The breath-taking incompetence of the Coalition government – and the Morrison chapter in particular – makes it difficult to be sure of attributing its assumed yet stunning loss of the seat of Wentworth on one particular issue.
There are so many to choose from: the ditching of the local member as prime minister; policies on climate, energy, refugees and gender; the thick-as-a-brick vote for white supremacy slogans in the Senate; and the sheer desperation of its shift on crucial foreign policy.
But what we do know is this – for the second time in as many months, a long-standing Coalition seat has been lost to an independent candidate campaigning strongly on climate change and energy.
Just over a month ago, the Liberals lost the blue-ribbon NSW state seat of Wagga Wagga for the first time since 1957 to an independent candidate called Joe McGirr – a medical doctor who puts climate change firmly at the top of his political agenda.
On Saturday, the Liberals lost, for the first time ever, the federal seat of Wentworth, to an independent candidate called Kerryn Phelps – another medical doctor who puts climate change firmly at the top of her political agenda.
Are we now turning to the medical profession to address Australia’s most terrible affliction – the failure to agree to a credible policy for climate change and energy? It’s hard to know, but one thing seems certain: As devastating a blow as this is, the Coalition has lost its mind on climate and energy, and this result is not going to change it.
There’s no doubt that Phelps tapped into the anger and frustration over the removal of Turnbull, as well as policies on refugees, gender, race, and climate change and energy.
Mostly, however, her win was a vote against stupidity, of the kind that sees its leader brandish a lump of coal in parliament and attack the science that underpins the call to action on climate and energy.
It also shows that the Coalition has lost the sensible centre, and has no idea about how to regain it. Trent Zimmerman, the Liberal who took over the seat of North Sydney from former treasurer Joe “I don’t like wind turbines” Hockey, conceded that the party needed to do more on climate change.
Former environment and energy minister, and now Treasurer, deputy Liberal leader and heir apparent Josh Frydenberg, knocked that idea on the head pretty quickly.
“The government has a settled policy on that, but we will not reduce emissions at the expense of people’s power bills,” he said on Sky News, and in a press conference with journalists.
Remember, this is a party that turfed out the leader Malcolm Turnbull, who had sworn never to lead a party that did not take climate change seriously, but did.
It is a party whose Far Right candidate to replace him, Peter Dutton, was defeated by a man who waved that lump of coal around parliament and who dismissed the recent IPCC report on climate change as nothing to do with Australia.
The “sensible centre” that some hoped would emerge under the leadership of Turnbull has long been eviscerated. For the likes of Alex Turnbull, the former local member’s son, this is an opportunity for the Liberals to renew themselves.
“A great day for democracy”, he Tweeted, before adding that it was a sign that progressives were learning to vote strategically, and then retweeting a Get Up promise that the next focus will be on Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah.
Jane Caro, another woman who puts climate change at the top of her agenda has indicated she may just run in that race. It may be that it will take success at that level, and complete obliteration at the next election, for the right wing of the party to think other than this is merely proof that policies have gone too far left.
They are already calling on the “next generation” of Far Right MPs – the likes of James Patterson and Tim Wilson, formerly of the Gina Rinehart-backed Institute of Public Affairs, and the frightening Andrew Hastie, the new Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones pin-up boy – to lead the party to a new era of pig ignorance and intransigence on climate and coal.
Given the sheer idiocy of what is written on the subject by the Murdoch media and heard on talk-back radio, it is hard to see how the Coalition can shed the shackles of the Far Right.
Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t prepared to take them on, and one of the most abiding images of this government was the photo of ministers celebrating after finally trashing the carbon price. Note the sheer joy on these ministers’ faces – and most of these were presumed to be moderates.
Morrison has now surrounded himself with an energy minister, Angus Taylor, who is sharp but has spent most of his career campaigning against the very technologies that Phelps says we should adopt – renewables.
The environment minister, Melissa Price, is proving to be hopeless: not across her brief, and completely out of her depth on the floor of parliament.
She hasn’t a clue how Australia is going to reduce its emissions to meet the Paris target and admitted to not even reading the IPCC report that had been sent to the government in final draft form four months earlier, and whose summary had been scrutinised word for word by the team she sent to South Korea for a week-long review.
Price still believes that “clean coal” will emerge some time in the future, in the same way that Morrison’s Pentecostal church believes that only God can change the climate.
Morrison, Frydenberg and others harp on about Australia’s cut in per capita emissions, ignoring that it remains just about the worst in the world, after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while the Murdoch media simply attack the science and pretend Australia is not rich enough to pull its weight.
So, if nothing changes between now and the next election – to be held by mid-May, 2019, after the Victoria and NSW state elections – what’s the chance of progress?
Certainly, the wins of Phelps and McGirr suggest there is a growing appetite for action on climate and energy, and somebody who can put together a credible vision of a clean energy transition has a chance of winning power. The upcoming state elections in Victoria and NSW will give us some more information.
Phelps’s position on climate and energy was that the Coalition was hopeless, and the Labor target of a 45 per cent cut in emissions by 2030, and a 50 per cent share of renewables, was not ambitious enough.
Most people agree, and so do most businesses. There is an opportunity to seize the moment. Who will take it?