The media’s coverage of climate change in the election campaign has reflected the Coalition’s long-term strategy of denialism, rather than a desire for genuine scrutiny.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been plenty of journalists complaining about the social media abuse to which they’ve been subjected in relation to election coverage. The level of contumely directed at political journalists has indeed been noticeably worse, and much of it has been driven by the rage of left-wingers that the media isn’t acting as the eager trumpeteers of a Shorten victory. Instead, journalists dare to question Labor policies and push for details. “This election is a contest, not a coronation,” Chris Uhlmann correctly noted, and there are many progressives on Twitter enraged at that, prepared to call bias at anyone not acting as a PR agent for Labor.
But on climate policy, the mainstream media — Nine, News Corp, the TV networks and the ABC — have indeed failed voters, and spectacularly so, in three crucial aspects.
First, climate change should be the central issue of the campaign. That’s not merely because climate change is the most serious threat to Australia’s economic future, and threatens major disruption to the global economy beyond the costs it is already imposing. It’s also because climate change is the central issue of Australian politics. Twice in the last 10 years the Liberal Party has removed a leader over the issue. It played a key role in the demise of Julia Gillard. Scott Morrison is only prime minister because of the Liberal Party’s unwillingness to accept the existence of climate change and the need to address it.
Despite that, climate has been mostly at the margins of the campaign. Neither side has been particularly willing to talk about it, except where it is the pretext for new spending. Labor spent the entire first two weeks of the campaign talking about health, an area of policy success for Australia that needs little extra attention for all its totemic political importance. The media have taken their cue from the parties and mostly ignored climate.
Second, a gross imbalance exists in reportage of the two sides, given Labor is the only major party with a genuine climate policy. Scott Morrison is rarely questioned on the lack of any serious Coalition climate policy — journalists seem to take it as a given that the Coalition just doesn’t do climate, so it gets a pass from scrutiny. That appears to be why the Coalition’s figleaf “direct action” policy, intended only to prevent the charge of wholesale denialism and pump more money to Coalition supporters, attracts no critique. The media know it’s a fake policy, so have never examined it closely in the 10 years since it was put together on the back of an envelope in the wake of Turnbull’s first removal.
Third, to the extent that the issue has featured in campaign coverage, it has been entirely around the issue of the economic cost of climate action policies. This is exactly the Coalition’s preferred framing of the issue, and one that it has used since the Howard years to obstruct action. The framing involves using economic modelling to claim that climate action will impose massive economic costs, when even the modelling does not show that, but shows the difference between two fictional scenarios involving “business as usual” and an assumption-laden confection of the policies the Coalition wishes to discredit. In fact, the Coalition has actually brought back the very man who was central to that technique, Brian Fisher, who is getting another run today with a new round of nonsense modelling claiming massive costs for climate action.
Remarkably, the mainstream media never mention Fisher’s central role in the Howard government’s climate denialism strategy (or that strategy itself). News Corp has even attempted to portray Fisher as “independent” and some sort of even-handed economist who served both sides during his time in government. In fact, he comes to the debate with little credibility given his long history of peddling modelling designed to discredit climate action. Saliently, as he himself has admitted this time around, his modelling never addresses the costs of failing to address climate change.
And political history demonstrates how little real interest the media has in the issue of the economic impact of climate action. The Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme was estimated by Treasury to have a one-off impact on household CPI of 0.7%. This was virtually never reported; instead, the Abbott opposition’s claims of spectacular price increases and warning it would be a “wrecking ball”, a “python squeeze”, a “cobra strike” etc were given strong prominence. As it turned out, the carbon price may had had even less impact than Treasury predicted, as an array of economists noted in the aftermath. This, too, received little media attention. The focus on costings is thus not a mechanism to genuinely assess the impact of climate action but to deter action.
There are plenty of reasons for scrutiny of Labor’s climate policy — it’s a grab bag of measures, some of them adapted from the government, rather than a coherent policy like Gillard’s carbon-pricing scheme. Very little of the economy is actually caught by its proposed safeguards scheme, some of the biggest polluting industries will be given exemptions to continue pumping out greenhouse emissions. But little of that is being reflected in the coverage. Instead, the media is stuck in the same rut it’s been in since the Howard years.
This article was published by Crikey on the 2nd of May 2019.
Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.