There is something noble about the advocacy of lost causes. Provided it is recognised they are lost. The alternative is self-delusion. There is very little chance Kevin Rudd can get his emissions trading scheme through the Senate. To do so would require Labor to obtain seven additional votes. There are five Green senators and two independents but, for various reasons, the Greens and independents have indicated their intention to defeat this legislation.
When the legislation was subjected to a Senate vote last December, two Liberal senators crossed the floor to vote with the Rudd government – the Victorian Judith Troeth (first elected in 1993) and the Queenslander Sue Boyce (appointed in 2007 to fill a casual vacancy). Even if both cross the floor when it is next considered by the Senate, the Rudd government would still be five votes short of a majority – unless five senators from the Greens or independents vote with them.
The lesson is clear. The ETS is a lost cause. In which case, Rudd would be well advised to cut Labor’s losses now and junk the legislation. A post-ETS political environment would make it possible for the Prime Minister to reshuffle his ministry and move the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, and the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, into different positions.
Rudd is primarily responsible for his government’s inability to explain its climate change policies. However, the formal dumping of the ETS could be used as a rationalisation to explain a reshuffle.
Wong was a star performer in the 2007 election campaign and rarely missed making the required political point. It’s just that, in her climate-change role, Wong sounds like an automaton who is unwilling to answer questions. Garrett appears to have become a victim of the PS syndrome – he is so committed to Planet Saving, he has not focused on the administration of Labor’s environment program.
There was always a case for Australia awaiting the outcome of the Copenhagen summit before deciding on climate-change legislation. This would have suited both sides of politics. But Rudd bet on a more-or-less successful outcome at Copenhagen and the opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, went along with him because he is a true-believing eco-catastrophist. Tony Abbott’s defeat of Turnbull in the Liberal Party leadership ballot, and the subsequent disaster that was Copenhagen, have changed the political climate.
Few would expect Abbott to win the next election but the Coalition under his leadership is capable of gaining votes and seats. The challenge posed by the new Liberal Party leadership should encourage Labor to change its focus.
– It has become fashionable for commentators to assert that Rudd cannot communicate a simple message. As far as the ETS is concerned, this is harsh. It is not clear if anyone can explain emissions trading in readily understandable terms. Before the 2007 election, Rudd could get across an understandable line. His current problem seems to be engaging in indirect speech. On Meet the Press last Sunday, for example, the Prime Minister prefaced his answer on a dozen occasions with the term: “Can I say?” – or words to this effect. No such question is necessary. He needs to talk directly.
– Since the election, the research capacity of the Prime Minister’s office has been downgraded. This should be revamped. Two weeks ago Rudd forgot a commitment he had made about no worker being worse off under the Fair Work legislation. On Q&A last week, he incorrectly said there were three (rather than two) independent senators. His office should be spending time briefing the Prime Minister rather than running lines calculated to embarrass the opposition.
– There is little point attacking Tony Abbott’s social conservatism. In the states where the Coalition threatens Labor – NSW and Queensland – social conservatism is not a negative. Some of the inner-city luvvies who dislike Abbott may not admit it, but the next election will not be won, or lost, in Ultimo or Leichhardt.
The Age journalist Katharine Murphy does not present as a prude. Indeed she describes herself as a secular feminist. Last month, Murphy described Abbott’s advice to his young daughters about pre-marital sex as “more or less what I would advise my kids”. Many parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents would agree – and quite a few would live in marginal seats. One of Rudd’s appealing features to many voters in 2007 turned on the fact he is a social conservative himself. Labor should not forget this.
– Political change is never easy. The success of the governments led by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard is that they were able to implement significant reforms. Hawke and Keating never enjoyed a Senate majority and Howard only had majority support in the upper house in the final years of his government. Rudd needs to get things done.
Rudd’s priority was climate change. Yet there was never any sense in Australia going out in front of the world on this issue.
So far only the European Union nations have adopted an ETS and their economies are significantly different from that of Australia, Canada or the United States.
The sinking of the ETS would make it possible for Rudd to focus on health and the economy. He would be ill-advised to go an election with an ETS in Labor’s policy speech.