21 August 2015
by Waleed Aly
Abbott is losing the plot in his war on environmentalists
We will be subjected to the Abbott Government's nonsensical hyperbole as long as it insists on casting environmentalists as a special interest group that threatens the liberal order.
Few things seem to rile the Abbott government quite as much as isolated Federal Court decisions. You'll recall that before this whole Carmichael coal mine episode there was Andrew Bolt's section 18C affair. Tony Abbott was in opposition in that case, but this difference aside, the similarities are striking.
In both cases, the good guys lost. In both cases, they were the victims of pesky activist types. And in both cases the laws in question had been in force for some 15 or so years, having barely been used with any success.
The Cold War … was an era from which notionally conservative parties emerged ideologically triumphant, and in which the world accordingly made perfect sense. But … things aren't so triumphant now. That world that made so much sense makes appreciably less sense now.
And yet, in both cases, the Coalition's response has been to declare – on the basis of little more than one result it didn't like – that the laws in question were wreaking some manner of tyrannical havoc and had to be junked. If that strikes you as a little rash, the section 18C experience supports your hunch.
Somehow the Abbott government convinced itself that its sense of outrage was a mainstream one: that the electorate would fete it as the heroic protector of an imperilled free speech, and some dangerously fading right to bigotry. Soon enough it became clear the public saw no such scandal, that it was the government's position that was on the margins, and that its 18C proposals would be forced to retreat to the shelves of political abandonment.
But the fuming over Adani's Carmichael troubles might be even more rash. The laws in question are John Howard's. The idea that environmental groups can test governmental decisions in court is a markedly uncontroversial one because it recognises that environmental damage affects the whole country and cannot be confined merely to local landowners; and that if environmental protection is left only to individual locals, no meaningful environmental protection will take place.
Sure, there's some chance such laws could be abused. Which is why the public service did a thorough review on how they've been working. Turns out they're working fine. "These provisions have created no difficulties and should be maintained," it concluded. "The question is whether these provisions should be expanded further." Hence, from 5500 projects, the laws have been used 33 times. Successfully, twice. That's a success rate of 0.04 per cent. Rounded up.
Coal mining machinery which the Abbott government views as good for the economy. It is happy to pay the price of harm to the environment.
Now, consider the government's language. It talks of "vigilante litigation", "endless legal sabotage", "bullies in the green movement" and an environmentalist "war against economic development". It is, of course gigantically hyperbolic. In the case of "vigilante litigation" it is literally nonsensical – like "gluttonous starvation" or "rapid-fire sluggishness". But it's also visceral in a way that is instructive. It suggests this is something more than garden variety politicking. There's a genuine, long-standing disdain here that has much to tell us about the current state of ostensibly conservative party politics.
Much like section 18C, the Carmichael mine case taps into a much greater political mythology. These are not, in the Coalition's view, isolated cases at all. Rather, they are symbols of a more fundamental, thoroughgoing onslaught. Whether it be racial and ethnic minorities, or environmentalists, all are taken to be special interests whose claims threaten the liberal order of things. To resist these forces is therefore not to fix some mere technical flaw in this or that legislation. It is to defend the barricades against the evils of an unchecked collectivism that sits in direct contrast to our established capitalist ethos.
That's why the Abbott government so consistently posits the environment and the economy as opposites, even as the governments of America, Britain, New Zealand, and (broadly) Europe, don't. For Abbott, the environment matters, but not at the expense of the economy, to which it is subordinate. Carbon pricing only ever costs jobs, rather than creates them. And, of course, environmental protection laws can only ever be "green tape": a regulatory yoke around the neck of business, and not a means of protecting valuable assets that return economic benefits in the long term.
Implicit here: environmentalists, and environmentalism, are simply not to be trusted. Their very motives must be suspect. So, it's "war" and "sabotage" and "bullying" and nothing more genuine than that.
The "new religion" of the "extreme left" is how former Coalition senator Nick Minchin put it: the cloak that masks its real agenda to "deindustralise the Western world". Environmentalism, then, becomes the new communism, designed to implement vast new bureaucracies that control the free market and implement the will of the unelected.
You can see the ideological residue of the Cold War, here. And on one level, that makes sense. That was an era from which notionally conservative parties emerged ideologically triumphant, and in which the world accordingly made perfect sense. But as the Abbott government's woes suggest, things aren't so triumphant now. That world that made so much sense makes appreciably less sense now.
Some conservative parties, such as the Tories in Britain, have made the ideological adjustment, embracing at least the idea of a conservative environmentalism. But in Australia, as for the Republicans in America, such adjustments are scant. We're apparently fixed on the same binaries even as we're faced with a world that increasingly defies them.
That's why the government is compelled to overstate everything, from the amount of investment Adani is promising to the number of jobs the project is meant to create, to the scale of environmentalists' "very well orchestrated and highly funded campaign". It's why the issue must become the very idea of the law that requires a thorough environmental examination, rather than the government's failure in this case to follow it.
And it's why the government, having swept to power opposing a carbon tax, somehow finds itself increasingly at odds with the electorate on renewable energy and, to a lesser extent, climate change. It seems determined to see environmentalist concerns as fringe and radical; as a valid object of war. But war has its osmosis. If you're not careful, you eventually become the very thing you thought you were fighting.