Yes, the Mandarin is serious

Friday, 14 December 2007 

The latest, slightly sophisticated version of the denial that there has been a change in government is to take Rudd’s refusal to set interim targets at Bali as a sign that he is as reluctant as Howard to go all out on the global warming agenda. On the contrary, it is a sign of how serious he is.

Something happened this week that doesn’t happen very often in Australian politics: domestic politics was opened up to the international scene. As a medium-sized power, Australia’s political scene is always heavily dependent on international developments, but it’s usually not polite to talk about it. Australia’s place in the world order and indigenous affairs are the two unmentionables in Australian politics for similar reasons, neither are that flattering for the Australian political class. Indigenous affairs are its great policy failure, and the reality of international power politics exposes how little influence the Australian political class really has.

It is a sign of how chronically desperate the coalition government was in its last days to try and use indigenous affairs to give it some credibility, it is a sign of how exhausted Labor’s historic project is that the current government looks overseas to establish its sense of purpose.

Rudd hasn’t supported the interim targets for precisely the reason he said, he is waiting for the economic assessment of the Garnaut report due next year. However, whereas for Howard deferring to an economic assessment was an excuse, for Rudd it shows that he intends to make the global warming agenda a framework within which domestic politics will be conducted going forward.

The need to meet emission targets will change the whole nature of economic debate in this country. It will change it from being about achieving maximum growth to fitting within the constraints that Garnaut sets out. In effect this caps off the way economic growth targets have changed since the recession that Keating had to have when maximising growth became subordinate to non-cyclical growth, which in turn led to the loss of control over monetary policy to the Reserve Bank under Howard and now a ceiling being placed by international climate change forums.

It will also provide a framework for the new federalism, it being fortunate that the Murray-Darling system goes through four states and so locks them into one of the few joint projects between them since federation.

There are risks in this strategy. Even the goodwill from this week did not mean Rudd was immune from the flak of what is essentially a tussle between the great powers. Unlike the War on Terror, which just involved hitching Australia to US foreign policy, the climate change agenda is highly fluid as US tries to regain lost leadership against a European agenda with China playing the wild card. Managing all of this and the politics at home, it is as well a foreign affairs bureaucrat is in charge to recognise the need to make bows to the science and have a dig at the US to keep the Europeans happy until the domestic agenda is sorted out.

What Rudd benefits from is the vacuum back home. Neither the Liberals nor his own party are likely to develop an alternative agenda to challenge him any time soon and Rudd can use the moralism of the climate change agenda to ride the vacuum. In a way this is similar to how Howard used the War on Terror, but while it had political uses it never really established itself here, as shown by the fuss around Hicks and more brutally by the rebellion of the judiciary the one time he tried to use the anti-terrorist powers. In contrast, climate change, and the austerity around it, has the potential to gain much more traction.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 14 December 2007.

Filed under International relations

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