Life was never going to be easy for the environment movement under the Abbott Government. As expected, hard-won environmental gains from the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years were the first to go to the wall once the new ministry was sworn in.
Perhaps most importantly the entire climate action architecture, created by the minority Gillard government in negotiation with the independents and Greens, was slated for demolition.
Given they faced a minimum of three years’ Government obstructionism, abetted by a socially conservative Senate crossbench, it’s surprising the environment movement didn’t simply decamp to the nearest beach to await the next federal election.
Maybe that’s what many were contemplating. That is, until the first Abbott budget ignited a spark of unrest in the Australian community that breathed new life into the protest movement.
Suddenly the value of environmental (and other) protest was re-established, and what had only recently seemed as pointless and painful as hitting one’s head against a brick wall suddenly became a vital part of the democratic process again.
Even so, it appears green advocates are unsure how to meaningfully leverage voters’ new appetite for dissent. This is particularly the case when it comes to addressing climate change.
Climate action undoubtedly remains a tough sell. The Australian public has been desensitised by almost five years of Abbott homilies on the evils of the “toxic” carbon tax, conservative media attacks on climate science, and progressive parties’ relegation of the issue to a matter of faith by jostling over the moral high ground.
To counter this, several attempts have been made over recent years to create a bandwagon effect – with the 2011 Say Yes rallies being the most prominent – to create a groundswell of support by suggesting there already is one.
However such rallies can be labour-intensive, unpredictable and to a large extent ignored by the media as an indicator of broader support. So climate action advocates have taken instead to commissioning opinion polls to suggest there’s growing public support for their cause and an inevitable consensus approaching.
This tactic can prove tricky, however, if the numbers are not moving strongly in one’s favour.
A time-honoured way of showing weak polling results in the best possible light is to selectively quote the numbers in a text-heavy report instead of publishing the full tables of data. Such cherry-picking depends on journalists being too busy to read more than the executive summary and discourages independent analysis of the outcome.
This approach was used last week by the lobby group, The Climate Institute, with its Climate of the Nation 2014 report.
In fact TCI’s tactics would have done a shonky corporate lobbyist proud. Their selective interpretation of the poll results was released at a media event replete with puppet dinosaurs and the Liberal anti-hero John Hewson, guaranteeing a great picture and headline but limited scrutiny of the numbers.
The “full” report was not launched until 24 hours later. Even then the results were only partially provided and obscured within 25 pages of mostly text. This allowed TCI to avoid any detailed examination of whether the questions were leading, what the real trends were, and what the percentages really meant. The report could well have been an embarrassing own goal if TCI’s pre-cooked summary turned out to be less than representative of the actual results.
It must have seemed a good idea at the time to offer Palmer some reflected Gorish glory and a blind eye on the scrapping of the carbon price in return for the retention of most of Gillard’s other climate action mechanisms.
But the Faustian deal with Palmer means the centerpiece of Australia’s emissions reduction effort, the carbon price, will be scrapped. And there is no chance Palmer’s zero-rated pseudo-ETS will take its place.
So Australia will have an increasing amount of renewables in the electricity supply mix but no price on carbon to drive down emissions from transport, agriculture or other forms of energy production.
Yes, something is better than nothing, and the retention of artefacts like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority could be seen as a win.
But let’s not forget Palmer’s commitments are as certain as the shifting sands. He moved from being a climate sceptic to a believer overnight, and took a similar time to shift from wanting the renewable energy target to be voluntary to insisting that it be untouched for two years.
Now the Member for Fairfax is reportedly moving away from the environmental rhetoric he used when standing alongside Gore, to argue that Australia needs to avoid as-yet non-existent climate tariffs imposed by our trading partners. PUP Senator-elect Jacqui Lambie has also jumped onto the economic bandwagon by insisting that businesses in Tasmania be exempted from the renewable energy target.
Meantime, The Climate Institute is running a campaign to stop the scrapping of the carbon price that was essentially sanctioned by their climate action compatriots.
It could all yet end in tears.
Nobody expected the Abbott years to be easy for the environment movement. But green advocates have been given a gift by the Coalition Government that they’ve squandered so far.
While the Government’s environmental vandalism has less immediacy for the community than other budget measures, the opportunity remains for it to be incorporated into the ongoing campaign about the unfairness of the budget.
Environmentalists should be tapping into this voter angst instead of spinning survey results and making devil’s pacts with unreliable politicians.