Malcolm Turnbull on Murdoch, lies and the climate crisis: ‘The same forces that enabled Trump are at work in Australia’

The United States has suffered the largest number of Covid-19 deaths: about 600,000 at the time of writing. The same political and media players who deny the reality of global warming also denied and politicised the Covid-19 virus.

To his credit, Donald Trump poured billions into Operation Warp Speed, which assisted the development of vaccines in a timeframe that matched the program’s ambitious title. But he also downplayed the gravity of Covid-19, then peddled quack therapies and mocked cities that mandated social distancing and mask wearing.

Trump’s catastrophic management of the pandemic resulted in election defeat in November 2020. It says a lot about the insanity of America’s political discourse that the then presidential nominee Joe Biden had to say, again and again: “Mask wearing is not a political statement.”

From our relative safety and sanity, Australians looked to America with increasing horror. If the Covid-19 disaster was not enough, the callous police murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 ignited a wave of outraged protest against racism in the US and around the world. And then events took another sinister turn.

Anticipating defeat, Trump had been busy claiming the election would be rigged by the Democrats. He predicted widespread voter fraud, setting himself up for an “I wuz robbed” case if the result went against him. He had done the same in 2016.

As it happened, Biden won convincingly. Trump and the Republican party launched more than 60 legal challenges to the result. Their failure did not stop the misinformation campaign.

Relentlessly, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the rest of the rightwing media claque claimed Biden had stolen the election. A protest march was scheduled in Washington for 6 January 2021, the day Congress was scheduled to formally count the electoral college votes and confirm Biden’s win. The protest was expressly designed to pressure Congress, and especially the then vice-president, Mike Pence, to overthrow the decision of the people and declare Trump re-elected.

They assembled in their thousands. Trump wound them up with a typically inflammatory address, culminating in a call to march on the Capitol. The mob proceeded to besiege and break into the home of US democracy. They surged through the corridors, threatening to hang Pence and the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Several security guards were killed, as was one of the insurgents. Luckily, none of the legislators were found by the mob, although several appeared to have encouraged them in the lead-up to the assault.

It was nothing less than an attempted coup, promoted and encouraged by the president himself and his media allies like Murdoch who, through Fox News, has probably done more damage to US democracy than any other individual.

Vladimir Putin’s disinformation campaigns have sought to exacerbate divisions in western democracies and undermine popular trust in their institutions. By creating and exploiting a market for crazy conspiracy theories untethered from the facts, let alone science, Murdoch has done Putin’s work – better than any Russian intelligence agency could ever imagine possible.

That is why I supported the former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s call for a royal commission into the Murdoch media, which does not operate like a conventional news organisation but rather like a political party, pushing its own agendas, running vendettas against its critics and covering up for its friends.

In April I reinforced these points in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter, as I had to the Australian Senate’s inquiry into media diversity. Of all the endorsements, none was more significant than that of James Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence, who said Fox News was “a megaphone for conspiracies and falsehoods”.

We have to face the uncomfortable fact that the systematic partisan lying and misinformation from the media, both mainstream and social – what Clapper calls the “truth deficit” – has done enormous damage to liberal democracies, and none more so than the US itself. Thanks to this relentless diet of lies, a quarter of all Americans and 56% of Republicans believe Trump is the true president today.

Biden is leading a more traditional and rational administration. The friends and allies Trump had outraged around the world are breathing a sigh of relief. The US has rejoined the Paris agreement on climate change and Biden is seeking to lead the world with deeper, faster cuts to emissions.

But the same forces that amplified and enabled Trump are still at work in the US and here in Australia. In April the Murdoch press bullied the New South Wales government into reversing its decision to appoint me chairman of a committee to advise on the transition to a net zero emission economy. My “crime” was to not support the continued, unconstrained expansion of open-cut coalmining in the Hunter Valley. In the crazed, rightwing media echo chamber so influential with many Liberal and National party members, the primary qualification to advise on net zero emissions is, apparently, unqualified support for coalmining.

As though we hadn’t had enough demonstration of the Murdochs’ vendetta tactics, right on cue on 2 May Sky News Australia broadcast a “documentary” designed to disparage me and Rudd as being, in effect, political twins separated at birth. As a job, I am told it gave hatchets a bad name. But the message was clear to anyone inclined to hold Murdoch to account: step out of line and you will be next.

And while politicians are accountable, the Murdochs are not. Their abuse of power has been so shameful that James Murdoch has resigned from the company. His brother, Lachlan, however, is thoroughly in charge and apparently more rightwing than his father. Yet he has chosen to move back to Australia with his family, fleeing the hatreds and divisions of America that he and his father have done so much to exacerbate.

As bushfires raged in the summer of 2019-20 I hoped that this red-raw reality of global warming would end the crazy, politicised climate wars in Australia. Well, it didn’t. The onset of the pandemic served to distract everyone, although the irony of following the virus science while ignoring the climate science seems to have been lost on too many members of the Australian government.

Australia is more out of step with its friends and allies than it has ever been. All of our closest friends – the US, the UK, the EU, Japan and New Zealand – are now committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

On 18 May the International Energy Agency released a new report on how the world can, and must, reach net zero.For the first time this expert agency, always regarded as sympathetic to the oil and gas sectors, demanded that investment in new oil, gas and coal projects cease and that we make a rapid shift to renewables and storage. They described how this would enable us to have more, and cheaper, electricity.

To coincide with this report (of which the Australian government had full prior notice), Scott Morrison chose to announce that his government would invest $600m to build a new gas-fired power station in the Hunter Valley. The energy sector, the regulators, the NSW government and other experts were united in saying the power station was not needed – $600m wasted. To the rest of the world, increasingly puzzled by Australia’s fossil-fuel fetish, it must have looked like a calculated “fuck you” to the global consensus demanding climate action.

To those concerned about the lack of leadership on climate, Morrison says his five predecessors all lost their job, one way or another, because of climate policy. He is determined not to let the right wing of the Coalition do to him what it did to me. Before June he would point to the instability in the National party and warn how a shift on climate could trigger a party room revolt, led by Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and others, to overthrow Michael McCormack. That has now happened, and Joyce made his case for change on the basis of McCormack not doing more to oppose Morrison’s edging towards a net zero commitment.

So Morrison is determined not to lead on climate; he wants business and other governments to take the lead and for events to take their course so that the transition to zero emissions happens without any discernible action from the Australian government at all. In the meantime he will continue to use support for coal as a totemic issue to rally working-class voters in mining areas.

Scott is long on tactics and very short on strategy. With climate, he underlines my biggest concern about his government: that it will be successful at winning elections but do little in office. And with Barnaby back as deputy prime minister, he has another excuse to do nothing.

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