Are you sick of the Copenhagen clichés yet? The conference that might save the world is already generating plenty of controversy and headlines, including a supposedly secret agreement apparently co-drafted by our own PM.
It’s too early to determine the outcome of the conference yet. Negotiations are expected to go down to the wire and already the conference has seen yawning disagreements open up between developed, developing and small island nations.
Back at home, the conference is shaping up to be an equally important milestone in the Australian climate debate. Both major parties have a lot riding on the outcome of Copenhagen — even if both insist that they don’t.
For Kevin Rudd and Labor, a global deal at Copenhagen will provide a huge boost going into an election year. Despite the craven political opportunism with which the Government has approached the issue of climate change, any sort of agreement on the conference will surely include plenty of positive media images of Kevin Rudd strutting the world stage, as well as backing up the Government’s rhetoric about being the party of action on climate change.
Labor’s dream result will be a strong agreement at Copenhagen, allowing it to argue its green credentials moving into a 2010 election. The Opposition, of course, will be secretly hoping for the opposite result.
For the Liberals, the collapse of negotiations will be perceived as a major win. The Opposition’s talking points — when they haven’t been questioning the reality of global warming — have revolved around delaying any Australian response until after the outcome of Copenhagen is known. If the negotiations fail, the Opposition and its supporters will feel vindicated.
On the other hand, a successful Copenhagen will undercut the Liberals’ arguments about "waiting to see what the rest of the world is doing" — even if it won’t silence the sceptics and denialists who have now been placed in such prominent positions on Abbott’s frontbench.
All of which suggests that Labor needs a successful outcome at Copenhagen.
Rudd and Wong must be sweating on the result much more than they have let on. As several commentators (including me) have noted, Labor has done a horrible job of explaining its climate change policy and the detail behind the ETS. Indeed, despite the constant sniping from Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce about the ETS being a "giant new tax on everything", Labor has been strangely silent on the large amount of compensation for householders and motorists written into its scheme. Only since the CPRS legislation was rejected has Kevin Rudd started to publicly explain the compensation for households under the scheme.
The CPRS is not even a very big tax. The Treasury figures (which Tony Abbott appears not to have read properly) are modelled on the 5 per cent reductions target and show that the sale of carbon permits will only generate $5 billion in the first year of the scheme’s operation, rising to $12 billion in 2012–13. The total figure will increase slowly to approximately $16 billion in 2019. That’s chump change in a federal budget of $338 billion. In fact, it’s less than Australia’s existing tax on carbon — the petrol excise — as this Treasury pie-chart shows.
But Labor is not out there explaining this for reasons best known to Kevin Rudd and his strategists. The Government is not even properly defending the science. As a result, the Liberal sceptics have polarised the climate science debate and successfully reframed the issue of climate change around the question of higher taxation, where it demonstrably does not belong.
There’s no shortage of smart ways that Labor could sell the ETS. Combating dangerous climate change is only one of them. Another selling point is as a growth-promoting economic reform. Another is the role of an ETS in driving innovation and creating new green-collar jobs. Explaining that no-one should have a right to pollute the atmosphere is a further important message. Yet another tactic would be to strongly defend the science.
But Labor — on a day-to-day level so disciplined in its public messaging — has struggled over the longer term to adequately explain this admittedly complex policy.
The result is that Labor is comprehensively failing to make the political and cultural case for climate change action. This is a missed opportunity of staggering proportions. Big coal companies, dirty power plants and nutty Liberal culture warriors do not naturally enjoy wide popularity. If Labor ever stoops to actually engage with the issue, it should be able to quickly take command of the debate.
Instead of explaining climate change in everyday phrases that ordinary people can understand, Labor has lost itself in a thicket of white papers, green papers and amendments. Perhaps Penny Wong found negotiations with her Opposition counterpart Ian Macfarlane all too amenable, and really believed that Malcolm Turnbull would carry his party room and allow the Government to pass the CPRS with bipartisan support. The extraordinary events in the Liberal Party over the last fortnight put paid to that dream.
But while the Right wing of the Liberal Party has won the internal war, it remains to be seen whether the party can capitalise on climate change to win over swinging voters. As I argued after Abbott claimed the leadership, climate scepticism is an argument which mainly appeals to the conservative base. It is unlikely that attacking climate science will win over the younger, urban voters that the Liberals so desperately need if they are to reclaim government.
And then there are the obvious risks for the Liberals posed by Tony Abbott himself. Abbott’s tenure as the new Opposition leader has already been entertaining and erratic — just in the last two days he has made a gaffe over Treasury costings and attempted to convince us that the world has been cooling recently. His tendency to shoot from the hip with a minimal grasp of the facts is going to continue to give Labor and the media plenty of ammunition. Another Bernie Banton moment could be just around the corner.
One thing’s for sure: the political fray will continue unabated over the festive season and into January. It’s going to be a fascinating summer.
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