Is disunity in politics really death any more? I'm not so sure given the rolling climate conflict

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

I’ll get to the divisions on coal and climate afflicting both of the major parties shortly, but before we arrive there I want to ask a bigger question about disunity, one I’ve been carrying around with me since election night last year. Forgive this indulgence, I need to get this off my chest.

Politics watchers will know that prime ministers and opposition leaders intone with all the sobriety of an undertaker that “disunity is death”. People in my line of work tend to amplify that line dutifully, not because we are ciphers, but because it appeared to be true – one of those truisms so true it required no rebuttal.

But now, I’m not so sure, because Australian voters last year re-elected a government that had burned through three prime ministers in only two terms. Rather than harbouring a grudge about political instability being out and proud, a majority of voters looked past the cycles of revenge tragedy perpetrated in full public view.

Now, perhaps the result last May isn’t any kind of step change in our country.

Related: Labor denies breakaway pro-coal group points to division on climate policy

Voters did toss out the Rudd/Gillard Labor government, the folks who pioneered the art of civil war at taxpayer expense. There was punishment for that self-indulgent behaviour, only a few years back. So perhaps 2019 is just the conservative centre of gravity in Australian politics asserting itself.

But I do wonder whether that May result has revealed something other than the “come to Daddy because Labor will spend all your money” default in our polity. I wonder whether we are now so saturated in conflict that people in politics trying to take one another out just seems normal.

Technology has pushed us into tribes. Our shared reality, rather than being a commons, is increasingly animated by fealty rather than agreed facts and a spirit of inquiry. Conflict has become the pulse and the respiration of our harried and hyperconnected lives.

So perhaps, without us noticing, Australia, like some other democracies, has been picked up and set down in a different place, a place where disunity, rather than “death”, has become what is expected in public life.

I think it is at least possible that collective expectations have bent to that new normal.

Another quick observation before we move on. Disunity also furnishes spectacle, which is addictive. On the day Barnaby Joyce – with all the swaggering self-confidence a mediocre, middle-aged white bloke can deploy without having to be asked – attempted to unseat Michael McCormack on the first day of parliament for 2020, I was on a plane to Sydney.

I have to be honest with you: I struggle to be gripped by Joyce versus McCormack. This pitched battle of the under-performers feels entirely low stakes, and particularly nasty, shitty and petty. I’m impatient with it because there are so many important things drifting now, obscured in the cacophony of legends in their own lunchboxes asking radio hosts when was the last time they had a nookie.

But my fellow passengers were gripped. The moment the plane landed, everyone was on their phone and a person across the aisle reported reasonably loudly: “It’s McCormack!” in the expectation that other passengers would need to know the result of the leadership spill. Brief analytical murmuring ensued.

Now perhaps these were public servants dreading the return of Joyce, or hoping Joyce would rise from the ashes because they are frustrated with McCormack. Perhaps this wasn’t a representative sample. But if it was, it suggests our collective expectations are well on the way to being rewired.

So I’m just asking, because this is an itch I need to scratch. Is disunity in politics really death any more, or is it now the core of the enterprise?

Now, let’s drill down and look at climate and coal, where disunity and conflict is absolutely the core of the enterprise.

After Tony Abbott chose to weaponise climate change to win an election he would likely have won anyway, the whole debate has become toxic.

Related: 'Good' climate policy can no longer be our goal. It's time to reach for perfect | Greg Jericho

We are used to the Coalition and Labor slugging it out on the national stage, with the Coalition pretending nothing has to change, and Labor proposing a succession of policies and mechanisms to reduce emissions. But now the national schism, manufactured for partisan advantage, is creating subsidiary fractures.

There are faultlines destabilising the major parties. Obviously this phenomenon isn’t brand new. The Liberal party has nursed a rolling internal struggle for more than a decade, with the naysayers winning the majority of rounds, including the most recent battle over the national energy guarantee. Liberals, both inside and outside the cabinet, are beginning to test their voices post-election, but some Nationals will oppose progress to the death.

Labor, post-election, is wafting into this territory. The New South Wales rightwinger Joel Fitzgibbon wondered, out loud, earlier this year, how many more elections Labor was prepared to lose by arguing for ambitious climate action. “How many times are we going to let it kill us?” the shadow frontbencher mused. “Indeed, how many leaders do we want to lose to it?”

While a majority of Labor MPs believe the party should hold the line on climate action, some in the right faction are arguing the courtship of Labor’s traditional base by their political opponents, and by populist insurgents – the weaponisation of the climate debate in regional and outer suburban areas – is now so effective that it will require a defibrillator to break that cycle.

I think the “let’s step back from climate action” brigade is a minority group, but in the disunity complex we are mulling this weekend, small groups can wield disproportionate influence.

Current indications suggest Labor will be able to hold it together sufficiently to articulate broad climate policy principles without much of a bunfight, and some of those early principles are expected soon.

But there will be a bunfight once the party attempts to set a medium-term target for emissions reduction for this term. That’s where things are likely to get ugly. Some will want to avoid that fight by keeping Labor’s offering bigger picture.

If you were a political scientist, you might wonder, looking at all this, whether we are standing on the brink of a fundamental realignment. The vote of the major parties is declining, the governing class is stuck in a phase of rolling conflict rather than consensus building and, when it comes to climate, some of the internal differences within the major parties look irreconcilable. You might wonder how this holds together given the stress fractures are on full public display.

Scott Morrison is holding his fractious political Coalition together by trying to be all things to all people: a prime minister who is reducing emissions (even though emissions are flat because the Coalition dismantled policies that were reducing pollution), who loves solar panels (even though the Coalition went to war with renewables during its first term in office) and who isn’t scared to support coal plants and coal workers (even though Morrison is periodically scared enough to not be able to utter the word).

There will be pressure on Anthony Albanese to go Morrison lite.

But outside the universe of endless psychodrama and dissembling stands an obvious pivot point: the commitments Australia intends to make to 2050.

Leadership would be Morrison telling the truth: that by signing up to the Paris agreement, a decision his government made, Australia has already signed on to a net zero objective. He could stop pretending, to George Christensen, and everybody else, that this is moot. Instead of giving coal workers false comfort, he could give them a plan for the future.

Instead of glowering across the dispatch box at Albanese, and pretending that only his opponent has a problem with climate action, Morrison could acknowledge that until the Coalition stops lying and starts leading, we all have a problem.