We Don't Need Another Hero


If nothing else, the response to climate change in this Australian federal term looks like achieving something close to perfect symmetry. 

In August, the Greens united with the Coalition to vote down the Government’s proposed ETS in the Senate. As this parliamentary term draws to a close, the Greens and the Coalition — and aligned commentators — once again stand united, this time to condemn Kevin Rudd’s political and moral cowardice. It’s a neat trick and one which allows both parties to avoid opprobrium for their roles in ensuring that there has been no policy response to an issue most Australians still say they want something — anything — done about.

The question that needs to be asked of Kevin Rudd’s critics is this: which climate change policy would they have had him stake his political future on?

The initial one, rejected by the Greens as too easy on polluters, and by the Coalition as too punitive?

The one that Penny Wong painstakingly negotiated with the Coalition, only to have Turnbull’s leadership implode, the denialists take control, and all but two Coalition senators vote against the deal their own side had co-authored?

Or would they have preferred that Rudd took up one of the Green proposals — for a tougher ETS or for a carbon levy — and tried to push that through the Senate?

Many of those who are now criticising Rudd from the left roundly condemned both the Government’s CPRS and Turnbull’s negotiated version anyhow. They’re not now suggesting that he should take up the cudgels for either of those proposals, are they?

Not quite. Mostly they are arguing that Rudd should have negotiated with the Greens, dragged in Nick Xenophon, and that from there pressure could have been brought to bear on liberal Coalition senators like Judith Troeth or Sue Boyce to come to the party, as Ben Eltham did in newmatilda.com yesterday.

This strikes me as little more than wishful thinking. It ignores the simple reality that the Greens might need to win a few more votes before they can successfully initiate policy. And more seriously, it just doesn’t take account of the difficulties Rudd and Wong have faced from the beginning of this process.

Let’s be clear: the reason the Government was negotiating with the Coalition so persistently is that they were the only single grouping whose support could deliver a Senate majority. Even perfect harmony with the Greens would have left the Government two votes short. In the current parliament, without some Liberals onside, they’ll always be one short, as climate change denialism is on Family First Senator Steve Fielding’s long list of bizarre beliefs. In view of these conditions, going to the Coalition first was merely sensible, if the goal was to get some kind of emissions trading scheme passed.

When that attempt failed, it was because the Coalition reneged on a deal made in good faith.

Meanwhile the various Greens proposals have had the unqualified support of precisely five senators. A negotiated position between the Government and the Greens would have meant finding common ground between Labor, the Greens, Xenophon — and a speculative Liberal grouping of uncertain composition.

The scenario relies on the notion that people like Boyce and Troeth would have voted for an ETS in a high-stakes situation, one in which they would have brought resounding and catastrophic defeat to their own party leadership. And there’s absolutely no indication that they crossed the floor on the second ETS vote from any other motivation than simple loyalty to Turnbull, and their own annoyance that a negotiated deal, on an issue that was important to them, wasn’t being honoured. This may mean that they are decent human beings, but it doesn’t mean they would have sided with the Government and the Greens when the chips were down, in a situation where they would be flushing their own political careers. They voted against the Government’s initial deal, which took a much softer line than anything the Greens might have been proposing, and when they crossed the floor, they did so in a situation where there was no prospect of it affecting the final result.

In comments on the blog Grog’s Gamut, Greens party staffer Tim Hollo has suggested that the Greens were in serious negotiations with "Senators outside Labor and the Greens" to pass a carbon levy proposal, offering this as evidence that the Government’s real failure was in not negotiating further with the Greens.

If this cryptic reference is not merely to Xenophon, but to Liberals like Troeth or Boyce, there are a few things to add. The first is that there’s a long distance between the back room and the floor of the Senate, and that the Government and the public know it. The second is that making these conversations public might have changed the whole political dynamic around this issue. Which parties, exactly, are wanting for courage in this situation? Further, without some sort of public commitment from Coalition senators to do the right thing, the Government would have been utterly foolish to bank on any of this happening. Lastly, no one but the Greens and these unnamed senators was ever talking about a carbon levy. Among other reasons, it would have provided an even better platform for a hip-pocket targeted scare campaign than the ETS did.

It’s been suggested that in the absence of a deal, Rudd could have displayed more "courage" by calling a double dissolution election on the issue. This would probably have advantaged the Greens and the Coalition in equal measure, as it would have been fought on a polarising issue, one where the Government is currently weak in its appeal to either side of the debate. Rudd would have been mad to do so. Does courage require politicians to engage in kamikaze missions?

The fact is that in the medium term, the best thing to move climate change policy forward will be the election of a Rudd government with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, and thus finding themselves in a position to mould the ETS. They’ll be able to affect the outcome positively, take credit with their own voters, and if necessary the Government will be able to "blame" them for a stronger ETS. Win-win.

A rout of the Coalition that weakens the hold of the denialists and the extreme right on the party leadership and helps to cast them into oblivion would be an outstanding outcome for future climate change policy.

And the worst case scenario for climate change policy in this country? That would be the election of an Abbott government still under denialist sway. We know that they won’t do anything about climate change. Not in 2013, not ever.

In an election year, Kevin Rudd’s priority must be forming the next government. This, of course, is not a consideration that will weigh heavily on the Greens for the foreseeable future, if ever. They have a lot of work to do before they even get into the lower house, and for all the talk that people like Lindsay Tanner might be in trouble from a Green backlash in Melbourne, it would only take a couple of thousand votes to go his way as a result of his raised profile for him not to have to go to preferences at all.

The best way for Rudd to stay in office is not to "go to the people" on a climate change double dissolution election. That would be messy, divisive, and might even result in the election of some extra denialists from Queensland, Western Australia or Tasmania. If he fights it on safer ground like health, the climate change issue could be revisited in the next term — and the Greens might be in a position to push it forward from 2013. In all likelihood we’d end up with a better outcome.

I don’t often look to politicians to exemplify virtue, figuring that their profession militates against it. Besides, when they do exhibit courage, it can often be bad for the country. Latham’s courage in aggressively taking on Howard in 2004 delivered the Coalition control of the Senate; Keating’s courage after 1993 in making a centrepiece of an agenda focused on social issues delivered us 13 years of Howardism. And from a conservative perspective, Howard’s courage on WorkChoices took the Libs from dominance of both houses to a rabble in opposition within three years. I content myself with asking politicians to deliver decent outcomes.

That said, I think that Kevin Rudd has displayed some virtue this week by accepting responsibility for things which are essentially not his fault, in the broader interest of ensuring the next election result. He’s apologised to some people whose family members died at work, resisting the temptation to point out that the whole insulation story has been a beat-up from top to bottom. And he’s announced the death of the CPRS for now, knowing the political costs — but also knowing that he’s run out of options for passing this policy, and that it’s time to prioritise.

There may be some cheap satisfaction in goading him for it, but those who do so undermine their credibility by painting a complex situation in simple blacks and whites, and in accepting the line of the other two parties — with all their vested interests — so readily.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.