Once again, the Liberals find themselves on the wrong side of history

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We’ve seen energy companies talk about coming up with their own measures to reduce carbon emissions because they simply couldn’t wait for government any longer. And we even have federal Labor adopting the Coalition’s discarded policy in the cause, leaving the Coalition to attack a policy it devised.

No doubt this is partly a consequence of environmental reality. We learnt this week that Australia’s carbon emissions are now the highest on record and are on track to fail the Paris accord targets.

It’s in that context the Morrison government is scrubbing its policies clean of any mention of carbon emissions, as though power prices constitute the sole issue in energy policy – hence the states’ campaign to include emissions obligations in the NEG.

But this combination of a climate crisis and a policy vacuum has been clear for some time. What’s changed is the preparedness even of Coalition state governments to ridicule the Morrison government’s obstinacy on climate change.

I suspect this is the unexpected legacy of Turnbull’s political execution. Obviously, that has been a monumental political disaster for the federal Coalition, but we’re now seeing how the event has changed the policy landscape, too.

In that moment the federal Coalition seems to have shed its credibility – its very seriousness as a party. That, in turn, has finally discredited a series of policy positions associated with it.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

The Coalition didn’t just lose Wentworth before being crushed at state level in Victoria. It lost the elections because anger at Turnbull’s treatment became a starting point for expressing a broader disillusionment with specific policies: asylum seeker policy to some extent, but especially climate change.

Recall that in the Victorian election the Coalition lost the seat of Mildura to an independent who campaigned on climate policy. That seat sits within the federal seat of Mallee, which will soon be vacated by Andrew Broad thanks to his “sugar daddy” scandal. You’d have to think it’s a chance of being lost.

In this way, Turnbull’s dethroning is different from Rudd’s or Gillard’s. Rudd’s left the electorate shocked and confused, but not angry at Labor’s policy platform.

It’s true Abbott savaged Gillard’s prime ministership thanks mostly to her carbon tax, but the great offence there seems not to have been the carbon tax itself, so much as the fact it was such a glaring violation of an election-eve promise.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

Abbott’s genius was to use this to make the whole of Gillard’s government illegitimate because it was founded on a lie. It meant her leadership was quickly terminal and the electorate was eager to consign Labor to history.

But instructively, most of Gillard’s policy vision remains in place and is modestly popular: the NBN, the NDIS, even the broad notion of her Gonski education funding.

But where Rudd and Gillard came to represent a mix of dishonesty and dysfunction that rendered Labor an unelectable party, Turnbull’s demise seems to symbolise the illegitimacy of a worldview.

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Perhaps it was that, unlike in Labor’s case, power wasn’t being handed to a known, more popular quantity, but to someone who, for all the electorate knew, might as well have been chosen arbitrarily. That it had nothing to do even with the government’s own political interests (much less the public interest) made it seem like an entirely self-absorbed, self-gratifying game, divorced from any grander cause, or any reason.

It’s as though this finally crystallised in the electorate’s mind that the game-playing in Canberra that brought us this madness was the very same kind of game-playing that was being applied to important policy matters like climate change.

And if that’s true, it gave the electorate permission to consider whether the Coalition’s ideas might be just as nuts as the leadership spill itself.

The problem for the Coalition is that it has been on the unpopular side of so many debates now – same-sex marriage, the banking royal commission, renewable energy – that once people gave themselves permission to find the Coalition a bit weird, the dominoes could fall very quickly. And once that disdain showed up in hard election data, the rest of the political class had permission to reach a similar conclusion.

The end result of all this, if federal Labor wins the next election, might be that the Coalition has accidentally made Labor’s task on climate policy substantially easier because it would inherit something like a consensus position of the Coalition’s own making.

Ironies don’t come much richer than that.

Waleed Aly is a regular columnist and a presenter on The Project.

Waleed Aly is co-host of Ten’s The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University. He writes fortnightly for Fairfax.

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