Crunch time – an update

Monday, 7 July 2008 

Truth? Leave that to the scientists. But inconvenient? Hardly.

When the media says that pushing the climate change agenda will be a major political challenge and problem for the government, what opinion polls are they looking at?

The Rudd government does face a challenge. It is to re-establish the authority and direction of government now that the major political parties have lost their historical role and social bases. Climate change will help it do so. It is the political cornerstone of this government and reinforces the three main planks of Rudd’s agenda.

  • It belittles and sidelines the old politics as short-termist and irrelevant in the face of a global calamity.
  • It lowers expectations about what government would normally be expected to achieve by placing a natural straight-jacket around the usual things which government would have been expected to deliver, economic growth and living standards.
  • Finally, with the end of the old political system making domestic programmes pretty well impossible, it locks the government into a global agenda from which it gets its authority.

To listen to the media you would think that the government is about to embark on a programme that is unpopular. Yet every major poll shows that there is very strong public support for the government taking action. In fact, if there is any criticism, it has been that the government has not been doing enough (56% according to a recent poll, versus 4% thinking it is doing too much). Newspoll says 61% think a carbon ETS will help global warming and 56% are willing to pay more to make it work. Even on the most direct hip-pocket issue, petrol prices, after months of watching them sky-rocket, more are still willing to pay up as a price to stop global warming than not. If this is a political challenge, what’s populism?

However, the media ignores the polls because it does not fit into how they see Australian politics at the moment (interestingly an exception seems to be The Australian, where every Newspoll is sacred and where the last one seems to have registered. Megalogenis has been getting closer to what is going on and even Dennis, fresh from writing this sort of histrionics, appears to have twigged that maybe a bit of a rethink is in order).

For the rest of the media, who never really understood why Rudd came to power in the first place, the climate change agenda looks like an unwelcome burden for the government rather than its salvation. The ABC, which appears to have adopted a permanent pose of weary cynicism since Howard lost, can’t work out whether climate change is a con (e.g. Chris Uhlmann’s bizarrely personal outburst on yesterday’s Insiders) or simply beyond the capacity of this government. Since climate change came back into the news, Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report has been interviewing government leaders with a disbelief that they can’t see the train wreck coming (listen to his bewildered questions to Tanner on Monday to hear the media’s incomprehension of what is happening in Australian politics).

In his interview with Rudd on Thursday, again O’Brien talked about climate change as though Rudd was the bravest politician in the country. This obviously suits the Mandarin to be portrayed as someone who is prepared to take tough decisions. One problem with coming to power with no social base and no traditional domestic programme is that has been very hard to find any tough decisions to take (it’s unsurprising that his claim that such tough decisions were behind the Gippsland loss did not convince).

However, at one point in the interview Rudd was in danger of giving the game away when he made the obvious reply to those who think pushing climate change action will leave them vulnerable to an opportunistic opposition – they won the last election. If climate change were the big political challenge then Howard would have taken advantage of it. After all, Labor clearly promised an ETS and never pretended it would be cost free. In fact what happened was that it was the Liberals, who initially tried to pose as pragmatic sceptics, who were forced to U-turn as they found it was politically destructive, especially with their own core supporter base in the cities.

Howard’s concessions on climate change and the apology marked the start of a high-wire act by the Liberals straddling their own traditional party programme and the type of policies that their core support now supported. Their recent reversal back to the sceptic line is not because of electoral necessities but because that contradictory position is no longer sustainable internally. There are internal problems for Rudd as well, tapped into a bit in Gippsland and likely to produce resistance within some quarters of the ALP. But this represents little more than the final stages of the party breaking with its old social base. Unlike the Liberals, Rudd has at least somewhere to go.

The media’s blindness to what the electorate is saying on climate change mirrors their refusal to accept the polls on Rudd’s lead a year ago, for the same reason. Rudd’s ascendancy a year ago marked the resumption of realignment in Australian politics that made the old orthodoxies redundant. The climate change agenda brings this realignment to a head. The problem for Rudd is not to convince the electorate of a change in direction but to accommodate government and the ALP to a change in the electorate and in global politics that has already happened.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 July 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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