peta Credlin revealed later, he made the climate debate about power prices and cost of living instead.

Like his previous decision to reject bipartisanship, Abbott sacrificed Australia's long-term interests for his own short-term political