Here’s What Isn’t Happening

There’s a lot going on in the Liberal Party at the moment, and, indeed, on the Australian right. But here’s what isn’t happening. There isn’t a burgeoning ideological split between conservatives and liberals. Climate change is not a stalking horse for social conservatism. And this isn’t the old guard rebelling against the new guard. In both camps there are conservatives and liberals, seasoned parliamentarians, time-servers and first-termers.

Neither is this any sort of “Howard’s revenge”. It’s a long bow to blame a schism within a party on the one leader who kept it together for a decade.

For the Liberal Party, the emissions trading scheme is a special case.

After the 2007 election, there was much discussion about the future of liberalism and the Liberal Party. And the debate largely framed in British terms. Should the post-Howard party saunter down David Cameron’s path of moderate economics and moderate greenism, or talk about high tax rates and inflation? (For the questions that debate raised, read James Campbell in the IPA Review in March 2008.)

Anyway, it turns out that there are a few problems implementing an Antipodean interpretation of Cameronism. There appears to have been an assumption that choosing to follow the UK model was a simple as flicking a switch – just a quick rejig of the Liberal Party’s press release template and bang, the Liberals are now greener than the ALP. Hence Turnbull’s recent use of “progressive” – a word that resonates among Cameron’s strategists, but is alien to the Liberal parliamentary party and its supporters.

Campbell’s piece shows that Cameron’s strategy was more than just adding a tree to the Conservatives logo. For one thing, he took his party with him, over a period of many years. And whatever success Cameron is enjoying cannot be isolated from a few pertinent facts: the Tories have been out of power for a decade, Labour has driven the UK basically into the ground, and the ideological ghost of John Howard is not as strong as the ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

But most importantly: It’s easy for a nominally small government party to be clean and green if all you’re talking is about bicycles. By contrast, the ETS is no small thing. The ETS Green Paper bragged that the government’s scheme would “change the things we produce, the way we produce them, and the things we buy”. The scheme is arguably the largest economic change in Australian history — an emissions trading scheme is like plopping a entire second economy on top of the first one.

Malcolm Turnbull’s camp wants to follow the Cameron model. Nick Minchin’s camp is more diverse. Not all of the Minchin sceptics are sceptics of the science. Weirdly, Kevin Rudd got this one right. Sceptics include those who believe the science but think the scheme is irrevocably flawed (does anyone disagree with that?). And then there are those in the Minchin camp who even believe the world should take action on climate change, but feel that Rudd’s diplomatic strategy of legislating before Copenhagen is a little bit silly. You might not agree with it, but this is an entirely defensible position. The entire economy isn’t just a bargaining chip to be handed to our diplomats to go off and play with.

Most in the Minchin camp have little interest in climate science, but believe a Liberal Party cannot claim to be liberal if it supports one of the biggest government interventions ever considered by the parliament. And with its extraordinary concessions, the ETS doesn’t even have the redeeming quality of being able to achieve its purported goal: substantially reducing emissions. It doesn’t even work as an insurance policy. It has negligible coverage and a massive premium. The ETS is, simply, a massive tax/corporate-welfare churn. Its economic cost will inevitably be substantial – doubly so in the absence of a global deal – and the Minchinites are betting that cost will be a significant political issue in future elections.

So before a global deal, for many in the parliamentary Liberal Party, opposing the ETS seems like a no-brainer.