Commentators are seriously missing the point over the reallocation of climate change responsibilities away from Garrett.

The trouble is that they are taking too much notice of Labor’s uninspiring campaign, which had more to do with the past than the government now taking shape. This is less about Garrett’s performance in the campaign but the emergence of the real role of climate change in Rudd’s agenda that was obscured by the campaign.

As Rudd has signalled in an interview with the SMH, climate change is now to form the basis of Australia’s position in international affairs and largely take the place that the War on Terror has occupied since 2001. Global warming will not only be the language of Australian diplomats in international forums, but also increasingly with the US as Rudd begins adapting to the changes in the political order to replace Bush (whether Democrat or Republican). It will also form a more successful basis for Australia’s regional policy in Asia than anti-terrorism.

However, as Howard tried to do with terrorism, this international agenda is now being brought back home to shape domestic politics. Nobody likes to talk about it in Australian politics, but the domestic agenda is heavily reliant on international developments. It has been airbrushed out, but trust over national security formed a major part of Howard’s re-election case in 2001 and 2004. However, in reality anti-terrorism never became as a major component as it did in the US or the UK and, as shown by the Haneef fiasco, had definitely lost its power this year, which was why Howard’s policy vacuum became exposed.

Climate change is likely to prove a much more important influence in Australian politics. As already seen by the way issues like water infrastructure and rural aid are discussed through the prism of global warming, it is now influencing even key areas of government policy and expenditure. In the discussion around the Murray, for example, climate change will also have an influence of the future shape of federalism.

Because climate change raises fundamental questions about the nature of growth it will inevitably impact economic debate. As shown by the campaign, and Howard’s loss, the old debate of economic management has been drained of meaning with the declining importance of industrial relations and the globalisation of the economy. Climate change provides a new framework for that debate and reinforces the global constraints of growth. The dependence of the domestic economy on climate change will become more explicit early next year when Ross Garnaut presents his report on the economic measures needed to meet Labor’s emission targets.

Garnaut’s recommendations will tighten the straight-jacket in which Rudd has already put the economic debate with over-done inflation fears. It will make economic management less about the goals of a sovereign government and more about fitting inside constraints over which it has no control. Wayne Swan’s taking up of any questions for Penny Wong in the HofR may take the limelight off Peter Garrett, but Swan himself will be answering increasingly important economic questions which are now come under the Senator’s portfolio. Ministers will have to adjust to the way that foreign affairs and the economy will be influenced by Rudd and Wong’s climate change agenda.

As the global climate change agenda takes shape as a domestic programme, the restraint and austerity it will inevitably entail will require the cool and progressive makeover that only rock stars can give. If anyone should be worried it is Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith who could find the power of their traditional plum jobs of Treasurer and Foreign Minister become eroded as the importance of Penny Wong’s role becomes clear. Don’t worry about Garrett, he might have plenty to do soon.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 5 December 2007.

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