For some time now, the ABC’s Four Corners has embedded a journalist within independent environmentalist Zali Steggall’s campaign team. Steggall is looking to topple the incumbent member for Warringah, former prime minister Tony Abbott, who, for almost 25 years, has held the once safe Liberal seat. The national broadcaster is risking time and money to capture that surreal moment when Abbott may be out of the parliament.
That is a consummation devoutly wished by the Left. There is no person who so threatens its onward march. Abbott, whom opponents describe as “hard Right”, believes in fiscal responsibility, smaller government, micro-economic reform, affordable and reliable energy, coal, slower immigration, strong borders and Christian values.
To so-called progressives, this makes him public enemy No 1, a condition from which Steggall has benefited mightily. Green giant GetUp, crony capitalists in the renewable energy sector, trade unions and others have contributed human resources, massive financial support and friendly media coverage. ABC political editor Andrew Probyn has described Abbott as “the most destructive politician of his generation”. Probyn no doubt shares the fear that, if re-elected, Abbott may emerge as the next Liberal Party opposition leader or at least a senior minister in a Morrison cabinet.
This intense, sustained attack on Abbott is probably unprecedented and has done serious damage to his re-election prospects. So significant has been the diversion of resources, it has taken pressure off candidates in other Coalition seats.
Abbott’s opponents see climate change as his key vulnerability. And Manly Daily editor Robbie Patterson says: “Independent candidate Zali Steggall has tapped into a ‘thirst’ within Warringah to combat climate change.” Indeed, if elected, Steggall will push for an emissions target of 60 per cent below 2005 levels, exceeding even Labor’s lofty ambitions.
GetUp campaign director Miriam Lyons says voters clearly want their federal MPs to protect the climate for future generations.
She says: “People in Warringah are demanding action on climate change like never before.” But what does she mean? What yardstick are voters of Warringah, indeed of Australia, using? Many listen to their indoctrinated children, some of whom took a day off school to protest against the government’s “inaction on climate change”. Watching teary 14-year-olds on TV, wondering “what’s going to happen to the whole world if no one does anything?”, is enough to dull the sharpest brain and melt the hardest heart.
But when it comes to environmentalism, truth is the first casualty. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are 1.3 per cent of the world’s total and, while they may be rising, emissions per capita are falling. This is not mentioned.
Nor is an Australian National University study that finds Australia’s per capita renewables deployment rate is four to five times faster than the EU, the US, Japan and China. The ANU is no hotbed of climate sceptics. Australia’s “inaction” is even more remarkable given that, for the first time since 2001, global growth in renewable power capacity failed to increase year on year.
But forget facts. Like the former blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth, Warringah’s SUV-driving voters embrace pragmatism. Many live by the water and invest in renewable energy projects. They believe they will prosper more under Labor than the Coalition. Such a green perspective ordinarily would be expected from inner-city trendies but, to quote Lenin, “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
In the outer suburbs and in the bush, the mood is different. Voters align more with Abbott. They believe the elites are in control. They are at the rock-face struggling with high energy prices, mortgage payments and drought. They see strong immigration costing them wage growth and driving home prices further out of reach. They want Adani’s jobs and want Australia out of the Paris Agreement. They view “green” policies that threaten their livelihoods as regressive wealth transfers and, while Labor’s big-spending promises may appeal, they wonder about the impact on the economy and employment.
This philosophical divide is a growing phenomenon in Western countries. In Europe, new right-wing parties are enjoying meteoric rises in popularity as they push back on climate change orthodoxy. In Canada, too, a new party, the People’s Party of Canada, advocates individual freedom, free markets and restricted immigration. It is rapidly gaining traction nationwide.
In many ways, the coming federal election is a watershed. It is former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s parting gift to Australia. Having taken the Liberals so far to the left and having squandered his inherited majority, he has prepared the ground for probably the most radical government since Gough Whitlam’s in 1972.
Many of the proposed social and economic policies of this Labor-Greens coalition are experimental. They are broadly disconnected from the laws of economics when Australia has the riskiest household debt levels in the world. Finance to meet extravagant spending promises is predicated on optimistic commodity prices, exposing the nation to the same risks that have caught out other resource-rich countries when their permanent income hypotheses exploded. But 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth allows Labor to capitalise on widespread complacency as many voters underestimate the risks or see them as worth taking.
Should Abbott lose his seat, the Left will be dancing in the streets. It will be a huge victory, a triumph for long-term planning, massive resources, the skilful use of social media and mainstream media co-operation. But, in or out of parliament, Abbott will remain a most effective spear-thrower for the Right. He is a conviction politician and an articulate spokesman for the conservative side. Post the election, the battle for hearts and minds will continue, but it may take an economic crisis for people to come to their senses.