Tony Abbott’s efforts to portray himself as an everyday bloke sit uneasily with his previous attempts to be a conservative intellectual.
“Isn’t it bizarre that this government thinks that somehow raising the price of electricity is going to clean up our environment, stop bushfires, stop floods, stop droughts? Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax!”
Thus spoke Tony Abbott at the Liberals’ “federal campaign rally” on Sunday in Lidcombe, in Sydney’s west.
Some might quibble with the Leader of the Opposition about his take on the carbon price. Among them, perhaps most prominently, is Abbott himself. After all, in 2009, well before the putsch he led against Malcolm Turnbull, this was his observation:
“If Australia is to greatly reduce its carbon emissions, the price of carbon intensive products should rise.”
That was what Abbott himself termed “A Realist’s Approach to Climate Change”, in which he thoughtfully made the case for a carbon tax. That was around the same time as Abbott’s conservative think-piece, Battlelines.
The 2009-Abbott-as-policy-thinker, of course, was stating the bleeding obvious. The responsiveness of demand to price increases is a foundation of economics. As 2009-Abbott noted, the straightforward way to reduce the use of carbon-intensive products is to make them more expensive. And he was aware of the incongruity of a Liberal proposing a new tax:
“The Coalition has always been instinctively cautious about new or increased taxes. That’s one of the reasons why the former government opted for an emissions trading scheme over a straight-forward carbon tax. Still, a new tax would be the intelligent skeptic’s way to deal with minimising emissions because it would be much easier than a property right to reduce or to abolish should the justification for it change.”
As we’ve noted before, Abbott has little interest in consistency. That his Sunday address contained statements that contradicted not merely the most basic principles of economics, but his own clearly articulated views, is of no moment. And anyway, this was a campaign speech, and such speeches are the last place you want serious content and rigid adherence to fact. Such events are about geeing up the faithful, about creating energy, about generating positive imagery.
But that gives us some interesting opportunities for analysis, because as any novelist will tell you, it’s when we’re telling stories that we’re at our most truthful, and Abbott’s words make for some interesting unpacking.
The baking hot summer, and the subsequent floods, have made life difficult for climate denialists. Insistence that the planet is not getting warmer – or, as Abbott until recently insisted, is getting slightly cooler – has become more difficult to maintain publicly, despite the faulty logic of linking weather to climate. One alternative is to suggest a carbon price in Australia has demonstrably failed if it has not already stopped global climate change. Barnaby Joyce had been using this line for a while.
“It’s very hot today so the carbon tax isn’t working very well,” he said at the beginning of December.
But Abbott’s intent isn’t to perform a dance of responsibility around climate change, beyond declaring that his own policy (involving underpaying farmers to bury carbon in soil by processes neither scientifically nor economically viable), will do the trick.
Rather, Abbott is about positioning himself as a regular bloke. Painfully aware that he shares with the Prime Minister the unenviable position of being widely disliked by the electorate – indeed, he is even more disliked than the Prime Minister – Abbott’s goal is to portray himself as a normal voter, one at ease in the Liberals’ western Sydney “heartland”.
Joe Hockey had been a great friend since they were both front rowers at uni, he declared at the start of his speech on Sunday, although within 24 hours MPs were wishing they’d had a scrum on the Coalition’s fiscal policy before finishing the day.
“We are a pretty normal family, with a mortgage, with bills,” he went on to say. “We know what it is like not to be sure whether you’ve got enough money in your bank account at the end of the month.”
Abbott, educated at Riverview, Sydney University’s St John’s College and Oxford, who currently earns $350,000 plus MPs’ perks, ostensibly makes a poor simulacrum of your average western Sydney bloke, but this is a man with an unusually strong grasp of what narratives work with voters.
This explains the mockery of a carbon price. Aware of strong concerns about rising electricity prices, Abbott readily embraces the scepticism of ordinary voters about counter-intuitive economic mechanisms. How can increasing the price of anything possibly be good? How can paying more for electricity stop climate change? Surely it’s the sort of ridiculous, theoretical rubbish out-of-touch intellectuals come up with because they don’t live in the real world.
This is part of a political culture of manufacturing authenticity, one about repurposing the old line that once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. But trying to confect authenticity can take politicians to some peculiar places.
Abbott’s efforts are more subtle than the “real Julia” of the 2010 election campaign, or Gillard’s early efforts as Prime Minister to portray herself as a sort of Stakhanovite advocate of ceaseless manual labour, or for that matter Kevin Rudd’s ludicrously over-the-top Queenslandisms.
But in this case, it’s led to Abbott, knockabout western Sydney bloke, laughing off the sort of ivory-tower silliness Abbott, conservative intellectual and Oxonian, once advocated.