By Phillip Toyne
Kevin Rudd is the latest of a long line of Labor Leaders who have misread the importance of the environment to the electorate or at least critical parts of it. Labor has been complacent in the belief that, whatever its shortcomings in looking after such things as the forests, the oceans and waters of the country, it will always be rated higher than the Coalition. This is their view that green voters have nowhere else to go but back to them, even if it goes via a Greens Party protest vote. There has been some justification for this in the past. Graham Richardson famously constructed a green preference strategy that saw Hawke re-elected in 1990 with a minority two party preferred vote. At the last federal election Greens Party preferences flowed approximately 80% to the ALP, so shouldn’t the Prime Minister relax in the knowledge that he continues to have the green protest vote captured? I don’t think so.
For a start, we are seeing the rise and rise of the Greens. Its support in the polls has reached the high teens - all its increases coming from the Labor vote. The defectors are angry. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate after the election. At least two Labor Ministers in inner city electorates are seriously at risk of losing to Green opponents. The Coalition has gained little benefit from this (confirming the view that they continue to trail Labor as better on the environment).
Kevin Rudd may be battling on a number of fronts now, with the Resources Super Profit Tax keeping him awake at night, but it was abandoning of the emissions trading scheme (CPRS) in such an incredible way that started the mudslide in the PM’s support and starkly called into question his courage, his credibility and his political judgment. And it wasn’t just with lefty ‘tree huggers’. It was across the spectrum. I have been accosted by teachers, public servants, business people, students, almost everyone bewildered and angry at the back down. Even those cynical about the science of climate change were angered by the lack of leadership shown by the government. Business may not have liked the CPRS but it needed the certainty of a legislated scheme in order to guide investment decisions and to set a course to a low carbon economy. Exacerbating the uncertainty was its premature decision to scrap its highly successful voluntary carbon trading scheme, Greenhouse Friendly. This winds up at the end of this month, leaving companies like Qantas, BP, Origin, Greenfleet and others heavily reliant on its verification protocols without a substitute to validate offerings such as ‘carbon offset’ flights.
Interestingly, these same people were more willing to forgive the insulation installation stuff up, seemingly taking the view that it was a worthwhile objective badly executed.
The next government will either have to match the opposition in a ‘race to the bottom’ on climate change and other environmental issues or deal with the Greens, which means substantially greening itself. If, as the Prime Minister has said, “that climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time”, then it must deal with the Greens.
Australia is the only country, post-Copenhagen, that is taking significant backward steps from the much needed policy and economic reform on climate change. I think most voters understand this. Shelving putting a price on carbon and an emissions trading scheme reduces the positive role that Australia could play in global climate negotiations which will ultimately increase the long term economic risks to Australia. As the Garnaut Review showed, of all the OECD countries, Australia is the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change and thus has the most to lose. Only purposeful domestic policies and credible targets from both major parties will save our reputation, ensure that further business opportunities are not lost and minimise long term economic risks.
I don’t think it’s too late for Kevin Rudd to pull back from the brink. He can and should announce climate change policy, which will restore some of his credibility with the electorate and global leaders. It would convincingly put daylight between Labor and the Coalition on the critical environment issue and would make the stakes too high for disaffected Labor voters to stage a “pox on both their houses” protest.
Limiting the global average temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, as agreed by all nations at Copenhagen, will require urgent and transformative change. This is why the European Commission has urged EU nations to hike their targets from 20 to 30 per cent by 2020, saying the costs and risks to industry are less than previously estimated. Treasury modelling showed that economic and jobs growth remained strong for Australia even if Australia committed to achieving 25 per cent cuts by 2020 and 90 per cent cuts by 2050. This is the message the Prime Minister needs to be giving Australians and calling on them to join the government to make the changes in the national interest.
Putting a price on carbon through an emissions trading scheme is the most efficient way to reach these targets. Over 30 countries and 10 US states have already put a price on carbon through implementing emissions trading schemes and other countries are in the process of doing so. Since the Opposition is currently unwilling to support this approach, the Government should support the recommendation in the Garnaut Review to implement, in the interim, a AUD$20 per tonne levy on carbon in Australia (a carbon tax). This approach of putting a AUD$20 per tonne levy/tax on carbon has been sensibly proposed by the Australian Greens in the Senate and has received widespread support including by 72 per cent of Australians according to a Galaxy poll. Kevin Rudd can reverse the slide. He can act decisively on Climate Change and meet community expectations and provide the leadership the country so urgently needs.
Phillip Toyne is one of Australia's best known environmentalists and is currently a director of EcoFutures, an Australian-based international policy firm developing sustainable strategies with business, government & civic leaders.
16 June, 2010