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How Abbott still haunts climate policy



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 As prime minister, he repealed laws that were working to cut pollution, started a war against renewable energy that hobbled investment for years and created a smokescreen of a policy to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.

Tony Abbott in 2014 (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)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 gain. Big areas of public policy always involve communicating complex ideas to the public, but Abbott abrogated this responsibility to run a scare campaign instead. His framing dominated the discussion to the point where more Australians would recognise the phrase 'carbon tax' than the name of the legislation (the Clean Energy Act) or how it worked.


"Perhaps the most remarkable measure of Abbott's influence is how even his opponents have adopted his approach."


Tony Abbott actually went to the 2010 and 2013 elections supporting the Renewable Energy Target (RET), but then attacked it once he became prime minister. He commissioned a review of the RET by climate sceptic Dick Warburton, and the resulting uncertainty stalled investment in the industry, costing thousands of jobs.

Perhaps the most remarkable measure of Abbott's influence is how even his opponents have adopted his approach. Six days after losing the Liberal leadership ballot in 2009, Malcolm Turnbull wrote an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald arguing that any Abbott policy on climate change would 'simply be a con, an environmental fig leaf to cover a determination to do nothing'.

The con turned out to be Abbott's Emissions Reduction Fund, which pays businesses to reduce their pollution, but has major integrity issues (including actually funding fossil fuel power stations). Under this policy, pollution has risen at least four out of the past five years and is higher than in 2013. Yet when Turnbull became prime minister, he stuck with Abbott's discredited approach. None of the alternatives — an emissions intensity scheme, a Clean Energy Target or a National Energy Guarantee — could make it through the right wing of the Coalition. The latest budget includes more money for the Emissions Reduction Fund, doubling down on bad policy.

Even environment groups have shifted their positions in response to Abbott. Since the repeal of the carbon price legislation, green charities have been on the back foot, spending a lot of energy shoring up support for renewables instead of arguing for policies that would more directly close coal.

So how did Abbott manage to wield so much influence for so long? It wasn't through better policy or a greater understanding of the topic. Abbott's power came from controlling the public narrative, especially through the Murdoch press.

There are three reasons he cut through when Labor didn't. The first was extraordinary message discipline. Abbott set the frame early by defining the term and then repeating it endlessly. Once the Gillard government accepted that their legislation represented a 'carbon tax', Abbott had won. The media started using the term and Australians were asked to support a new tax (which they dislike) on something called carbon (which they don't understand). One after-effect is that the debate was dumbed down, and progressives also need to resort to sloganeering to compete.

Abbott's second trick was to bait the left. This is a common strategy of the Republicans, transplanted from the US to Australia. Conservatives have realised they can elevate their message to national news by saying something provocative on left-leaning platforms like Twitter. Abbott peddled myths about renewable energy, and people would share posts saying 'It's NOT true wind and solar cause blackouts or increase power prices'. All it did was reinforce Abbott's preferred frame.

The third trick was to focus on concrete case studies rather than abstract statistics and targets. Abbott and co. spoke about costs that were immediate and local — quarterly power bills, jobs in Australian towns and cities, the price of a lamb roast. Businesses volunteered their factories for him to tour wearing a hi-vis vest with the media in tow.

In contrast, the arguments for action on climate change were future-focused and global — intergenerational inequality, looking after other species, and 'saving the planet'. The environment movement is now much more focused on immediate and local climate impacts like heatwaves and bushfires, plus benefits like clean energy jobs, but it took Abbott's devastating 2013 campaign to teach this lesson.

After the May election, Abbott may no longer be in Parliament. At the very least, it's likely he will no longer directly influence the Australian government's policy on climate change. But his words will echo in politicians' memories for many years to come, limiting what they are willing to propose. Already Labor has put forward a version of the Liberal Party's own NEG policy to neutralise a future scare campaign.

Tony Abbott may be almost gone, but his slogans will haunt us for years.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image: Tony Abbott in 2014 (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)


Topic tags: Greg Foyster, Election 2019, climate change



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Existing comments

Greg Sheridan has written a fawning piece in the Australian newspaper about tony abbot and both are right wing climate change sceptics along with george pell a guest in her majesty prision in victoria

stuart lawrence | 18 April 2019  

I believe Sir David Attenborough is correct in saying, “Right now we are facing a man made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” I support the Australian Greens in their efforts to reign in global warming. The Coalition are pro-coal and support the proposed Adani coal mine and Labor are sitting on the fence. Thankfully Bob Brown is currently leading a convoy of cars from Tasmania to Airlie Beach, gateway to the threatened Reef, then on to the Adani mine site in the Galilee Basin and down to Canberra as an anti-Adani protest. Bob Brown led the successful protests against the damming of the Franklin River years ago and hopefully will be successful this time. I see Bob Brown as a true prophet and Tony Abbot as a false prophet in relation to climate change. Just look at the severe weather events the world now experiences with 1 degree of warming and we're currently heading for about 3 degrees of warming! Think of your grand-children as you vote at the next election.

Grant Allen | 18 April 2019  


sepp babler | 19 April 2019  

Abbott is up here for dancing and down there for thinking, as the (upturned) saying goes! Perhaps time and hits in the boxing ring are responsible.

Henri | 23 April 2019  

Abbott is a symptom of a long history of neutering the public service - acting with a complete lack of foresight. Once, "frank and fearless advice" was at the hand of the minister, and this was as a result of a far-sightedness possessed by the service. As a result, poor ideas could be managed and sound decisions made. Now, ministers seem to make "off the cuff" decisions, without thought given to the consequences except to their own, or their party's advancement, and so we see many downsides to what was presented as a good idea. Pink batts, anyone? - not thought through. Or the Abbott-Hockey budget, perhaps? Howard's work choices? Privatisation? And Whitlam cut the nexus between tertiary education and industry when he made it free. Once the SEC, CRB (= Vicroads), Education department, etc. funded and nurtured students because they needed them. This caused much damage leading to today's crisis in which educated engineers and technicians are imported to do what we once did for ourselves. These were major changes which had serious consequences and they were not challenged. I hope the Labor party's time in opposition has helped them to see ahead more than a little.

Peter Horan | 23 April 2019  

This is an excellent analysis of the situation regarding the irresponsible attitude that Tony Abbott has had towards the environment for far too long. However, the problem is not just Tony Abbott. Many of his disciples in the "Liberal" and National parties might well have modified their derision of green concerns in more recent times as more and more Australian voters see pollution and climate change as the most important issue, but they have similar attitudes. We were reminded of this in February 2017 when the treasurer and current PM - Scott Morrison - took a lump of coal into question time. It was arrogantly passed around amongst LNP MHRs as they lampooned those concerned about the environment crisis. In short, they behaved like immature school children. And then, we have seen the lack-lustre approach to the problem by the ALP. True, during this election , its leaders have promoted some reasonable environmental policies, but, at the same time, it does not want to take a stand on the Adani coal mine proposal. It should be clear to voters who are serious about the environmental crisis that we can no longer defer the implementation of programs to cut back pollution and climate change. I will be voting for parties and candidates who make these issues a top priority. Not to do so would be to show callous and irresponsible disregard for the survivability of future generations.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 April 2019  

It was also positive for the discussion on the environment to see that Jorge Mario Bergoglio - alias Pope Francis - agreed to meet Greta Thunberg and and express support for the work she has done to initiate international student strikes for climate action

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 April 2019  

It is notable that the article, and the comments so far, airbrush out of history the role of Abbott's chief accomplices in voting down the Rudd government's ETS: Bob Brown and the Greens. Had it not been for the Greens' overgrown adolescent chiliastic Marxism ('give me world revolution by next Monday or give me nothing') we would have had an ETS for a decade. But then, for the likes of Lee Rhiannon and her adoring claque in the ABC and Fairfax media Labor can only ever be social fascist enemies of the revolution.

PM | 24 April 2019  

Go go go Bob Brown - and all who support. Travel safe but strong. And, of course, thanks to Greg for his great article. When are we going to grow up?

Liz Brennan | 24 April 2019  

"Businesses volunteered their factories for him to tour wearing a hi-vis vest with the media in tow." I distinctly remember the outrageous statements made when Abbot visited a factory that made wood putty and the eager cooperation and compliance of the owner. As a woodworker I never used that brand again, which I am sure they never noticed, however in the present day customer boycott would be a great tool should this blatant manipulation of truth be used again.

John Power | 26 April 2019