MARC HUDSON. Game over for the Nationals on climate change? Spruiking for miners instead?

The National Party’s battles over climate policy are becoming ever louder, ever more ludicrous. The consequences of thirty years of climate denial and spruiking for mining may finally tear the party apart. 

The attack on Bill Shorten was as desperate as it was predictable. Speaking on ABC,Michael McCormack said Shorten was “nuts” and “living in fairyland” for pursuing a 45 per cent reduction in carbon emissions. In time-honoured fashion (redolent of the ‘hundred dollar Sunday roast’) he said “I mean sure, go down that path, but forget night footy, forget night cricket”, then invoking the spectre of “pensioners turning off their power because they won’t be able to afford it, and they’ll be shivering all winter, and they’ll be melting all summer.”

McCormack is under intense pressure over his leadership, which he gained only a year ago when Barnaby Joyce was forced to stand aside last year after his relationship with a staffer became very public Queensland Nationals George Christensen, Michelle Landry, Ken O’Dowd, Keith Pitt, Llew O’Brien and Barry O’Sullivan have demanded that McCormack and the (Liberal) Energy Minister Angus Taylor take “immediate action” to underwrite the construction of a new coal-fired power station in regional Queensland and also pass a so-called “big stick” package of legislation before parliament rises for the impending Federal Election.

The rumours of a leadership spill – a journalist’s bread and butter – are growing by the day.

The Nationals’ long history of climate change denial

Climate change first reared its head as a public policy issue over 30 years ago, when Hawke and Keating ruled the land. Although the Liberal Party briefly made an effort to take the issue seriously,

the Nationals were always more sceptical, perhaps seeing the issue as just one more greenie scare and excuse for regulation. The Landcare movement notwithstanding, the relationship of the National Party to green issues has always been fraught. The early anti-climate change stance is best exemplified by the appearance of Tim Fischer, then Deputy Prime Minister at a Conference called “Countdown to Kyoto” in August 1997. The conference was organised by American anti-climate activists keen to have diplomatic allies for the battle ahead. Fischer did not deny climate change, but instead said that the “challenge is to reconcile economic and political realities with the environmental reality of global warming.”

It’s a challenge the Nationals have yet to rise to. In 2006, Barnaby Joyce, then a relatively new Senator, could not – or would not – join the dots, saying of the Millennium Drought

The drought really has to be seen to be believed. It’s a case of creeks that haven’t run for months, sometimes years, (and) bores that are going dry. There is a real concern amongst a lot that maybe there is a final change in the climate. That’s really starting to worry people.

Two years later, Joyce was hard at work trying to tear down Kevin Rudd’s notorious “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme”, warning that it would result in “hundred dollar Sunday roasts”. In 2010, in his maiden speech, McCormack said

When it does not rain for years on end, it does not mean it will not rain again. It does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly.

The National Party has basically been in lockstep with the Liberals since then, deriding concerns about climate crisis and casting those who would take action as – in the words of McCormack – condemning pensioners to awful fates.

Why is it so?

The proximate cause may well be that the Nationals are fearful of haemorrhaging more votes to the Pauline Hansen One Nation Party,

with its adamantine resistance to any climate action. But there is a deeper trend that must be seen at play. The Nationals, whether the party of farmers or the party of miners (the issues of coal-seam gas and approval for new coal mines have brought that tension into sharper focus over the last decade) are indisputably a party of extractivism – the ideology that there are no limits on what can be taken out of the soil and sold for profit. The hatred of those who say that there are limits is long-rooted in Australian thinking.

As I wrote here

People who speak of limits are inevitably attacked. One good example is Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), an Australian scientist who fell foul of the boosters who believed the country could and should support up to 500 million people.

Having seen his textbook banned in Western Australia for using the words “arid” and “desert”, Taylor set sail for the United States. At his farewell banquet at University of Sydney, he reinterpreted its motto Sidere mens eadem mutate (“The same spirit under a different sky”), as “Though the heavens fall I am of the same mind as my great-great-grandfather!”

Last year Farmers for Climate Action tried to force the issue of climate change onto the agenda around the Nationals leadership contest. This year, Independent candidates are standing in a variety of regional seats with explicitly pro-climate action stances.

It may be that thirty years of denial is not, well, sustainable.

Marc Hudson recently defended his PhD thesis at the University of Manchester. It was on the “enacted inertia” of Australian carbon pricing politics 1989-2011.

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