Style over Substance

A month has passed since Australia witnessed its third leadership spill since 2010. The media’s excitement has peaked, political commentators are taking a breath: the dust is settling. Now comes the stage where we get a clearer picture of what the differences between a Turnbull and Abbott government are.

However, those who are excited for major changes might be disappointed. The substance of many government policies may very well stay the same. This is clearer more than anywhere in Australian climate change policy, where the ghosts of Abbott’s worn-out yet undeniably successful “axe the tax” slogan continue to haunt Turnbull amongst many others.

Internal factions and party politics within the coalition have made it clear that part of the job description included being a better team player than Captain Tony. However, part of this commitment is maintaining Abbott’s controversial “Direct Action Plan”, despite Turnbull being a known supporter of market-based mechanisms for reducing carbon emissions. And so Turnbull has been caught in a tricky position – one in which he faces either pursuing a policy which he doesn’t believe will work, or compromising the essential support of large sects of his party.

It’s a tricky position, one that doesn’t look promising for those hoping Turnbull would bring a new wave of optimism for the sustainable agenda in Australia. Yet our new PM still has some wiggle room. Like I said previously, the substance of government might very well stay the same. However, Abbott’s era was not one defined by substance, but rather a particular style that affected Australian politics in its own right. And his style is exactly where Turnbull can and has sought to distance himself from his predecessor.

The recent shooting in Parramatta of a police worker by a fifteen year old boy, who has been linked to Islamic radicalism, was followed by a markedly different government rhetoric in response. Previously government responses almost solely consisted of criticising the “death-cult” ISIS, unless Abbott wanted to offload some blame onto the Australian Islamic community for apparently not doing enough to combat extremism. In contrast, Turnbull’s reaction to the shooting was far more sophisticated, explicitly distancing the Muslim community from any blame. It was a reaction symbolic of a moderated approach, which is badly needed in an issue as complex as radicalisation.

A similar change is possible in environmental politics. Given Abbott’s performance – discouraging investment in renewable energy and appointing climate change skeptics to important government positions – a change itself should not be difficult. Yet for Turnbull to positively affect the progress of the environmental agenda in Australia, he must take full advantage of every opportunity available. Domestically, this means displaying a positive and consistent public stance towards renewable energy, which will in turn give business and investors the confidence to put their money towards environmentally friendly initiatives.

Internationally, Turnbull must ensure that Australia makes a possible contribution to the Paris climate conference later this year, where the international community will have their latest attempt at agreeing on an multilateral carbon emission reduction scheme. An agreement there would perhaps even give Turnbull the political momentum necessary for a domestic change to climate change policy.

For the moment, the substance of Australian climate change policy is not going to change. But a change in style can change the politics of the environmental debate. And this in itself is far better than what we could hope for two months ago.