Chasing the consensus chimera

As Australia’s government goes to an election promising consensus-building on climate change, action

Setbacks for advocates of strong action on climate change have come in quick succession in the months since Copenhagen. If the demise of the US climate bill was the most important, the turnaround in Australia -- which boasts some of the highest per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the world -- may be the most striking.

Australian Labor fought and won the 2007 election pledging an emissions trading scheme (ETS) by 2010. It will face the people later this month promising to defer a final decision on whether to introduce an ETS to 2012.

This dwindling of political will has raised fundamental questions about the government. Climate change was the totemic issue for the "new leadership" offered by Kevin Rudd in 2007. In addition to his off-the-cuff welcome to Hu Jintao in excellent Mandarin, Rudd's climate activism was crucial to his self-presentation as a modern, forward-thinking leader. Back then, Rudd called climate change "the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation". He condemned the inaction and climate scepticism of his predecessor, the conservative John Howard.

Labor's advertising campaign even depicted Howard asleep in his bed, famously bushy eyebrows visible above the duvet, with a framed photo with George W Bush on the bedside table. While an alarm clock blared away in vain, the voice-over pronounced Howard "asleep on climate change".

But the "greatest moral challenge" does not feature in Labor's ad campaign this time around.

Labor's ETS was rejected by parliament in December after a last-minute rebellion of opposition conservatives -- one of whom branded climate change a conspiracy of "the extreme left" to "deindustrialise the western world". But instead of fighting another election on the issue, Rudd announced in April that the ETS would be delayed until at least 2013.

His credibility never recovered. Political opponents who had accused the government of having a hollow core claimed vindication. Ross Gittins, a prominent economic commentator, labelled Rudd "a weak man fallen among thieves". His standing deemed unsalvageable by party hardheads, Rudd was replaced as leader in June by his deputy, Julia Gillard.

Gillard soon called an election and announced that a returned Labor government would review plans for an ETS in 2012, after establishing a randomly selected "Citizens' Assembly" to "examine" climate change and "test" community consensus. But consensus on contentious issues is by definition a chimera. Each of the major economic reforms in Australia over the past 30 years was carried out in the distinct absence of community consensus.

The announcement drew widespread derision. Labor's lead has evaporated in most polls. The attempt to kick the ETS into touch simply exacerbated the doubts raised by Rudd's backflip.

This should not be a surprise. A recent poll found that 60 per cent of Australians want an ETS. The global financial crisis is often cited as a reason for weakening demand for action on climate, but Australia did not have a recession. What's more, many people were persuaded in 2007 of the urgent need to put a price on carbon. They find it difficult to accept that this need has become less urgent, not more, in 2010.

Australia's three-year electoral cycle makes U-turns decidedly risky. People may not have long memories, but they certainly have short ones.

Few doubt that Rudd would have won an election immediately after the parliament rejected his ETS. Eight months later, his successor is locked in a tight race with an opposition leader who once declared climate-change science to be "absolute crap". Labor did not learn the obvious lesson. It was Rudd's capitulation on climate, not his original boldness, that shattered his credibility and his standing in the polls.

Gillard's campaign has borrowed the "Forward not back" mantra from New Labour. On climate, she might have been better off paying heed to another of Tony Blair's tenets: "At our best when at our boldest."

Stephen Minas covered the Copenhagen climate summit for Radio Television Hong Kong and the Diplomat magazine and recently completed a Master's in international relations at the London School of Economics.Twitter: @StephenMinas

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.