CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Crisis of confidence in Rudd Government
, March 6, 2010
Limping through the first crucial sitting of the Parliament in an election year, members of the Rudd Government are a worried bunch, with marginal seat-holders fearing the worst, and others developing doubts about the capacity of the Prime Minister to lead them over the long term.
No-one seriously believes the election is lost, and commentators' comparisons with the 1929-31 Scullin administration (the last government to lose after just one term, in the middle of the Great Depression) are absurd.
Kevin Rudd remains strong favourite to win the election, and he should maintain his majority of around 16 seats.
But Peter Garrett's insulation fiasco, the collapsing scientific consensus on global warming, and a series of interest rate rises, as foreshadowed by the Reserve Bank, are headaches the PM could well do without.
With a growing voter realisation that the Rudd Government is more about spin than substance, and with the failure to deliver on key election pledges such as fixing the nation's hospital system, the Prime Minister faces some difficult months ahead.
The situation is not dissimilar to John Howard's predicament in early 2004, following Mark Latham's election as Labor leader. Latham was a populist politician whose straight-talking about the importance of reading to small children, direct democracy and putting the best teachers in the worst schools was hitting home.
For months, PM Howard did not know how to tackle his younger opponent. He became so rattled he ditched the federal MPs' generous superannuation scheme, infuriating his colleagues.
Eventually, Coalition strategists learnt what people in the Labor Party already knew — that Latham was unstable and that, if enough pressure was applied, he would crack. This he did during the 2004 campaign when he sided with cosmopolitan Greens supporters rather than his own working-class tribe on the Tasmanian forests issue.
Mr Rudd has not yet worked out how to tackle Tony Abbott, but that will surely come.
Labor strategists too will find some weakness, and Mr Abbott's honeymoon period will end.
In the meantime, the unravelling of the "science" on global warming has undermined one of Labor's key policy credentials — that of having a superior policy on climate change.
Mr Rudd had threatened a double dissolution on the issue when opinion polls were running strongly in favour of "doing something" about global warming.
But the tide has turned, the sceptics are growing in number, and Mr Rudd has been mute on the issue since the Copenhagen talkfest.
An extraordinary interview with the scientist at the centre of the Climategate scandal, during which he admitted to the BBC that there had been no global warming since 1995, has major ramifications for all governments, including Mr Rudd's.
The head of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, Professor Phil Jones, is under investigation for failing to provide Freedom of Information requests and manipulating data.
Professor Jones's admissions to the BBC, as well as other concessions including one on the existence of the medieval warming period, are a major blow to climate change catastrophists. Professor Jones's data collection is central to the theory of climate change.
But he admitted that he had lost or misplaced many of the climate records on which the IPCC modelling is based — the academic's equivalent to "the dog ate my homework" excuse.
Billions of dollars have been spent and policy changes have been made by almost every government in the world on the basis of shoddy research methods and on data which Professor Jones now says he has "lost track of".
This does not disprove global warming, nor does it prove that mankind is not contributing in some way to changes in the earth's climate; but it does mean that the science is far from settled.
For domestic politics, though, it means that Tony Abbott is starting to sound like the voice of reason when asked by the Sydney Daily Telegraph
recently if climate change was "real".
"The short answer is that climate changes all the time," Abbott replied. "The issue is to what extent man is responsible and to what extent it is prudent to act on any man-made impact on climate. I think almost certainly man does have some impact, but it is important to respond in ways which improve the environment without damaging the economy."
In the meantime, Mr Rudd has to live with the consequences of the hair-brained scheme to help the globe's climate by putting new insulation into the roofs of hundreds of thousands of Australian homes without any checks on the installers, the costs or on safety. The scheme has resulted in deaths, fires and widespread fraud.
Environment Minister Peter Garrett has become the fall guy for the disastrous venture, which is reminiscent of the batty ideas of the Whitlam Government.
But clearly it was a Cabinet decision, and the responsibility rests with those who approved the expenditure in the first place.