In recent months, it has been somewhat surprising to find that the issue of climate change has been so successfully thrust into the limelight of public political debate. Letâs face it – it is relatively rare for political issues that have a lifecycle vastly longer than the next election campaign to take hold in the imagination of the media and the restless public. It is even rarer for issues to take hold when they run counter to the all-pervading mass consumer culture that underpins all Western-style economies in the modern age.
More over the fold.
On climate change issues, the Liberal and National parties have been behind the game for quite a while now. Part of the reason for this is that imposing further government controls on production runs counter to the âsmall governmentâ? / âlow interventionâ? approach to policy that the conservatives tend to hold dear. The conservatives also seem to have a natural aversion to the politics of climate change for the plain and simple fact that these issues are stereotypically seen as leftist policy issues. No doubt there are many within the Howard Government who believe that significant political capital can be gained by attacking the reform agenda of the Greens (and to a lesser extent, Labor) and maintaining a firmly pro-business line.
The Greens are of course the party that most people associate with the politics of climate change. Support for the Greens has been consolidated and embellished in recent years by a slowly growing degree of disenfranchisement with the major parties; a disenfranchisement felt by a certain proportion of voters who want change and are dissatisfied with the preparedness or ability of the major parties to deliver it. As well as being probably the most strident critics of the environmental status quo, the Greens also seem to serve as a default repository for protest votes for those dissatisfied with the performance of the Labor Party in other areas. It is unclear how much of the Greensâ support is drawn from simple dissatisfaction with Labor and how much is drawn from the more aggressive policies that the Greens advocate in relation to issues like climate change. Interestingly. the policies of the Greens are currently being reviewed and are not available online at the time of writing.
So where does this leave Labor in relation to climate change? In a spot of bother. The politics of environmentalism are treacherous and need to be carefully negotiated, as the fallout from Labor’s Tasmanian forests policy during the last election campaign has shown us. Preferably, Federal Labor should propose a strong, moral and forthright policy platform in relation to climate change and conservation that captures the seemingly buoyant community desire for more activity from Canberra, but does not completely alienate business or (for example) the representatives of some unions which form part of its support base.
The most recent development from Federal Labor in relation to climate change has been a quite astonishingly arrogant step â the organisation of a national summit on climate change hosted by the party. The summit occurred on Saturday in Canberra, and appears at least from my eyes to be a spot of grandstanding, albeit some quite well intentioned (and well orchestrated!) grandstanding.
Kevin Rudd gave an introductory speech at the conference and his opening remarks defining the problem facing the country are generally on the money:
Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.
Climate change is not just an environmental challenge.
Climate change is an economic challenge, a social challenge, and actually represents a deep challenge on the overall question of national security.
Itâs for those sorts of reasons that people like Schwarzenegger in California are now describing climate change as the first great âpost-partisan political issueâ. And so it should be.
That first line strikes me as somewhat hyperbolic, but Rudd is correct in observing that the problem of tackling climate change is a multifaceted one. What happens to the jobs that are lost when Australia eventually starts to move away from its strong dependence on coal power? What happens to the jobs that are lost when forestry operations are scaled back further? How can we best prepare the nation for an embrace of alternative energy industries and ensure that Australia is ready to take the difficult steps towards a more environment-friendly provisioning of resources?
Make no mistake â Rudd is framing climate change as a partisan issue and will use it to attack the Howard Government in this yearâs election campaign. For all his talk of post-partisanism, the fact that this single day summit seems to have involved no other political parties or speakers who wholeheartedly endorse the Howard Government view on climate change is telling. This summit was hardly a wholehearted debate in the true sense of the word, even though representatives from industry, business and environmental groups were in attendance. Part of the purpose of the exercise seems to have been to establish in the eyes of the media the fact that the Rudd Opposition is prepared to do some quite difficult things to stimulate debate, and gather momentum towards a political consensus on important political issues. Holding your own rent-a-summit in the middle of an election year in Canberra from Opposition is no mean feat. This act of political bravura is the act of an Opposition Leader whose confidence in himself is sky high.
The meat of the Rudd Oppositionâs policies on climate change currently position Labor quite neatly between the Howard Government and the Greens. Labor supports the ratification of Kyoto, the reduction of Australiaâs greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050, and initiatives to fund clean coal and âgreen carâ? development initiatives. These proposals position Labor as being concertedly more aggressive than the government on climate change issues, and sidestep the difficult issues associated with investigating nuclear power, for better or worse. The Greens are still more aggressive in their approach than Labor, but perhaps too aggressive to ever be accepted by industry groups and much of the mainstream. I donât believe it is possible to convince a high-consuming, high-polluting society like Australiaâs to simply go on âhunger strikeâ? in response to the issues raised by climate change. Healthy âdietingâ? here is what is needed by Australia; to begin with, at least. I don’t think Australia can kick its coal habit in just a year or two – at least not without positively seismic domestic implications.
Three new initiatives announced this past weekend further the Rudd Oppositionâs climate change agenda. A diplomatic initiative with China has been proposed â whereby members of Laborâs Shadow Ministry will effectively âtravel under the radarâ? to have roundtable talks with Chinese officials. This is an astonishingly bold step that undercuts the Howard Government completely, and probably one that only the Mandarin-speaking Rudd could pull off, most likely with the help from some old friends in Beijing. An Australian âStern Reportâ? would be commissioned by a Rudd Labor Government, to further investigate the local implications of addressing climate change. And an Office of Climate Change would be established within the office of the Prime Minister, no doubt to allow Rudd some direct input into facilitating the climate change initiatives being championed by Labor in government.
In short, I really do think that Kevin Rudd has shown his somewhat freakish political aptitude once again. Al Gore, that modern day doyen of global warming, has already extended what seems to be quite a ringing endorsement. With a softly, softly approach to industry, and a package that is guaranteed to woo the vast majority of preference flows from the Greens, Labor is already looking to be in a much more carefully considered position on the environment in 2007 than it did in 2004.
With the combatants poised in their current stances, and the public’s notorious distrust of nuclear power still alive and well, I don’t see how Howard can hope to outflank Labor on this issue.