Courage Under Fires

As a warming world waits to see if new Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull demonstrates the climate leadership that his predecessor, Tony Abbott, absolutely refused to, perhaps it’s time a true leader on this issue finally receives the respect she so richly deserves.

In June 2010, Julia Gillard shattered Australia’s glass ceiling by becoming her country’s first female prime minister. Now leading a country on the front lines of the climate crisis, Gillard introduced a bold proposal to reduce carbon pollution in the summer of 2011. The carbon-pricing bill was passed by Australia’s parliament in the fall of 2011, and went into effect in the summer of 2012.

For her courage on climate, Gillard found herself in the crosshairs of Australia’s most powerful polluter. She also found herself in the crosshairs of Rupert Murdoch:

It would be tedious and should be unnecessary to detail the remorseless hostility the Murdoch press showed towards the Gillard government. Let one piece of solid research suffice. On 24 February 2011, Gillard announced her government’s intention to legislate for a price on carbon emissions. On 10 July 2011, she announced the details of what was called the “Clean Energy Future” package. A team at the University of Technology, Sydney, led by Wendy Bacon, analysed the climate policy coverage of the major Australian newspapers between these dates. Once neutral articles were eliminated, it turned out that 89% of the articles in the Daily Telegraph, 85% in the Herald Sun, 84% in the Courier-Mail, 83% in the Australian, 69% in the Advertiser and 62% in the Mercury were negative. By comparison, 53% of the stories in the Sydney Morning Herald were negative and 33% in the Age. The hostility of the Murdoch press opinion columnists was even more pronounced. Ninety-six percent of the columns in the Herald Sun were negative, 89% in the Courier-Mail, 85% in both the Australian and Daily Telegraph, 79% in the Advertiser but only 58% in the Mercury. Perhaps this was in part because this was the last Murdoch tabloid that remained Andrew Bolt-free. The Bacon team counted the climate policy words of different journalists and opinion columnists during these months. Bolt contributed an astonishing 33,906, though he was surpassed by Terry McCrann, who contributed 36,887.

Even though overall coverage of climate policy in the Australian was several times greater than in any of the tabloids, their most prolific climate policy journalist, Dennis Shanahan, contributed only half as many words as his two across-the-tabloid Murdoch colleagues. Nor was the hostility to the Gillard government climate-change policy of the Murdoch tabloids insignificant. During these months, the question of the carbon price became the central issue in Australian politics. And it was during these months that the popularity of the Gillard government collapsed, with first preferences for the government – for the first time in federal politics since opinion polls were conducted – commonly falling below 30%.

In addition to fighting off hostility from the Murdoch press, Gillard also had to deal with an onslaught of sexist attacks from Opposition Leader (and, sadly, future Prime Minister) Tony Abbott–attacks she responded to, firmly and forcefully, in a stirring October 2012 speech that attracted international attention.

Sadly, the aggressive demonization of Gillard by misogynists, the fossil-fuel industry and the Murdoch press was successful; suffering from a decline in popularity, Gillard lost her position as Prime Minister in June 2013. Her replacement, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, was himself defeated by Abbott in Australia’s September 2013 federal elections; less than a year later, Abbott successfully led an effort to abandon carbon pricing, thus benefiting the polluters who are cooking the country.

Gillard has now retired from politics, but her legacy as a fighter and leader for climate action will always be remembered. She set a proud and bold example, and taught the world the importance of standing up for what is right despite being attacked by those committed to doing wrong.

Will Malcolm Turnbull demonstrate similar courage? The world will know soon enough.

UPDATE: More from Peter Dykstra and Graham Readfearn.

SECOND UPDATE: More from Graham Readfearn and Mark Butler.

THIRD UPDATE: From Kalie Daniels.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.