Rudd Breaks His First Promise


There’s been a general rediscovery lately of Isaiah Berlin’s famous metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog.

"The fox knows many things," wrote the ancient Greek poet Archilocus, "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin used this as a jumping-off point for a beautifully turned essay on political thinkers, dividing their thinking styles into system-builders (hedgehogs) and polymaths (foxes).

Kevin Rudd is the archetypal fox: a politician who knows many things and can’t resist telling you about them. His background as a diplomat and policy nerd, unrivalled knowledge of the levers of power and hard-nosed skills as a backroom operator make him a quintessential example of Berlin’s idea.

The cunning wiles of the fox are handy just now, when one considers the hostile terrain Kevin Rudd’s Government is navigating. Taking office just as the global financial crisis was getting started, the Prime Minster has already had more than his fair share of those derailing interruptions to political achievement that Harold Macmillan called "the opposition of events".

Until this week, Rudd has shown an impressive ability (bemoaned by the Opposition and the leader writers at The Australian) to frame the political debate and steer his legislative agenda through Parliament in the face of this opposition of events. For instance, Rudd has kept every important election promise from the platform he successfully took to Australian voters in 2007, delivering on things like tax cuts, computers in schools and industrial relations re-regulation.

But this week Rudd threw a promise overboard. By delaying the introduction of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Government has broken its first substantial commitment on a significant area of public policy.

And what a biggie. As I argued when analysing the Defence White Paper this week, climate change is the single-biggest threat to the future of Australia. But it’s also one of the toughest issues any politician can face, as Ross Garnaut acknowledged in his report. The scale of the problem, combined with the political difficulty posed by the solution, makes it a potentially intractable combination of vested interests, regulatory nightmares and wrenching large-scale economic change.

No wonder the Government has found it increasingly hard to stay on top of the climate change debate. I have never considered the Rudd Government’s political strategy of trying to triangulate between the Coalition and the Greens particularly clever, although correspondents as savvy as Shaun Carney continue to be bewitched by its supposed tactical brilliance.

In fact, the Government has badly mishandled the job of developing climate change policy, producing a bill that almost no-one is happy with. Scientists continue to observe that a 5 per cent cut is actually a commitment to a vastly hotter world, while Opposition spokesman Andrew Robb justifiably points out such a low target will do little to reduce carbon pollution and yet still manages to impose a costly and unnecessary regulatory burden on business (though Robb would like to give even more money to big polluters).

This week’s decision was an admission that the ETS debate had got away from the Government, hence the attempt to press the reset button on the debate and get back in charge of the news cycle.

And make no mistake, the short-term news cycle is the chief object of the Government’s attention just now. Despite the grand pre-election rhetoric of "evidence-based policy", the goals of Kevin Rudd’s Government just now can be measured in days and weeks, not the decades-long perspective of global warming.

Examine, for instance, the Prime Minster’s rapid manipulation of the political news cycle this week. The Defence White Paper, a formidable but deeply flawed document that contains vast new promises to buy military hardware, was foreshadowed in the media with careful leaks, ensuring the debate about the White Paper was relatively muted.

No sooner had the White Paper dropped than the Government started leaking the truly terrible state of the budget bottom line. The federal budget is drowning in red ink as tax revenues fall off the cliff, and may be more than $60 billion in deficit by the time Wayne Swan reads out the headline figure next Tuesday night. Worse, it may stay in deficit until 2015, which is not quite the "temporary" deficit Swan keeps talking about. A $200 billion drop in government revenue is an ugly set of numbers by any treasurer’s standards and Joe Hockey has already been getting good mileage simply by pointing out that every time Labor gets in, unemployment goes up and the budget goes into deficit. Seeing as Labor has presided over the last two Australian recessions, this is a shallow observation. But it is also true.

Even so, I expect Wayne Swan’s budget next week to be a circuit breaker on the economic debate for a while. While the recession will grind on well past the next election, Australia looks as though it will escape the kind of GDP contraction we’re seeing in major trading partners, in comparison with which the sustained stagnation that is the most likely fate for our domestic economy almost looks good.

The opposite is true for climate change, which as David Spratt and Anna Rose have both explained, is a problem that can only get worse. In the short term, the scientific reality of dangerous and irreversible warming has yet to be widely understood by the general community. This has allowed politicians, lobbyists and journalists — and even green groups like the ACF who should know better — to adopt a fundamentally mistaken view of the seriousness of the problem.

But the future will make a different decision. Looking at the substance of Kevin Rudd’s revamped emissions policy, any sensible observer — and there are many more of these in the electorate than the closed-loop of Canberra politics-as-usual generally acknowledges — will conclude that the Rudd Government’s policies in relation to climate change represent a craven capitulation to the big polluters. Climate change is a classic hedgehog issue, a problem so big that, for those who have started to understand its implications, it dwarfs all other considerations.

At the moment, and indeed in the run-up to the next election, that’s still not a large proportion of the electorate. But for those for whom climate change is a vote-changing issue, primary votes are likely to start to leak heavily away from Labor to the Greens. This factor, combined with the reduced Senate quotas in a double-dissolution election, is almost certain to give the Greens the balance of power in any such election (which is the main reason why I don’t think Rudd is angling for one). Even in a half-Senate election, the Greens stand a good chance of increasing their total by one or even two Senators (namely Steve Fielding’s spot in Victoria, and potentially the final seat for South Australia or Western Australia). And that may be the only way an emissions trading scheme ever gets passed.

Meanwhile, as the recession starts to bite, the second half of Kevin Rudd’s term will be much tougher than the first. With Joe Hockey as shadow treasurer, the Liberals have started to lift their game. Getting re-elected will not be the cake-walk for Labor that many assume.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.