In 2010 when I was still trying to form a single-issue centrist climate party (the Global Warming Action Party Australia) Malcolm Turnbull, recently deposed as opposition leader by Tony Abbott and the climate denialist faction of the Liberal Party, was contemplating abandoning federal politics altogether. I wrote to him then suggesting that instead of resigning from parliament, he resign only from the Liberal Party and then form a centrist (or even slightly right of centre) climate party*.
Malcolm’s refusal (he actually suggested I abandon my quest and join the Liberals) and change of heart leads us to one of those ‘what if’ moments in history. If, when Prime Minister, Malcolm had faced down the extreme right of his party over climate, causing, at worst, a monumental split in the ranks of the conservatives. After all, on the climate question, the Liberal Party has been, and continues to be, a split waiting to happen.
Now retired, Turnbull’s recent political autobiography explains in part what has been obvious to any serious political analyst for the last 15 years –that the LNP remains hopelessly factionalised and has a powerful rump of climate change deniers in its ranks. In an interview with Turnbull for the Sydney Writers Festival Annabelle Crabbe noted: “He argues that the “crazed ideology” dictating the Liberal Party’s policy on climate could now only be altered by a crushing electoral defeat, or an about-face on the issue from media magnate Rupert Murdoch**.”
“It’s basically just Australia and the United States above all where this issue of climate policy has been turned into an issue of belief,” the nation’s 29th prime minister says in the interview. “And it’s bonkers.” Turnbull is frank about the solution: “To be honest with you, I think the only way out of it — unless you believe the Coalition can have a road-to-Damascus conversion which I think is unlikely — is a devastating electoral defeat. I’m not saying I want that to happen… that is what would shock the Coalition.”
The Liberal Party remains captive to the fossil fuel lobby – in particular big coal. But it is not too late for Malcolm to put his moral, political and financial support behind a new climate party. There are a number of options available, including party minnows like the Independents for Climate Action Now, but he may choose to start afresh. Such a new party would help bring about the massive defeat of the conservatives that Malcolm suggests is necessary for meaningful climate action to occur. The real climate elections are yet to come.
*a sitting member of parliament can form a political party with only 30 members