Kate Mackenzie How much support will Australian climate sceptic get?

A leadership showdown among Australia’s parliamentary opposition, prompted by divisions over an emissions trading scheme, has resulted in a very narrow (42 – 41) win for a man known for his scepticism on climate change.

The move surprised many because Tony Abbott, dubbed the ‘mad monk’ by newspapers and websites for his socially conservative views, hasn’t polled well recently compared with the man he succeeded, Malcolm Turnbull, or against fellow leadership contender Joe Hockey. Both have more moderate views on climate change than Abbott and would have allowed the representatives from the Liberal-National coalition to make a “conscience vote” on an ETS, instead of demanding they vote along party lines as is the norm in Australian politics. 

The moves means there’s almost no chance Australia will approve an emissions trading scheme before Copenhagen, as Abbott has vowed to oppose an ETS.

As we said yesterday, this is very much about Australian politics and particularly the conservative opposition; the differences between the social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, and between urban and rural camps, have been carefully exploited by the popular centre-left government. Polls, meanwhile, show that most Australians support an emissions trading scheme (although they are much less supportive of passing it before Copenhagen).

But it’s interesting that this is the issue that brought those differences to the fore; and it’s also noteworthy that Abbott was already trying to distance himself from comments that climate change is ‘absolute crap’. From the FT:

“That was a bit of hyperbole and it was not my most considered opinion,” he said.

“I think that climate change is real and that man does make a contribution.”

Regardless, many commentators are seeing this as an extreme shift to the right for the coalition, and believe the party risks sinking the Liberal-National coalition even further in the polls by tacking sharply to the right.

Economist John Quiggan wrote that the only hope for the Liberals is if Stephen Fielding, a far-right Senator from a minority party, joins with the coalition in  calling for a Senate committee review of the ETS legislation:

That would get the issue off the table and give them some chance of avoiding annihilation, particularly if the economy weakens over 2010. But Fielding prefers the idea of a Royal Commission. If he sticks with this, the Senate will either reject the bill or pass it as the result of a Liberal Party split.

Fielding, incidentally, is very unlikely to be repudiating his own sceptic views any time soon.

Related links:

‘I am humbled: Abbott’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 01/12/09)
‘Extremists’ taking over Liberal party
– ABC News (01/12/09)