Political weathervane flapping

Tony Abbott will no doubt take great comfort from the words of a woman who attended a gathering of global warming unbelievers addressed by Professor Ian Plimer recently.

According to a news report, as the woman was leaving she was accosted by a sceptical (in the correct sense of the word) journalist, who asked her if she was aware that Plimer’s work had been comprehensively refuted and discredited by his scientific peers. Certainly she was, the woman replied, and added brightly: “We all know Ian Plimer’s a charlatan, but he says the things that we want to hear.”

This would appear to justify Abbott’s political strategy on the way to the next election. Say anything, no matter how implausible, deceitful, irrational or just plain silly, as long as it is what people want to hear – or at least what a fair number of them say they want to hear.

Abbott has cheerfully admitted he is a political weathervane, always ready to swing with the prevailing popular breeze. His supporters say he speaks from the heart, but that is only accurate in that it admits the absence of the brain. His performance last week on the cost of an ETS with a target of 15% ($400 billion?) or 25% (half a trillion? No I didn’t say that. Anyway there’s no modelling. There is? Well I haven’t seen it and anyway it’s out of date and who cares because it’s just a great big tax anyway) showed such a cavalier disregard for the facts that he clearly didn’t expect anyone to believe him. It was simply about appealing to the emotions, and the more selfish and ignorant his audience, the better.

This is also the basis on which he has chosen his shadow cabinet, a group so preposterous that even he must have known that they would not be taken seriously. The idea of Phillip Ruddock, Kevin Andrews and Bronwyn Bishop actually taking control of portfolios at any time in the future is not a credible one. The team is designed for opposition, not government; but even there Abbott is making some pretty hairy assumptions. The gruesome trio are, he claims, fighters, fired up and ready for an all-in political brawl. But are they really? Last week they came across less as seasoned warriors than as mad and grumpy old farts. The only real surprise was not to find Wilson Tuckey in their midst.

And then, of course, there is Barnaby Joyce, the subject of many respectful, if somewhat bemused, profiles over the weekend. The consensus seemed to be that Joyce has emerged as a considerable figure, one of the year’s movers and shakers. It’s certainly true that Joyce has commanded a great deal of media attention in the last 12 months, but very little of it has been complimentary.

Joyce has been generally portrayed as parliament’s resident clown, the undisputed star of the Coalition’s Funniest Home Videos. As such, he is widely appreciated and even admired, but this does not mean that he to be treated as a national authority on anything other than accountancy in the hamlet of St George. He obviously aspires to the role of a jester in the Shakespearean tradition, a wise fool who dares to speak truths too shocking for more sober mortals. But he is more often seen as a vaudevillian taking one prat-fall after another on verbal banana skins that he himself has dropped. He is certainly not the man to make the running in what Abbott anticipates will be the mother of all scare campaigns on climate change.

But then, is Abbott himself? A few weeks ago he described the science as crap, and appeared to go along with Nick Minchin’s idea that it was all a left wing conspiracy to drive us back to the caves. Now, with the headlines coming from Copenhagen proving that just about every other political leader in the world takes it seriously, the weathervane has swung round to the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, there could be something happening, but never mind, if there is we can fix it without actually putting a cost on carbon emissions or on anything else. This trick will be accomplished by lifting building standards, transport standards, offering tax incentives for clean energy, all sorts of really nice things. But won’t these cost money? Well, they won’t cost half a trillion dollars, that’s for sure…

Presumably the script will be refined a bit before the mother of all scare campaigns starts in earnest, but it still sounds pretty unconvincing, especially to Malcolm Turnbull, who can be relied upon to point out its failings to all his highly placed Liberal friends and to anyone else who cares to listen. Apart from the manifest inconsistencies in the message, it is all but impossible to run an effective scare campaign from opposition at any time and the more so when you are a long way behind in the polls and therefore lack anything like the clout of the incumbents.

The members of Abbott’s media cheer squad are making encouraging noises, but even they seem to have their doubts. Words like “desperate” and “last hope” have been replaced by “high risk” but the commentators in The Weekend Australian, while universally supportive, seemed infected by a common strain of pessimism. Not only did they lack enthusiasm for Abbott’s army of has-beens and never-will-bes, apart from the above-mentioned fascination with Barnaby Joyce. None was prepared to offer even a breath of speculation as to what an Abbott government might aspire to in office. Clearly they believe that such an eventuality remains in the realm of fantasy. Fortunately they’re right.

Abbott’s supporters say he speaks from the heart, but that is only accurate in that it admits the absence of the brain.

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