Political insurgency in Higgins

At first glance it is puzzling that the Higgins by-election on 5 December does not have a Labor candidate given that Peter Costello won only 57 per cent of the two part preferred vote at the last election and that this must have included a personal component. Moreover, the odd polling glitch aside Labor continues to be well ahead on a two party preferred basis and the Liberals decided to choose a candidate with limited political experience and leadership potential (rumour has it that one obvious possibility was advised not to stand as Costello had made his choice).Kevin Rudd must thus surely have been confident of considerably reducing the Liberal’s winning margin and his failure to stand a candidate raises a question of what was in his mind.

Such a question will doubtless produce a variety of responses and it is not easy to sort out spin from substance. But in a situation in which Turnbull appears unwilling or unable to produce policies that provide substantive alternatives, and has an inherent capacity to stumble even when specifics of Labor’s policies go clearly wrong, it may well be that Rudd regards him as close to a best friend who needs to be kept as Opposition leader. Rudd would have been encouraged in this view by the emergence of former Prime Minister John Howard as in effect spokesman for the Coalition on the asylum seekers issue, on which Turnbull’s main object appeared to be not to be accused of returning to Howard’s policy. Against this background Rudd would naturally be reluctant to do a Brutus to a friend and would be prepared to forego the opportunity of obtaining a favourable swing.

In reality Rudd found a more important use for this friendship (sic): he saw an opportunity for further dividing the Opposition on the supposed dominant moral issue of our time viz the threat of global warming. The fact that Turnbull had publicly accepted the dangerous warming thesis (although in my exchanges with him when Shadow Minister for the Environment he displayed ignorance of important specifics) gave Rudd the opportunity to publicly savage sceptics and deniers in full knowledge that Turnbull would offer no substantive response and that this would likely further encourage known sceptics and deniers within the Coalition to add to their already publicly stated doubts. In short Rudd perceived a free go at further weakening the Coalition not by achieving a by-election swing but on a major policy issue.

This certainly offers a possible explanation for his astonishing address to the Lowy Institute on 6 November on the global warming issue in which he launched a well over-the-top attack on sceptics and dissenters with a veritable barrage of preposterous assertions that would, in circumstances where there was an effective Opposition Leader, have produced substantive criticisms. But despite the many bloopers in Rudd’s speech that called for comment even from a global warming believer, the best Turnbull could do was to suggest that Rudd calm down! And with the normal left bias in the media there was virtually no serious critical analysis of the speech.

Whether or not Rudd’s speech caused it, or the realisation grew stronger within the Liberal party that something had to be done about Turnbull, there has now emerged in public a significant group of Coalition MPs who reject the dangerous warming thesis and who seem to be itching to be rid of a leader who seems incapable of leading. The response in the media to the appearance of this group, led by Senator Minchin, on ABC Four Corners was predictable: that they are ensuring the political destruction of the Coalition. Reflecting his usual slightly left of centre approach, Paul Kelly described it as “a variation of the 1980s wet-dry conservative divisions that helped to keep the coalition in opposition during that decade” (11 November).

A serious problem with this kind of analysis is that those being described as “conservative” (that is of course an incorrect description of the 1980s division in that many wanted radical change) have nothing to lose. Turnbull is clearly unelectable as a leader of the Opposition in the next election or the one after because, like the wetness of Peacock in the 1980s, he has no capacity to enunciate a clear alternative liberal philosophy or set of policies. Policy papers that have been prepared within the party for possible release have apparently been sitting on Turnbull’s desk for some time, as has the tax reform paper he commissioned from outside.

The next two weeks of debate on the ETS legislation will be a critical period for the Minchin group – and for Turnbull. Now that the group has displayed itself publicly (and with Turnbull having acknowledged publicly that a conscience vote on the ETS is acceptable), its members are free to put forward their views on any aspect. For example, given that the global warmers are acknowledging that Copenhagen will not produce any meaningful agreement, members of the group can freely deride the absurd Rudd argument that the legislation must be passed before Copenhagen. Turnbull, however, has committed himself to trying to obtain an acceptable piece of legislation.

The group also has an opportunity to point out that, notwithstanding his claim of CSIRO and other expert evidence, Rudd has no sound scientific basis to support four out of five of the “dangers” he used in his Lowy speech to support his claimed need for action. These were: temperatures to rise by five degrees by 2100, an increase of 40-80 per cent in drought conditions by 2070, a fall of over 90 per cent in irrigated agricultural production in the Murray Darling Basin and surges in storms and sea levels that would put at risk 700,000 homes and businesses.

Rudd’s fifth claim is perhaps the most extraordinary one that, even if these dangers eventuated, GDP in 2100 would be only 2.5 per cent lower than otherwise. This pathetic attempt (from Garnaut/Treasury) at modelling the clearly unforeseeable distant future could not be taken seriously and, even if it were to happen, are we to be at all concerned about such a fall?  The adverse effects should be capable of being readily handled given that, as the modellers acknowledge, living standards would then be very much higher. Moreover, some time between now and then it is “very likely” (to use IPCC language) that technological developments would have solved any heating problem that might develop after the current cool period. Indeed, such developments might be said to be much more likely than the predicted rise in temperatures. 

This is not the occasion to examine all Rudd’s claims in detail. However, it is worth pointing out that the claim that 700,000 homes are at risk from sea level rises is not substantiated by actual recent increases either in Australian or global average levels and does not accord with the analysis by even the supposed experts viz the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Rudd has gone a step past the IPCC without saying how he got there. Even if the upper end of the IPCC’s prediction of a rise to 2100 of 18-59 cms were to be reached, that would be readily accommodated by property holders before then. But recent satellite measurements showing a fall over the past 3 years suggests that the IPCC’s upper end prediction for 2100 is overstated, particularly when considered against the increase of only 7 cms in the global average between 1961 and 2003 (if that rate of increase continued there would be only a minor rise of about 21 cms over the next 100 years). A recent assessment by the Dutch meteorological authority, probably the most authoritative on sea levels, confirmed the absence of concern.

The bloopers in Rudd’s speech demonstrate the need for an independent inquiry into the science before any action is taken to pass any ETS legislation, let alone start reducing CO 2 emissions. Such an inquiry should extend to deal with the implications of what is only just emerging viz that the proposed international agreement has the potential to significantly increase the powers of international bodies over Australia. They also highlight the failure of the Coalition leadership to demand such an inquiry, presumably because they are “stuck” with their acceptance of the science.

Against this background, the Higgins by-election provides an opportunity for voters to send a signal to Turnbull that they are not happy with his leadership. They can do this either by voting informal or by supporting the Independent candidate, Stephen Murphy, who is a member of the Climate Sceptics group which has been established with the principal object of exposing the absence of any sound base to the science used by global warming believers. But Murphy, whom I have met and who seems an excellent candidate, is also a strong advocate of the small government policies that are supposed to be an important component in the Coalition’s agenda.

By contrast, the Greens candidate in the Higgins by-election, Clive Hamilton (who resides in the ACT), portrays himself as an intellectual with a commitment to science that requires C0 2 emissions to be cut by 60 per cent (see his article in The Australian, 11 November). In reality, he is using this as a cover for his extremist views of why and how humans should behave in the green world he dreams of. These include views such as that “Gaia is revolting against the impact of human beings”, “we must abandon our comfortable belief in progress”, and that it may be necessary to suspend the democratic process. In short, the environment comes first humans second.

The extremity of his position is reflected in his assertion that “the scientific debate [on climate change] has been won, again and again” and his attempt to label as “political” those who reject the dangerous global warming thesis. This of course ignores the large and growing number of scientists who do so. If they are political, are the proponents too?

Three other candidates, one purportedly from the Democrats, another purportedly from One Nation and one who describes herself as from The Australian Sex Party, seem likely to play a minor role.`

Of course, with no Labor candidate it will be difficult to assess the division of the voting between the six candidates. In the Mayo by-election after Downer’s resignation the Liberal candidate won only 57 per cent of the two party preferred vote and that may be used by some as a benchmark for assessing Higgins ie if O’Dwyer gets more than 57 per cent of the votes that could be interpreted as a “good result” for the Liberal Party and Turnbull (the comparable result to Mayo in Bradfield was 63.5 per cent but Bradfield has been a stronger Liberal Party seat than Higgins). On the other hand, the fact that the Higgins Greens candidate is much more of an extremist on this occasion may deter some Labor voters who would otherwise vote Green in the absence of a Labor candidate. The relatively unknown Murphy is a dark horse but, in circumstances in which there is growing scepticism in the community about the dangerous global warming thesis, he could attract a much higher proportion than would normally be expected for a new face. The widespread dissatisfaction of Liberals with Turnbull, particularly on global warming, could also help Murphy. Whatever, it is difficult to see that Turnbull would be pleased if O’Dwyer wins with only 57 per cent of the two party preferred vote.

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