28 June 2010: Rudd’s downfall

It’s a melancholy irony that the right wing faction within the Australian Labor Party, which ended Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministerial career, is the same faction that pressured him to drop his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). Rudd’s decision to put the scheme on the backburner rather than call an election over the issue started the poll-rating rot, which saw him plunge from the most popular Aussie Prime Minister ever to one of the least popular. Months out from an election, the right lost its nerve and installed Julia Gillard. The ironies multiply. Both main Australian parties have assassinated their leader in the last year over the CPRS. The Liberals knifed Malcolm Turnbull because he supported it, even though it wasn’t his policy; Labor has now ditched Rudd, in part, because he abandoned it, even though it was his idea.

So, we’re now in the absurd position where the Opposition claims to be the only party with a policy to meet the federal government’s target of a 5% CO2 reduction on 2000 levels by 2020, while the government itself has no coherent policy at all. The Greens should be asking themselves whether they did the right thing in siding with the Liberal-National coalition to block the legislation in the Australian senate. They claimed it would have ‘locked in failure’ by compensating the big polluters, but the CPRS would have had the key virtue of setting a price on carbon for the first time. Wasn’t that a prize worth having, despite the inadequacies of the scheme? In putting that principle into practice, Australia would have given a lead to the world in the demoralising aftermath of the failed Copenhagen summit.

Julia Gillard says she will meet with the Greens, but don’t expect any action on the CPRS soon. She was reportedly as keen as any to drop it and is totally focussed on clearing the decks for an election. As it is, Australia will shortly go to the polls with a government that wants to avoid talking about climate change policy and an Opposition whose leader once called global warming ‘crap’ and labels the CPRS ‘a great big new tax on everything’. Good, short-term, vote-grabbing politics maybe, but bad policy-making.

If there’s one positive to take out of Kevin Rudd downfall, it’s that climate change matters and can break leaders if they get it wrong. He lost his nerve in the face of an Opposition onslaught on the cost-of-living impact, but realised too late the voters would have responded to a strong lead on the issue (after all, it’s one reason why they chose him over John Howard three years ago). There were other factors in his demise, but it’s significant that of the two policy pledges Rudd made with his dying Prime Ministerial breath, one was to firm up a timetable for action on the climate, which he’d previously called ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time.’

If Gillard learns anything from how she rose to power, it must be that she realises she’ll need to have a good answer to that challenge – and the determination to see it implemented – if she’s not to lose power in the same way as her predecessor.

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