GOUGH Whitlam was asked in his first media conference after taking office in 1972 how could he fulfill his promise to end national service with a hostile Senate likely to stop any repeal of the National Service Act. The response was swift and imperious: The Minister would simply instruct the department not to conduct any ballots to call up the young men.
We are going to see a fair amount of this in the next year: the widest possible use of Executive action or inaction to achieve what cannot be done by legislation.
Abolishing the Climate Commission is an example. The legislation stays in place, but the personnel are axed.
Would it be possible, for example, simply not to collect the carbon tax or to announce that penalties for not paying it will not be imposed? My guess is that the Abbott Government would not do that on a couple of counts. The first is that it smacks of lawlessness. The second is that it might be clever to win an election on a groundless scare campaign, but it is another thing to unwind something which ultimately prove to be good policy.
The longer Tony Abbott is in government the more he will learn from his bureaucrats that Australia is part of the world and will not get away with not doing something about climate change. And that his “direct action” plan will not achieve the targets and will be a waste of money.
Climate change aside, it might be good economics to leave the tax in place, both for government and for industries who move to more efficient energy use.
Yes, we know about mandates and election promises, but governments are also elected to govern. That means occasional changes of mind as either circumstances change or more information comes in.
Evidence-based government is better than populist government.
Abbott has won the election. He has a choice. He can either start the 2016 election campaign now or he can be Prime Minister.
It is not the economy, stupid. It’s the planet. Without the planet there is no economy.
Now, I could understand, but not admire, a political leader of a mid-range nation like Australia who said, “Look, there is nothing in it for us. We are not going to do anything about climate change because we are just a small nation and anything we do will have little effect.”
This is the leaky boat position. Any number of cartoons about the economy have been drawn with chaps in the high end of row boats smugly asserting there is no need for concern because the leak is not at “our end of the boat”.
But we know that economies rise and fall. Sinking economies can refloat. With the environment boat, however, once sunk there is no going back. You only have one boat.
A carbon tax does not irreparably wreck an economy. But a wrecked environment does. So even if the one-percent-chance the science is wrong turns out to be true the counter-climate-change measures will not have been ruinous. But if the 99 per cent chance that even the most moderate climate-change predictions are right and we have done nothing, the consequences will be ruinous.
Since 2007 a fundamental of Australian politics has changed. Before 2007, by and large, the Coalition based its policies on pragmatism and evidence and Labor still retained (despite the Hawke-Keating reforms) a fair smack of policy according to ideology.
Just before the 2007 election, John Howard was led kicking and screaming to admit that something had to be done about climate change because the evidence and science was in and international pressure would mount.
In Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, saw the obvious science and agreed Australia must not sit at its end of the world boat and do nothing.
Then Tony Abbott took the leadership with the decisive support of the most ideologically driven senior member of the Liberal Party in its history: Nick Minchin.
Minchin is (he still operates as a political machinator) is not only a climate change denier, but also a rejector of the great Menzies-based tradition of the Liberal Party – a party that eschewed ideology and based its policies on pragmatism.
A Menzies-style pragmatist, surrounded by a Percy Spender and a Richard Casey, faced with the science of climate change, would have acted.
The science is in. There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Humans put it there. It has caused the earth to warm, by a measured 0.75 degrees on average.
The climate has changed. The spate of weather records are all for warmth and weather events predicted by climate scientists, not for cold.
You can only reject this on ideological grounds. The Coalition used to abhor ideology and mocked the Labor Party for it. On the question of climate, now the Liberal Party is the party of ideology.
Yes, we have had severe floods, fires and storms, but never so many.
Can I say your heart attack was caused by poor diet or your cancer caused by chemical exposure? No. But can I say a nation with poor diet and chemical exposures will have more people sick and dying from heart disease and cancer? Yes.
The only “unsettled” science is not whether the planet is warming, but by how much extra it will warm because of feedback, such as the way the initial warming melts ice which reflects heat leaving ocean to absorb heat, causing even more warming.
Abolishing the Climate Commission won’t make the issue go away.
So the real hope now is for business and farmers to start speaking out. People in the Coalition might listen to them. Farmers can see the climate changing. Business people have a greater understanding of risk than ideological politicians.
In the meantime, Abbott might be well advised to let the hostile Senate do the right thing for him without any political cost for breaking an election promise.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 21 September 2013.