Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rudd drops the ball in climate time-on

In his recent “meltdown” on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Kevin Rudd was ruffled like a man on the boundary receiving a hand-pass under pressure, a “hospital ball” as footy-speak sometimes has it. The ball was climate change, and it was coming back to him after a much earlier play when he’d got free on a wing – steel-rimmed specs clear and in place – surging forward with his eyes on inside 50.

That was the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, when Rudd ultimately swept to power partly on the promise of strong action on climate change, “a great moral challenge of our time”. Now the hot ball came not from Geelong’s Cameron Ling, but another fiery redhead, the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien – put whatever jumper you like on him, the ball was coming in fast.

When O’Brien took the PM back to his own past words on the imperative for climate action, confronted him with the charge of “cowardice” Rudd had himself levelled at an Opposition seeking delay, the prime minister found himself with nowhere to go. He was angry, but inept, and finally, with no-one on the lead, sent the ball out of bounds.

Now is the political moment when the crowd holds its breath waiting to see if the umpire will call for a free kick to the Opposition for “deliberate”, or a throw-in and the resumption of play late in the third quarter in the race to the imminent federal election.

Like a player dragged for a “clanger” and on the phone to the coach, Rudd had plenty of excuses for the ABC audience. He was shelving his emissions trading scheme until after the current Kyoto commitment period because climate talks in Copenhagen had confirmed the stalled progress of international action. His legislation had been repeatedly rejected by the Senate.

There was, of course, nothing to differentiate the starkly divergent motives of the Greens and the Coalition for rejecting the ETS. Tony Abbott will always think climate change is “crap”, but the Greens see the ETS in its shelved form for what it is, a climate placebo that, if enacted, would at best give the mere appearance of action while committing Australia to worsening droughts, floods and bushfires.

While O’Brien challenged the PM on why he isn’t taking the ETS to a double-dissolution election, the possibility of the Greens much simpler interim carbon price was not even canvassed. As for Copenhagen, like a footy writer nailing some weird and unpopular rule-change in the AFL’s pre-season competition, O’Brien highlighted the discrepancy of the PM’s past views on waiting for international action.

All this has given rise to an Opposition narrative about a prime minister who stands for nothing, a prime minister turning aimlessly on the boundary, who has backflipped on home insulation, and now on the climate action he had called for with such urgency. Maybe, Abbott suggests, the ETS is really about – and only about – a Great Big New Tax.

Leaving aside the Opposition leader’s dismissal of climate change – his knowledge in that area has more holes than his budget reply speech – we should consider that the ETS might well have been the wrong tool to achieve the right objective.

The science is clear that we need deep cuts to our carbon emissions, and the electorate needs to be clear that this is a process founded on science, one that can be managed as a transition instead of the drastic disruption painted by the opponents of change – including the fossil-fuel energy generators and the mining industry.

If the public does not understand this, it is partly because, floating between government messaging and the science on climate impacts is a fluid layer of political expedience.

First there’s the budget allocation of $30 million over two years for better climate communication – meaningless when that money is to be drawn from the existing resources of a climate change department expected to find savings of $200 million (1).

More significantly, how can the government be serious about climate change when it actively encourages the expansion of the coal industry? This is the alarming message of Guy Pearse writing in The Monthly. Australia, heavily dependent on fossil fuels for its own energy, is on track to become the world’s largest exporter of carbon – ahead, even, of Saudi Arabia.

Contributing to a massive carbon tally disproportionate to our population is the planned significant expansion of oil exploration off Australia’s coast. In the context of our own Montara spill, and the US Gulf Coast disaster, energy and resources minister Martin Ferguson is willing to countenance unacceptable environmental risk in the rush for deep-water oil.

That’s where mere calls for better communication fail. Unless there is some bedrock of reality to which communication is anchored, unless it is consistent with the government’s other actions, it will be rightfully perceived for what it is: empty spin. A genuine commitment to action precedes honest communication.

Rudd’s difficulty does not result just from a failure to communicate, but on the reality that accurate communication would highlight the yawning gap between the government’s professed commitment to climate and the vanishing opportunities for the urgent action demanded by science.

When I met in April with energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson, I put to him the pressing need for strong action and a public education campaign. Disingenuously, he said the government had made things very difficult for itself with “political advertising”. Yet the kind of truthful climate campaign we need would be about as political as a televised bushfire evacuation warning, or a public health announcement about the closure of airports due to a threat from avian influenza.

Ferguson, himself a champion of fossil fuels, is a symptom of the climate split-personality of this Labor government. When the government should be vigorously taking on the miners, the minister has embarked on a “listening tour” of mining companies to gather the views he seems to have missed from their Canberra lobbyists.

Instead, Rudd should be communicating that strong action on climate – including a price on carbon – is consistent with the need for an appropriate resources tax. Aside from the fact that the royalties paid by mining companies have been declining as a percentage of their super-profits, the climate cost of mining activities will never feature in the strident blasts of the Minerals Council of Australia.

With the election fast approaching, Kevin Rudd should be hoping like hell that the ball is thrown back in, not handed to Tony Abbott for a free kick that will lose us the larger game. It might be the third quarter in the electoral race, but it’s time-on in the fourth for climate, and the siren’s coming. Prime minister, for the moment you’re the captain–coach. Whose side are you on?

(1) Katharine Murphy, "Of backflips and backchat", The Age Insight, 15 May 2010, p.5

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