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Carbon copy: Back to the future in Australian politics?

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Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd [EPA]By Andrew Thomas

It was an amazing spectacle: former prime minister, now foreign minister, Kevin Rudd slowly – but surely – undermining his successor on live TV. And – just as the assassin always smiles – doing so while being praised by fellow panelists and clapped by the audience for "honesty" uncharacteristic in a politician.

Monday Night’s Q&A – Australia’s version of the BBC’s Question Time – suddenly became a key moment in Australia’s political narrative.

Here’s the history. Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister in 2007 after making the tackling of climate change a big part of his campaign. Once in power though, his flagship emissions-trading-scheme (ETS) ran into trouble.  He reacted by putting it on ice: that apparent cowardice played a big part in Labor colleagues – and rivals – losing faith in their man.

A coup was organised; Rudd out, Julia Gillard was ready and waiting in the wings. She became Prime Minister and called an early election she expected to sweep. In fact, she scraped it: remaining Prime Minister only with the support of independent MPs and the Greens.

On Monday, all that history came to a head in one spectacular half-hour. What had long been suspected was all but confirmed. In what was clearly a planted question, Rudd was asked whether he regretted postponing the ETS. Yes, he replied; even politicians make mistakes. And then the knife went in.

Because Rudd went further than a simple mea culpa. He went on to describe how senior 'colleagues' were advising him to drop the ETS altogether. And though he never quite said her name, every 'non-denial' screamed it: Julia Gillard. She’d told him to drop the policy and then knifed him for losing direction, and lack of spine, when he did.

The magic of Monday, though, was the timing. There have been plenty of moments over the nine months since he was ousted for Kevin Rudd to reveal all this. He chose now. Now, when Julia Gillard is being called 'Ju-Liar' for introducing her own proposals for an ETS and an interim carbon tax, despite explicitly ruling out such a tax before last year’s election. Now when, in large part due to the unpopularity of that carbon tax, the Liberal opposition in Australia is way ahead of Gillard’s government in polls.

Why does all this matter? Because it says lots about not only the carbon tax but the whole dynamic of Australia’s government. If Julia Gillard was really anti-ETS and carbon tax last year, as now seems clear, then why is she such a proponent of it now?

Only one thing can explain it: the Greens. Julia Gillard never expected to be in minority government. But that’s where she finds herself, having to do deal after deal with non-Labor MPs to keep the boat afloat. The ETS – surely – is a sop to Bob Brown, leader of the Greens. His party has never been so powerful and – once this parliament ends in just over two years – is unlikely to be so for years again. This is the Greens’ chance.

It’s one thing for a Prime Minister to have an unpopular policy they believe in: people understand, deep down, that leaders need to lead. It is, though, quite another to have a policy that’s unpopular and that people know is being pursued only under duress.

Kevin Rudd fell – ultimately – because people realised he’d allowed himself to be pushed into a position he didn’t believe in – he abandoned the ETS even though he still wanted it. The mirror image is now true of Julia Gillard: she’s pursuing the ETS even though, deep down, she doesn’t want it.

There is a wonderful symmetry to all this; a symmetry that would be complete if she fell and Kevin Rudd was re-given the reins. That, surely, was the real message he was trying to give on Monday night.

There’s another symmetry too: truly oppositional politics. The Greens’ influence over power has never been greater at a time the when the Liberal Opposition is led by one of the most anti-Green politicians in the world, Tony Abbott. Many in his party – perhaps the man himself – express disbelief that the world is warming, let alone that man has anything to do with it: at an anti-Carbon tax rally last week the only 'climate change' I could find anyone to accept was "it rained yesterday and it’s sunny today: the climate changes!"   

Unless Australia’s economy unexpectedly tanks, or some huge event pushes border security to the fore, the next election looks likely to be the first in the world fought over the environment. Tony Abbott’s position will be clear. Julia Gillard’s difficulty will be persuading people she actually believes in what is nominally her side of the debate.

If, of course – by then – she’s still the woman in charge.

Roving correspondent based in Sydney, Australia


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