Only the beginning

Monday, 14 July 2008 

We can’t have a situation where Australian industry is bound to take steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but competitive countries like China are not bound. Mr Garrett doesn’t have a plan to cut emissions, he has a plan to cut Australian jobs.

J Howard 29 October 2007

My how time flies! Nine months ago senior Howard Ministers were crawling all over Garret’s ‘gaffe’ that Labor might sign up to emission targets without China or India as a sign of the eco-extremism of Labor’s front bench. Roll forward to July 2008 and it is the leader of the Liberal party who gets into trouble from his own side for suggesting that a carbon-cap ETS should not go ahead without China or India.

The Howard government might have formally signed up to an ETS a year ago, but in political reality they played it as sceptics. We’ve had a brief interregnum of the Liberals toeing the climate change line after the old leadership were discredited by the election defeat. However, now it is starting to reassert itself on the party by forcing Nelson to dump the post-election line.

Nelson has resumed Howard’s pre-election tactic of formally going along with the climate change agenda while politically remaining a sceptic. The media has presented Nelson’s final position as back to where he started, but it isn’t really. Here is what he actually said in Launceston on Friday:

It’s very important from our perspective that the scheme actually start preferably in 2012, and that when it starts, if the major emitters throughout the world have not committed then we should start with a very, very low economic impact in Australia which in plain language means a minimal impact on jobs, on electricity bills at home. And certainly we believe very strongly that there must be no increase in the price of petrol as a direct result of the implementation of an emissions trading scheme.

That is, he agrees to an ETS without commitment from China and India – as long as it won’t have any impact. Nelson’s return to Howard’s tactic is because he faces the same dilemma that Howard did, which prevents the Liberal leadership from being able to come out firmly on one side or the other.

The most immediate dilemma is an electoral one. The sceptic line is out of step with voters in core Liberal seats, not just in the inner metropolitan, as people like to talk about, but also in rural regions as well. Tony Windsor, Independent MP for the blue ribbon conservative seat of New England is not a leading advocate of climate change action as a political death wish. This is not just a consideration for MPs like Turnbull and Hunt, but also for those who would identify themselves closer to the old leadership like Julie Bishop and Joe Hockey.

On the other hand, there is a more ephemeral question of ‘brand’ and what the Liberal party stands for. The 2007 election will be the last one where the Liberals could feasibly try an anti-union scare, so they need something. It is conceivable for the Liberals, as the party of business, to oppose a policy that could be seen just as an extra tax and so rally some of their other core supporters (like small business).

However, there is another reason why Liberals would have been associated with a sceptic line until recently. It was US foreign policy. Howard’s position on climate change, like the war in Iraq, was fulfilling a fundamental principle of the Liberal party, being the most loyal ally of the US. The problem the party now faces is that this line is changing, with both the Republicans and Democrats now facing the difficult task of recapturing the lead on the climate change agenda. The dilemma for the Liberals is, how should they respond to a US foreign policy that is in a state of flux?

The erosion of the Liberals’ core domestic agenda and its foreign policy strategy were both problems faced by Howard in the last year that Rudd exploited so well. It was what led to the implosion in the leadership in the last months of the government that would have broken to the surface had not the electorate intervened. Now with Nelson lacking the trappings of power to keep those divisions on side it would seem that there is little to stop it erupting again, especially as after last week, egos are now involved. This is not over by a long shot.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 14 July 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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