St Kevin breaks the faith

Climate chaos0

Last Christmas, Rudd visited Australian troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; back in Canberra for his first Christmas Day at the Lodge, he visited a homeless shelter as part of his deep commitment to doing something about homelessness.

This week he saw the Australian troops in southern Afghanistan and, as he wings his way back to Canberra, is planning to meet his promise, just, of releasing a report on homelessness before Christmas.

As Labor’s first Prime Minister in 12years and only the third elected from Opposition since World War II, Rudd was hell-bent on keeping his promises. It was part of a determination to deliver what he said he would, to ensure the electorate did not lose faith in his word, and to compare favourably with other incoming administrations that junked election promises once in office.

Overall, the Rudd Government has delivered on its specific promises, particularly in the budget, and Rudd and Wayne Swan have declared, rightly, that they have kept faith with the electorate. The early emotional high points were the ratification in Bali of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions only days after the election, the delivery of a parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and this week’s unveiling of an emissions trading scheme.

The parliamentary apology remains the apogee of Rudd’s first year, a symbolic act that not only satisfied and pleased his supporters but also gained credit from those who were originally opposed to it. Thanks to the support of Brendan Nelson, the apology became bipartisan, common political ground, bringing strong and enduring credit to Rudd well beyond party lines.

But while keeping the first two promises, on Kyoto and the apology, met with unashamed acclaim, the last has been greeted with a good deal of shaming condemnation from those who most vigorously supported Labor’s promises on climate change in Opposition. The disappointment from environmental groups on the detail of the emissions trading scheme is the first real dissension to appear over Labor’s promises and the public’s expectations, yet it is only one of several areas where Labor has failed to deliver, has provided only sham commitments, has not filled the gap between rhetoric and reality or has falsely claimed a mandate for changes that go beyond its election promises.

There is also an underlying danger – notwithstanding the genuine threat of the global financial crisis – that Rudd’s natural bias towards a big-spending, nation-building government is coming to the fore as he moves away from his crucial characterisation as a fiscal conservative.

Apart from the bringing forward of billions in infrastructure spending and assisting the states to borrow billions more, the compensation element of Rudd’s emissions trading scheme looks more like a wealth-shifting exercise than a scheme designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the biggest problem for Rudd with his climate change policy is the gap between expectations and the reality of delivery. John Howard was accused of being in the pocket of big business, only interested in old king coal, not caring for the Great Barrier Reef and not accepting the science of man-made climate change. After his low-impact, high-compensation – and as industry-friendly as possible – emissions trading scheme, Rudd is being accused of exactly the same environmental crimes. However, when compared with some of the pea and thimble acts on other promises and expectations, the emissions trading scheme is notable not for being a failed promise but for being the first to engender real disappointment.

The most spectacular failure to deliver on a straight election promise has been Labor’s inability to meet its undertaking to provide high-speed broadband services for more than 98per cent of Australians beginning this year. This was a core Labor promise, put up with Telstra’s backing as an alternative to the Coalition’s scheme, and its largest single infrastructure commitment.

Even in March Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was repeating the election promise of having tenders let for a new system and for construction to begin before the end of the year.

“I expect to be able to give final government approval by the end of August or early September, and hope construction will commence before the end of the year,” Conroy said.

That promise is now officially a dud. The tender process is a mess and the prospects of legal wrangling and commercial brawling threaten to derail and delay the entire process.

This slippage has been occurring for a while but it is clear that the broadband failure – not the low-start, Howard-lite emissions trading scheme – is Labor’s biggest, clearest failure to deliver on a promise.

The other key area of broken faith with the electorate is within the area of industrial relations and this will become more apparent as Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Bill is examined in the Senate next year as a rise in unemployment takes hold. This is a broken promise because Labor said it would not go beyond the return of union power set out in its policy document.

We know from polling before and during the election campaign that the public intensely disliked the Howard government’s Work Choices legislations, especially the unfair dismissal laws, but we also know there were realconcerns about empowering union officials.

The provisions on right of entry for union officials are a breach of Labor’s faith on industrial relations changes.

Rudd has slipped past responsibility for other failures by suggesting they never were official promises, that he can’t be held responsible for the electorate’s expectations, or by carrying out pointless exercises that enable him to tick a box on promises kept. The $2million in wasted taxpayers’ funds over the pointless pursuit of the Japanese whaling fleet, the ignominious retreat on international court action over Iran’s rogue leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the agitprop solutions to rising petrol and food prices of FuelWatch and Grocerychoice all failed to match the rhetorical promise.

Rudd previously has failed to meet his election undertakings, but it has taken the disappointment of those supporters expecting him to be less like Howard on emissions trading to make it an issue.