The Wall Street Journal
By Tom Switzer
Five short years ago, Australian media thought that the center-right Liberal Party was crazy to oppose a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. "Unless the climate change dissidents are brought to heel," wrote one supposed expert, "the Liberals face humiliation at the polls." Conservatives, warned another commentator, "are on a political suicide mission."
How wrong they were. Yesterday, the Liberal government of conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott scored a crucial victory with the abolition of the widely detested carbon tax. The extraordinary and fascinating odyssey down under holds lessons for the rest of the world.
Historians will probably look back at 2006–09 as the time when the climate hysteria reached its peak in Australia. Those were the days when Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called man-made global warming "the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time." Even though average temperatures had barely changed in recent times, we were told that we were headed for environmental catastrophe and that only drastic changes to our way of life could prevent it. Anyone who disagreed was treated with shock and derision.
With his poll numbers in the doldrums, opposition leader and Liberal Party chief Malcolm Turnbull — an Australian Mitt Romney without any conservative instincts — looked like a doctor who had observed the ailment but misdiagnosed it. Echoing his media mates, Mr. Turnbull warned that opposition to Labor's cap-and-trade bills would annihilate Liberals at the ballot box, so he fell over himself to accommodate Mr. Rudd at every turn.
In late 2009, Mr. Abbott challenged this cozy consensus, defeated Mr. Turnbull for his party's leadership and ended bipartisan support for the climate bills. Cap-and-trade, he argued, amounted to "a great big tax to create a big slush fund to provide politicized handouts, run by a giant bureaucracy." He supported simpler, cheaper and more practical ways of creating a cleaner environment, and suddenly most Australians realized that the costs of decarbonizing the economy outweighed the benefits.
When the rest of the world refused to endorse the climate enthusiasts' unrealistic expectations at Copenhagen, Mr. Rudd imploded. Almost overnight, his stratospheric poll figures fell. The experts who a few months earlier had predicted electoral oblivion for the Liberals were forced to recognize Mr. Abbott's strong position.
Soon elections were approaching and Mr. Rudd was axed in a June 2010 internal party coup. Panicked Labor members installed Julia Gillard, who then won votes in the August 2010 national election by promising not to enact a carbon tax. Still, the first-term government lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in nearly 80 years.
After Labor joined with Green Party legislators to create a minority government, Ms. Gillard went about legislating the very carbon tax she pledged not to introduce (at 23 Australian dollars price per ton). Climate enthusiasts admired her for breaking her word, but it was a dangerous backflip that would be her undoing.
Mounting mistrust in Ms. Gillard's authority led Labor to reinstate Mr. Rudd. Back in office for only two months, he pretended that he would scrap the hugely unpopular carbon tax, again as a ploy to win votes. But middle Australia, not to be fooled again, chose his opponent in a landslide last September. With a new Senate in place this month, the scene was set to repeal one of the most unpopular laws in recent times—as senators did on Thursday.
The lesson here is that voters are not easily deceived when political leaders try to conceal the costs of their environmental ambitions. Nor do emissions restrictions grow more popular the more politicians try to sell them.
Again and again, Australians have shown their distaste for carbon taxes and emissions-trading schemes, especially in the absence of a legally binding global deal. When sophisticates try to shut down debate, it amounts to an attack on the public interest.
Another lesson: Successful politicians are not afraid to challenge a stifling political consensus. When global warming alarmism was dominant in 2009, Mr. Abbott had the nerve and conviction to stand against the religious fervor of carbon pricing. He has now been able to pioneer a new climate policy that has transformed Australian politics.
American Democrats, who are pushing their own carbon-regulation scheme, could learn from Australia's experience.
This article was originally published in the The Wall Street Journal