At various times of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, commentators, pundits and opposition politicians have predicted that his masterful control of political communication would backfire. Rudd’s spin, they say, will eventually be seen for what it is by voters, who will judge him for not backing up his grand visions and bold words.
Recent events offer an opportunity to assess whether the "Rudd is all spin and no substance" line will ever actually take hold. On two politically important issues, refugees and climate change, Rudd’s normally assured political logic has started to slip. Is this the start of electoral disenchantment with the most popular prime minister of modern times? Or is it just a blip?
On refugees, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister and his government have struggled recently. This shouldn’t surprise those with long memories. The Australian Labor Party has had an ambivalent attitude towards seaborne asylum seekers since the Hawke administration set up the refugee detention regime in the 1990s. In opposition, particularly under Kim Beazley, Labor strategists appeared to believe that mirroring the Howard government’s macho posturing on refugees was the only option. To the eternal shame of those in the Left of the party, Labor supported many of the amendments that toughened the Migration Act, including the amendment to excise Christmas Island from Australian sovereign territory for those claiming refugee status — the amendment that made possible the "Pacific Solution".
In government, Labor under Rudd has softened some aspects of Howard’s tougher-than-thou approach, while also making every pretense of remaining "tough on border security". It’s been a difficult message to sell. Opposition spokeswoman Sharman Stone’s nonsensically aggressive tactics of blaming the Government for every arriving boat has clearly riled Labor, and it was some time before the Government settled on its message of blaming "push factors" like the wars in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
The problem with the "push factors" argument is that, for the subset of the Australian electorate that is simply opposed to giving sanctuary to refugees altogether, push factors are irrelevant. And it does nothing for the larger plurality who just want us to show some humanity and let people in. More than any issue in Australian politics, refugee policy is not about the facts of the situation. It is about emotions — like fear, sympathy and xenophobia. After all, any sensible analysis of the problem reveals that the majority of Australia-destined asylum seekers arrive by plane. But "plane people" are barely on the political radar, far less contentious or politically controversial than refugees who arrive by boat.
Labor’s position on refugees is not helped by its evolving "big Australia" population policy. When Kevin Rudd told Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report that "I actually believe in a big Australia, I make no apology for that," the contradictions with his refugee policy became obvious. The Australian‘s elder statesman Paul Kelly believes that Rudd is committed to "a strong and orderly immigration program and a tough stand against boat people seeking to break the rules and self-select Australia as their new home", which just shows you the twisted logic that commentators can tie themselves in as they attempt to divine the reasoning behind the political calculations of governments.
But it is on the issue of climate change where Labor’s policies really stop making sense. Last Friday, Kevin Rudd gave a speech to the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a foreign policy think-tank whose centrist, multilateralist views are close to the Prime Minister’s heart. Rudd took the opportunity to rail against "the climate change sceptics, the climate change deniers, the opponents of climate change action [that]are active in every country". "They are a minority. They are powerful. And invariably they are driven by vested interests," intoned the PM in his gravest speaking voice.
The problem is, as Bernard Keane pointed out in Crikey yesterday, they are also firmly ensconced in various positions in Kevin Rudd’s own government. Keane pointed out that Minerals Council spokesman Mitch Hooke — one of the most vocal and committed climate change rent-seekers in the country — is actually a member of the Government’s Oceans Advisory Group. Commonwealth funding also goes to consultancies like ACIL Tasmin, who have consistently cooked up dodgy economic models to support the grubby lobbying of fossil fuel industries.
In fact, Keane missed the broader point, which is that climate sceptics and pro-mining, pro-resource fossil fuel advocates are prominent in the ALP itself. Look no further than the Government’s Energy and Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, who is only barely in the closet as a climate sceptic and has consistently championed Big Carbon in his tenure in the portfolio. As we’ve explored before at newmatilda.com Ferguson’s developing energy policy is being advised by a hand-picked panel of Big Carbon executives, while the renewables sector remains locked out.
Ferguson and Rudd are also wedded to the continuing fiction that "clean coal" can save us. The lure of carbon capture and sequestration as a panacea for the world’s climate ills has meant the Government continues to invest more in this risky, unproven and costly technology while ignoring the many cheaper clean tech solutions available now.
And then there is Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme itself. This policy, the centre-piece of Labor’s climate change policy framework, sets emissions reductions targets that are so low that if the entire world adopted them, devastating global warming would be permanently locked in. Even worse, Labor ignored the advice of its advisor, Ross Garnaut, on the design of the scheme, loading up the scheme with subsidies for big polluters and failing to earmark any funds for renewable energy research and development.
So riddled with carbon subsidies is the CPRS that it will actually cost the Government billions of dollars more than it collects through the sale of carbon permits, as the Government’s recent mid-year economic review revealed. Treasury projections claim Australia’s emissions won’t begin to fall until 2033. Meanwhile, the burden of decarbonisation will be unfairly imposed on ordinary consumers and small businesses.
"It’s time to remove any polite veneer from this debate," the Prime Minister said in his Lowy speech. But that’s exactly what the CPRS as it currently stands really is: a polite veneer for a high-carbon, high temperature future.
Will any of this matter at the next election? I don’t believe so. All the polls indicate Labor will romp home (the recent Newspoll showing a big fall in support for the Government now looks like it was a statistical quirk).
But in the longer term, all governments eventually lose control of their messaging. For example, former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr enjoyed a peerless ability to manipulate the media cycle for nearly a decade. It hasn’t stopped voters souring on Labor as they tot up the broken promises and failed policies of Labor’s reign in New South Wales. Rudd has made a lot of bold statements and big promises in his first term. He will need to start delivering in his second if the honeymoon is to continue. Passing a decent CPRS, maintaining fiscal discipline, securing funding for the apparently stalled "education revolution" and delivering the National Broadband Network are shaping up as key — and perhaps competing — tests.
Meanwhile, the planet continues to warm. The best hope for a meaningful climate change policy in this country will be completely new legislation, negotiated in the next parliament with the help of the Greens.
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