The Great Moral Backflip Of Our Time


Another day, another broken promise.

Last week it was childcare centres and the final death of the home insulation stimulus. Both announcements were wheeled out apologetically by junior ministers. Both times, the Government made little effort to defend its decision (perhaps wisely, in the case of the home insulation debacle).

This week’s broken promise is much, much bigger. The decision to delay the introduction of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme  until at least 2013 means Labor no longer has a credible policy on climate change — "the great moral challenge of our generation", according to the Prime Minister.

Those words have already come back to haunt him. And so they should.

Climate change was not some minor election promise thrown out in the heat of the campaign. It was a centrepiece of Labor’s 2007 election platform. It was Kevin Rudd as opposition leader who commissioned Ross Garnaut to begin work on fashioning Labor’s climate change policy.

Strong action on climate was a key plank in Labor’s campaign material and its election ads. Remember the TV commercial depicting a sleeping John Howard? "Now he’s finally said Australia needs an emissions scheme, but he won’t set targets until after the election," the ad proclaimed. Now that he’s in government, neither will Kevin Rudd.

This backflip is staggering, even for those of us who have come to expect policy timidity from the Rudd Government.

Penny Wong has spent the better part of Labor’s first term in office formulating, negotiating and trying to legislate for an emissions trading scheme. The Garnaut Review dominated policy considerations through 2008 and early 2009, and the eventual bill Labor proposed, the CPRS, was its major legislative goal last year. Kevin Rudd gave a series of major speeches about it in the lead-up to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. And the CPRS was of course one of Labor’s major triggers for a double dissolution election.

What’s changed? It’s tempting to say, simply, "the polls". And there’s no doubt that the electorate’s former ardour for climate action has cooled somewhat since 2007, as a time-series of Lowy Institute polls on the issue shows.

To some degree, climate scepticism has had an impact. So too has the ceaseless campaigning by the Murdoch media, and by the active proselytisers among the conservative plurality who are viscerally opposed to climate action, seeing it as a plot by radical lefties to "de-industrialise" the world (Nick Minchin’s term, not mine).

But the polls on climate are not really that bad for Labor. Most polls still show a majority in favour of an emissions trading scheme. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that strong action on climate change would still resonate with many parts of the electorate, including the women voters in marginal seats who will probably decide the election result.

No, the real issue here is not the electorate. It’s Kevin Rudd’s failure of leadership. Faced with an issue which he himself painted in phrases of high principle and moral clarity, the Prime Minister has failed to screw his courage to the sticking point.

That "sticking point" would have been a strong emissions trading scheme, one strong enough to have won the support of the Greens. Refusing to negotiate with them was a major tactical blunder.

With a policy that embraced reasonably strong emissions reductions targets, Labor could have won Green support, isolated the Opposition and applied the screws to the cross-benches. Xenophon could have been bribed with more money for the lower Murray. As it was, history records that three Liberals voted for the ETS anyway: Malcolm Turnbull in the House plus two Liberal Senators, Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth. Those two Liberal votes, plus the Greens, would have equaled victory. It’s the great "what if" of this term of government.

For reasons entirely to do with the vicious hatreds of sectarian politics, Labor likes to paint the Greens as dangerous extremists. In fact, experience and common sense suggests the Greens would have gladly negotiated on the ETS, given the chance. Instead, the Government tried to do a deal with Malcolm Turnbull. We all know how that tactic played out.

Strategically, Labor’s next error was to abandon climate as an election issue. Unlike Barack Obama, who, when faced with a difficult healthcare bill and sliding opinion polls, decided to rally the troops and press on for a redoubtable victory, Rudd played safe. Climate was taken off the public agenda, to be replaced by health reform, which party strategists have decided is home turf.

The result has been an amazing waste of political capital. Quite apart from delighting the Greens, who can now campaign as the only party serious about climate change, the backflip is a gift for a struggling Opposition. This decision plays into all of the Coalition’s talking points: that Kevin Rudd is all talk, and no action; that’s he’s ultimately a weak leader; and that the Liberal policy of waiting for the world was the right one all along. Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt looked positively jubilant as they gave their reactions yesterday. Today, they are even taunting the Government to bring on the double-dissolution.

Labor will now struggle to win support from the left in its second term. Socially liberal, environmentally minded voters are already drifting away to the Greens, and Labor should not assume that it will always receive their second preference, as the developing strength of the Liberal Democrats in Britain all too clearly demonstrates. In time, this decision could cost Tanya Plibersek and Lindsay Tanner their seats.

Finally, the backflip has eroded Kevin Rudd’s moral authority. It will be almost impossible for Labor to regain the high moral ground on climate. The Prime Minister has begun to look more and more like just another grubby politician, willing to break promises and compromise his principles to get elected. Labor has already abandoned its principles on refugees. Now it has caved in on climate change too.

The way this decision leaked was telling. As Laura Tingle pointed out on Sky News last night, the announcement was badly mishandled. The Prime Minister’s performance in his doorstop press conference was terrible. He looked tired and irritable. He mumbled. It was a far cry from the confident, pleasant persona of Kevin07, or even the recent health debate with Tony Abbott.

Paradoxically, this decision might just be good news in terms of Australia’s future climate change policies. The Greens will almost certainly control the Senate in the next Parliament, meaning Labor will have no choice but to negotiate with them on each and every bill it needs to pass. So if Labor does move an ETS bill after the election, the resulting policy will have to be stronger, featuring tougher targets than the risible reductions proposed by this CPRS.

That is, assuming Labor wants to pass a emissions trading bill at all. Perhaps it doesn’t.

In the meantime, Big Carbon is laughing all the way to the bank.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.