Climate change tactics

Tuesday, 16 December 2008 

The general media assessment of Rudd’s 5% emission target is that if it places him in the middle between unhappy Greens and climate sceptics, it is the right place to be.

It is not. First of all, the government is not in the ‘middle’ of such sentiment. Every poll shows that far more think the government is not doing enough than too much. Stepping up climate change action keeps being discussed as a ‘brave’ decision but is actually very much in line with what the mainstream electorate thinks.

The myth that climate change action is a tough area for government largely comes from the media’s incomprehension that the voting public would ever think beyond its hip-pocket. This seems to be a media prejudice built up in the latter years of the Howard government that ascribed his political genius in winning elections through the handing out of bribes. They forget that Howard’s ability to stave off the regular mid-term polling slumps rested on the exact opposite, namely the perception that he could make unpopular decisions that could give him the authority to strut around as a conviction politician.

Rudd has come to power as a pragmatic response to the fact that Howard’s little bag of tricks lost their magic and he was exposed at the end as politically bankrupt, despite some last minute attempts to appear otherwise. But, no matter how pragmatic Rudd is, he still needs issues to give the government a sense of purpose and a reason for existence. The difference for Rudd is that this is more likely to come from the international arena and that Rudd was better positioned to follow the change in that international agenda from the War on Terror to climate change.

Rudd certainly began that way but appears to have lost momentum on climate change as the year progressed. One of the reasons appears to be the slowing economy. There is an overwhelming view that an economic downturn will make action on climate change more difficult. The opposite could be more easily argued. For a start there is the practical synergy between the two. As Andrew Bolt pointed out a few weeks ago, a recession can be quite effective at reducing carbon emissions. There are also political synergies. Climate change is about making a virtue of austerity and slower growth, useful political tools in the event of downturn.

However, there is an even more fundamental synergy. In case it should happen that the money does run out, and this slowdown begins to appear like others (i.e. lower revenues, no money, spending cuts), having the political authority to make the tough decisions is useful, as can be seen with the NSW government, where that moment has already arrived and it has none. One thing that political history shows is that when times are tough, Australian governments need all the help with authority they can get.

This political issue is not necessarily about the practicalities. Rudd may very well be right that a 5% emission cut is equivalent, per capita, to a 30% cut by the Europeans. The trouble is that it doesn’t seem like it and the Greens charge that the government lacks courage has a little bit of bite. Business may be happy, but then they don’t have a government to run with all the political considerations that entails.

If the government has not done its own authority many favours by appearing timid, it does at least help it deal with the Liberals. If you listened to Turnbull a year ago you would think he would charge the government with not doing enough. If you listened to him a few months ago you would think that he would claim the government is doing it just about right. Yet yesterday he was again forced to position himself on the sceptic side. If there are a lot of people thinking the government is not doing enough, there are certainly not many thinking the government is doing too much.

What is changing is not Turnbull’s view on climate change (probably) but the increasing tenuous position he is finding himself as he rises in the leadership of the party that at the same time is having increasing doubts as to what it stands for. As someone who cannot even deliver better polling numbers, Turnbull is in no position to take on those in the party using the climate change position as a means of asserting the party’s core values. It may be doing so, but is at the risk of achieving the singular feat of making the Liberals look unpopular and opportunistic at the same time. In doing so, they already helped to destroy Nelson’s leadership. They are not doing Turnbull’s any favours now.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 16 December 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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