CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
How Rudd could avoid climate change backlash
, August 2, 2008
Climate change reform will be even less popular if voters suspect that it only a symbolic gesture.The Rudd Government's Green Paper on climate change seeks to strike a balance between "doing something" on climate change and ensuring that voters are not penalised to the point that they will turn on Labor at the next election.
In the process, it has incensed green groups and set off a chorus of complaint among potentially affected businesses in industries which are now demanding compensation.
Kevin Rudd appears to have realised his tenure as Prime Minister depends on how adroitly he handles the politics of climate change.
He will be pleased with the result so far, and initial polls suggest that the Government has not been harmed by its plans to set up a modest carbon cap-and-trade system.Green demands
Past experiences have shown that, no matter what concessions are made, the Greens will never be satisfied and the Government would be making a serious error of judgment if it bowed to their demands on curbing carbon emissions.
Sections of business too have shown they are willing to try to extract large amounts of taxpayers' money with threats of shutting down their operations in Australia if that money is not forthcoming.
As time goes on, and as other countries prevaricate and procrastinate on climate change, Mr Rudd is likely to further dilute Australia's "actions" on climate change.
Voters are also starting to realise that any Australian effort to combat climate change will actually do little, if nothing, concrete because we contribute just 1.4 per cent of the world's human-induced greenhouse gases.
The Government has already prudently decided to reject key elements of Professor Ross Garnaut's report.
Instead, it has decided to offer direct assistance to coal-fuelled electricity generators, exclude agriculture from the scheme altogether for several years, and reduce petrol taxes for the first three years of the scheme.
It has warned that the price of electricity and gas will rise and that there will be a flow-on effect to groceries - but maintains that the price hikes will be relatively small, and that low-income earners will be compensated.
Yet groups which are in favour of dramatically curbing Australia's greenhouse gases are urging the Rudd Government to be much more "courageous", arguing that voters will reward them for bold and forward-thinking policy decisions of which climate change is the most pressing.
One of the great myths of Australian politics is being perpetuated by these people - that governments are rewarded at the ballot box for being reformist.
Senior commentator at The Australian
, George Megalogenis, warned recently that Kevin Rudd was "on the edge of a reform malaise".
"From the moment the Hawke Labor Government floated the dollar in December 1983, one or more blocs in the community have cried reform fatigue," Megalogenis wrote.
"But in the nine elections since then, government has changed hands just twice, in 1996 and last year.
"Only one reform failed to pass muster in that time, WorkChoices. The rest, from deregulation of the financial sector, to tariff cuts, to the GST, saw the party implementing the reform re-elected again and again."
In fact, John Howard lost more than a dozen seats and came within a whisker of losing the 1998 election with his proposed GST reform.
And he may have lost the 2001 election had it not been for the fortuitous arrival of the Tampa
Premier Jeff Kennett's "reforms" in Victoria included selling the state's trains and trams, power stations and gas corporation, closing down hundreds of schools and dismissing 50,000 public servants. He lost government after just two terms, ignominiously thrown out of office. The Liberals in that state have never recovered.
Similarly, former Labor leader Paul Keating "burnt" Labor's blue-collar heartland by decisions to sell off the Commonwealth Bank, CSL and Qantas.
True, Mr Keating won the "unwinnable" 1993 election, but only because his opponent Dr John Hewson was offering voters a raft of even more radical reforms including a 15 per cent GST, abolition of Medicare bulk-billing, abolition of awards, and cutting out the dole after nine months.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of reforms such as privatisation, cutting tariffs and competition policy, the one thing that can be said about them is that they are not popular.Vote-destroyers
This is not to say governments should do nothing or fail to govern in the national interest. But they need to be realistic and alert to the fact that every "reform" proposed by the Treasury and economic rationalists is a vote-destroyer.
The climate change reform will be the least popular of all because voters will eventually twig that it is a symbolic gesture.
Mr Rudd, who is a master of using spin and symbolism, knows this better than anyone.
He will continue to talk tough about climate change and making the hard decisions, but the actual effect on the environment will be minimal, while enormous efforts will be made to minimise the pain in the electorate.