The game has changed and so should the PM

 

He could also alleviate the subterranean angst in his own ranks among Labor MPs who are feeling the heat on an ETS in electorates concerned about jobs, and head off industry-funded advertising campaigns that have already had an impact in some areas.

Yet Rudd, like Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, can’t bring himself to face political reality and dump a dud, at least until there are signs of real international progress that doesn’t make Australia look like it’s tilting at windmills (or coal-fired generators) without effect and at great cost.

Rudd’s attachment looks dangerously like an ideological commitment to a scheme that is opposed from both ends of the political spectrum and unlikely to find any validating action from the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases.

In part, this reluctance to show any hint of a policy shift is a product of Labor’s successful three-year campaign to equate action on climate change with an ETS, and, specifically, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. This will be defiantly put to parliament next week by Wong without any real hope of passing the Senate.

Of course, Rudd’s not going to abandon his overall position on climate change or his commitment to market-based solutions to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon. But he doesn’t have to keep an emissions trading scheme front and centre of his political campaign.

If he doesn’t take stock of the domestic and international political conditions and adjust accordingly, he runs the risk of appearing to be as ideologically driven and politically blind to the dangers as John Howard was to the obvious dangers of the Work Choices industrial relations changes.

The facts have changed dramatically since the 2007 election campaign, when the central point of difference between the Coalition and the ALP was the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Rudd ratified the Kyoto agreement, with little practical effect other than slightly lifting Australia’s carbon emissions reduction target, which we are still on track to meet without an ETS.

The failure of the UN’s Copenhagen climate change conference to forge any sort of agreement out of discussions in which Rudd and Wong were central characters also demonstrates that claims ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would give Australia a world voice and put us “at the table” amounted to little.

The Liberal Party’s change of leadership and change of heart over supporting a modified ETS completely changed the expectations and possibility of a carbon emissions scheme because the Abbott-led Coalition and the Senate independents believed the CPRS went too far in its objectives and the Greens felt it didn’t go nearly far enough.

The bill failed in such a manner that the double-dissolution election trigger it delivered was useless even if the government wanted to go to an early election.

In between times the Copenhagen failure has demonstrated three things: that the world’s biggest carbon emitters, China, the US and India, were not going to agree to any binding or verifiable reduction targets; that the developing world is demanding compensation from the developed world; and that the global emphasis, as demonstrated by US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech yesterday, is shifting away from emissions trading to clean energy, such as nuclear power, and technological development.

As for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Greens were quite right to claim yesterday that Wong wouldn’t guarantee that the proposed CPRS would cut carbon emissions, because she couldn’t.

Not only has carbon emissions trading failed to realistically cut emissions in Europe or assist most European Union nations in meeting their Kyoto targets, but the only target Wong was able to adopt this week was an unconditional cut of 5 per cent by 2020.

That’s less than a third of the minimum reduction target the government’s climate change adviser Ross Garnaut has advocated, and it’s less than a fifth of the minimum the Greens want. It happens to be the same target Abbott committed to last year, standing under a tree outside his parliamentary office. It’s also a target Coalition climate change spokesman Greg Hunt says can be easily achieved without resorting to a costly ETS.

As for “business certainty” – the mantra that it’s better for business to know what costs it will face and what demands will be placed on it by providing a firm target and price for carbon per tonne – Wong was unable to provide that in adopting the Copenhagen Accord. When asked about business certainty, Wong said on Thursday: “What we’re saying is: in the absence of those conditions [overseas commitments], the target is 5 per cent.

“And if those conditions are met, then obviously we’ll be altering the target consistent with the conditions we previously put out.” And that decision, or not, will be taken some time, perhaps, in 2011.

Rudd really wanted to lead the world on climate change, he wanted to found an ETS and he wanted to do it before Christmas last year so that it could be up and running by 2011.

He’s been frustrated by political opposition, international intransigence and economic reality.

Rudd should regroup, refashion his political campaign for an election year and move on to the broader issues of health, tax reform and economic management. Such a step has been made harder by his own rhetoric and political gamesmanship but the facts and political atmosphere have changed, and so should he.

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