Byron Shire is something of a Green-Left enclave surrounded by a conservative heartland dominated by the National Party.
As a result it can adopt a defensive, even embattled posture, and when it does have a chance to celebrate, as in the annual Writers Festival, it tends to flaunt its wares.
And thus last weekend, when the secular saints and their disciples were assembled, there was not doubt about who was the potential messiah. Julia Gillard could hardly have received more rapturous applause if she had been reincarnated as Joan of Arc, walking free from the flames to proclaim the dawn of a new and better world.
But for every heroine there has to be villain, and the organisers cast this role for one of the demon princes of the evil empire commanded by the arch fiend, Rupert Murdoch. The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, turned out to be a disarmingly personable hate figure, considered and even moderate in his views and surprisingly reasonable (if not entirely convincing) in his rejection of the proposed referendum on Aboriginal recognition in the constitution.
His massed opponents found themselves somewhat bewildered; where was the uncompromising right wing zealot they saw in their daily record of sneering and disdain? But they were somewhat reassured when he moved to defend his best friend Tony Abbott; the chorus of relief and derision swiftly restored the status quo.
The prime minister, said Sheridan, was deeply misunderstood; he was really a thoroughly nice man, not at all the like the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, the hyper aggressive potential murderer (yes, he did acknowledge the description) that he was portrayed. The real Tony Abbott was actually a romantic: kind not only to dogs and children but to the waifs and strays who crossed his path, by whom Sheridan presumably meant some of the less than impressive ministers he had selected to run his dysfunctional administration. Excessive loyalty was his problem, his single weakness; hence the Bronwyn Bishop fiasco.
Well, that is all very well, but it still does not make him a romantic, a descendant of William Wordsworth and John Keats: Abbott is far more at home to the stentorian, repetitious slogan than the well-crafted ode. But there is one area where he can wax positively lyrical: his continued paean to his love of fossilised carbon.
Coal, Abbott sings, is good for humanity; not only that, the decision of the Federal Court to block the Adani project would not only be disastrous for Australia – it would be tragic for the world. Tragic: apparently more so than the anniversary of the battle of Lone Pine, or even more importantly (from the media’s point of view, at least) the collapse of the Australian cricket team at Trent Bridge.
Abbott is not the first to get metaphysical about an aspect of the energy debate: it was Kevin Rudd who announced (temporarily) that climate change was the greatest moral challenge of the times. But Abbott’s ongoing love affair with the black and brown stuff, at the expense of the solar alternatives who wants to scale down, let alone the windmills at which he tilts, suggests that his passion is not simply perverse, but positively deviant.
The rest of the world is pushing on with renewables, and the Australian public is besotted with them; not only has the take up of roof top solar exceeded all expectations, but the latest survey from the Climate Institute shows that support for action on climate change is up to 63 per cent, and more than 70 per cent want the government to move to renewables.
And when it comes to the case of Adani, Abbott’s infatuation has blinded him from reality – the sign of a true romantic. Abbott apparently believes that the arrival of Australian coal will suddenly liberate the power-hungry masses of India from their needs. But as the former Indian Secretary for Power, Eas Sarma, somewhat acerbically pointed out, the problem is that many of the hundreds of millions of his citizens are not connected to the grid system, and because of their remoteness, are not likely to be.
Coal is never going to be an option, and even if it were, Indonesian coal would be much cheaper than the product of the Galilee Basin. Far more practical, and economic will be renewables, especially solar. Adani is not even considering their needs – it is interested not in public welfare but in profits, and given that demand, and therefore prices, are falling, the Carmichael project has already been getting very iffy indeed.
The Commonwealth Bank’s withdrawal of funding may have coincided with the Federal Court decision, but it was obviously moving through the bank’s balance sheets long before then. It is probably too soon to start talking about Adani pulling out altogether, but it must be a very real possibility. And if it does, Abbott will have a real tragedy of his hands – at least a political humiliation of the kind he can least afford right at the moment.
He will, of course, blame the Greens, the courts, the banks – anyone but the hard economic facts. And it is in this context that he and his government will have to confront the Paris conference having belatedly put its card on the table and told the world just how serious it is about climate change.
Abbott says that he is: the emissions reduction target of 26 per cent by 2030 strong and responsible, but not at the expense of jobs and prosperity – by which, of course, he means coal. This is, once more, a romantic fantasy: that action on climate change can be all but free, and that the real bottom line that business as usual must go on forever. It is a delusion that most of the world – although, apparently, not most of his party room – has long since grown out of.
But Abbott still clings on to the comforting myths of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Magic Pudding of endless coal. He may yet wake up, but obviously Greg Sheridan has given up hope: Abbott is, and will remain, an incurable romantic – an endearing, even loveable feature in a friend, but not, as Sheridan reluctantly admits, a sensible one in a Prime Minister. Not even in Byron.