Gillard Faces Rudd-made Climate Trap

By Dennis Shanahan

Four years ago Kevin Rudd embarked on a highly successful political campaign.

As the leader of the opposition the new Labor leader embarked on a long-term campaign to outflank John Howard and the Coalition on climate change.

In conjunction with global campaigns from Al Gore, the UN, the European Union, the Greens, Greenpeace and Tony Blair's Labour government, Rudd built the theme of action on climate change into the Australian political landscape.

Rudd created a climate change conundrum that has contributed to the defeat of four federal leaders since 2007 and that is threatening to hamper the leadership of a fifth: Julia Gillard.

In a formal alliance with the Greens, a Gillard government is going to have to radically alter its climate change approach.

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The Prime Minister's plan to have a 150-member people's assembly to create a consensus on climate change is already marked for the waste basket.

The proposal for another talk-fest was always a dubious idea but it was a Labor climate change policy promised during the election campaign that the Greens have supplanted with a climate change committee that will include Labor and Greens MPs.

Reaching a consensus at a people's assembly is not going to mean much if the climate change committee takes a different stance and, after July 1 next year, a more radical climate change plan, acceptable to the Greens, is put to the Senate.

In Rudd's early days an emissions trading scheme, ill-defined, became part of a mantra for cutting carbon pollution and heading off catastrophic climate change and extreme weather, which included Australia's prolonged drought and accompanying water shortages in southeastern Australia. The political issue that was to become a defining difference between the Howard government and the Rudd opposition was the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Ratifying Kyoto was a potent symbol because Howard would never agree to the ratification, although Australia was already a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, because he believed to do so worked against Australia's economic interests as one of the world's biggest suppliers of coal.

The refusal to ratify Kyoto played into the image of Liberal dinosaurs who were "climate-change deniers", old-fashioned and backward-looking.

Rudd campaigned on the issue, forced the Howard government to shift ground and put forward its own belated plans for an ETS; to put a price on carbon.

Rudd convinced the public of the importance of action on climate change by political leaders in Australia.

Addressing the "greatest moral and economic challenge of our time" to protect our children and grandchildren became Rudd's political hallmark.

There was overwhelming public support for action on climate change and Labor soared ahead of the Coalition on the question of who was better able to handle the issue.

Rudd exploited the political potential, but during the 2007 election campaign was careful to leave his policy options within acceptable limits by quickly repudiating remarks by the then climate change spokesman, Peter Garrett. The new frontbencher suggested it wouldn't be necessary for developing nations to face binding commitments at the same time as Australia and other developed nations. As Labor leader Rudd reacted quickly and killed off what could have been a disastrous blow to climate change politics.

It was this point that led to the failure of the UN's Copenhagen climate change conference last year.

In the end Rudd's framing of the climate change action argument contributed greatly to the vision of an old and tired Coalition government and contributed to Howard's defeat.

The irony is that the creation of public demand for action on climate change meant a political problem was created, and the problem was insoluble.

Howard was only the first leadership victim of the inherent problem of reconciling genuine concern about climate change with practical, effective and cost-efficient action.

His Liberal Party successor, Brendan Nelson, was dumped as opposition leader in 2008 because he got caught between a shadow ministry that felt compelled to take climate change action and a back bench baulking at an ETS because of popular opposition in their electorates.

Malcolm Turnbull took the opposite position to Nelson - who had sought to delay action on an ETS until after Copenhagen - and decided to speed through an ETS with Coalition amendments.

Last year Turnbull argued that it was better to appear as a co-sponsor of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme with Coalition changes and then move on from climate change than continue to be painted as climate-change denying dinosaurs.

But Turnbull's position was opposed by his Coalition partners, the Nationals, and split the Liberal Party.

In the end it was Tony Abbott's opposition to an ETS that defeated Turnbull and made Abbott the fourth Liberal leader in just three years.

Rudd's demise followed his failure to pass legislation on an ETS, the despondent reaction to the Copenhagen fiasco and the final abandonment of the CPRS. Remember, it wasn't just Coalition opposition that defeated Rudd's CPRS but Greens opposition as well.

Gillard has now agreed to meet Greens leader Bob Brown and new Greens MP Adam Bandt every parliamentary sitting week, "principally to discuss and negotiate any planned legislation".

According to the signed agreement: "When parliament is not in session, the Prime Minister, or her delegate, will meet with Senator Brown and Mr Bandt, or their delegate, at least once each fortnight, principally to discuss the upcoming legislative agenda."

Brown and Bandt have nominated gay marriage and a price on carbon as their top priorities.

Having opposed gay marriage, not just on Labor policy but personal grounds, Gillard faces another difficult issue.

It's the return to finding a politically acceptable solution to Rudd's insoluble problem.

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