Ideology is the enemy when facing our greatest challenges

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher did not view conservatism as incompatible with prioritising environmental outcomes. Picture: Getty Images
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher did not view conservatism as incompatible with prioritising environmental outcomes. Picture: Getty Images

Leadership often requires the ability to go against "type" in charting new courses for nations.

Think "Cold Warrior" Nixon recognising China, Gorbachev with glasnost and perestroika, the Labor Hawke-Keating governments delivering deregulation, or John Howard confronting the gun lobby after Port Arthur.

To this list we might add Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has approached the COVID crisis - to this point at least - on a largely pragmatic and non-partisan basis. For a Treasurer so close to delivering an historic surplus in 2020 (remember "Back in black"?) he made a dramatic fiscal U-turn, flooding the economy with unprecedented amounts of public funds.

The way our Treasurer has gone about his work could be replicated when it comes to another existential threat: climate change.

Given Frydenberg's neoliberal influences, he might be alive to the view of economists that the most effective mechanism with which to manage and reduce emissions is for the market to price them.

If the Treasurer needs encouragement to shift climate policy to a pragmatic basis, he could study one of his self-declared heroes, Margaret Thatcher.

She was the first global leader to alert us to the looming crisis of global warming. She also managed to prosecute an economic dry agenda while having regard for environmental issues.

Thatcher was never much of a fan of coal or inefficient coal mines, but her antipathy for coal reaches further back than Arthur Scargill and the early '80s. Her pragmatic view of the environment goes back to the Great London Smog of 1952, which in a five-day period claimed the lives of over 12,000 Londoners through horrendous respiratory diseases and an overloading of the new NHS system. At the same time, the smog provided cover for one of the UK's most notorious serial killers, John Reginald Christie.

The killing smog was a result of Britain trying to manage its massive post-war debt; it was forced to export high-value quality black coal, while selling domestically inferior brown coal and coal dust in nuggets ("nutty slack"). This was burned in home hearths, and its smoke was trapped by an extraordinary London fog in December 1952 to create a deadly, poisonous, and impenetrable smog.

This freak tragedy gave rise to one of the first examples of environmental legislation - the Clean Air Act of 1956.

Ironicallym that legislation was the ultimate result of the work of a Labour MP, Norman Dodds, who fought the Churchill government to set up a major inquiry headed by industrialist Lord Beaver. Beaver's report was damning - finding clean air was just as crucial in the 20th century as clean water was in the 19th.

In another irony, in the general elections of 1950 and 1951, Dodds had to fight off a strong challenge from a young and vibrant Conservative candidate, one Margaret Roberts - later Margaret Thatcher.

In a sign of a more civil politics, the defeated Thatcher still had plenty of time for Dodds, calling him a "genuine and extremely chivalrous socialist of the old school".


As a chemist, a Londoner and a legislator, Thatcher would not only have lived through the Great Smog of 1952, but witnessed the consequences of the Clean Air Act and all it did to improve quality of life.

Conservatism never had an ideological opposition to protecting the environment, and again Thatcher showed this in her landmark speech to the UN General Assembly in 1989, identifying that all nations would need to act to combat global warming, and industrial nations would need to carry a greater burden.

As Thatcher said: "The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected, and no one can opt out. Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not."

Over 30 years later the challenge has only grown, as the West outsourced emissions pollution to China in particular. Sadly, ideology overtook economics in trying to find the best cost and most effective solution.

COVID-19 forced Josh Frydenberg to acknowledge that ideology was a poor guide during moments of great challenge.

So, a potential future national leader can look to Thatcher to drive the solutions to the longer crisis of climate change. For as even the leading business figure Andrew Liveris recently said, the obvious solution demands a price on carbon, to drive a market-led decarbonising effort.

The culture wars have created a logjam in Australian climate policy. How good would it be for a conservative party to relegate ideology on the issue and practise rational economics?

  • Tony Nagy is a consultant with public affairs firm Wilkinson Butler.
This story Ideology is the enemy when facing our greatest challenges first appeared on The Canberra Times.