Power Failure: the tragedy of Australian climate politics

power failureThe book Power Failure, about Australia’s intransigence on climate change, was a personal mission for journalist Philip Chubb. Chubb and his family lived at Cottles Bridge near Melbourne and watched year after year as the summers got hotter. On Saturday, 7 February 2009 he stood in record-breaking heat with fire plan in hand hoping the blaze would not come over the hill and kill his family. They survived but Chubb’s closest friends died as they hid under their kitchen table. Chubb knew changes in the climate had fuelled the intensity of the fire.

The reaction to Black Saturday showed there was still divisions and fears from those who could not, or would not, see the connection. News Corp columnist Miranda Devine said the fires weren’t caused by climate change but habitat protection promoted by environmentalists. “Greenies,” Devine said, should be “hanging from lamp-posts” for their ideology which prevented “landowners from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.” Devine could have been dismissed as a lunatic outlier, but she carried a big megaphone News Corp were willing to lend to anyone who muddied the waters on climate change science.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recognised climate change as a national emergency when he won the election in 2007. He saw surveys showing climate change response could impact every seven votes in ten. Rudd spoke of great moral challenges and pledged to reorganise the national economy around new energy industries. He introduced an emission trading scheme into parliament and appointed Ross Garnaut to examine the economic impacts and recommend a framework. With bipartisan support, it seemed as though intelligent and non-partisan debate about climate change had become the norm.

The Australian Public Service Commission defined climate change in economic terms as a “wicked problem” – a pressing and complex issue involving many causes and much disagreement about possible solutions. Australia relies on fossil fuel with four out of five power stations running on coal, making the nation the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter. Private companies making money from fossil fuel also had a vested interest in climate policy failure for 25 years.

In 1990 the Bob Hawke government developed Australia’s first climate change policy aiming to stabilise emissions but not at the expense of the economy. In 1996 John Howard rolled back these modest goals refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and overriding advice to bring in emissions trading in 2003. Howard’s position was repudiated by the electorate in 20007. After temperatures in the high 40s led to the Black Saturday fires, Rudd had the opportunity to go on the front foot. Chubb’s book forensically examines how that unravelled over the four years that followed, leaving Australia further adrift than ever on effective climate action.

Rudd’s character flaws are discussed in detail in Wayne Swan’s autobiography. Kevin 24-7’s micromanaged leadership style led to dysfunction in many areas of government including climate change. Policy making was the sole preserve of Rudd, Swan and Penny Wong but with Swan absorbed in the financial crisis, Rudd and Wong were the only ones who fully understood Labor’s climate change policy. Everyone else was in the dark. There was little or no inter-departmental or stakeholder consultation and most cabinet ministers were out of the loop. Power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rudd and Wong also made the fatal mistake of not keeping the people informed as the policy took shape. Early enthusiasm for change dissipated in an information vacuum, robbing Labor of the threat of an early election to resolve the growing political impasse. As the passion for action dulled, the Opposition hammered away to create doubt and weaken resolve. Murdoch media was unforgiving while affected companies warned of job losses and an investment freeze. The year 2009 dragged on in arguments over compensation to polluters, eventually agreed at $7.3 billion, a huge amount the companies still weren’t happy with.

Rudd had a pressing need to cash in on his phenomenal personal popularity to lock in public support for climate action, but he wouldn’t talk about it. Nor was he open about the impact of carbon pricing on the cost of living. Because the community had stopped hearing about the issue, they started questioning its importance and whether it was worth paying for. Rudd had squandered consensus. Between 2008 and 2010 Newspoll showed an 11% drop in belief in climate change and by 2011 the proportion of Australians opposing action with significant costs had doubled. The breaking of the drought in late 2009 also contributed to change in public perception with many equating climate change with a lack of rain.

Having abandoned the public, Rudd put his trust in two dangerous sources: the parliamentary opposition, and global action at the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He would be betrayed in both battles. Rudd’s parliamentary failure was entirely his own fault. He wanted to pass his legislation in the Senate with the help of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. But he also played wedge politics against Turnbull and Liberal moderates which saw Opposition climate sceptics grab power in the party room. By then Rudd had alienated the Greens so there was no plan B.

The clumsily-named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme first hit the Senate in mid-2009 when Turnbull was still in charge. Turnbull said the legislation was hasty and pushed for delay. The Opposition voted against it but Turnbull was worried at that stage about fighting a climate change election so he promised to negotiate later in the year. By then National party maverick Barnaby Joyce was openly calling the CPRS a “great big new tax on everything” and said the Sunday roast would cost up to $150.

This scare campaign was inaccurate but devastating as the government had never conceded there would be any cost of living increases. Turnbull’s party room openly grumbled about giving supporting the government on climate change. Shadow Minister Tony Abbott told a September 2009 meeting in Beaufort, Victoria that climate change was “absolute crap”. The speech went down well with his older rural audience.Abbott later said this was not his “considered opinion” but also admitted the meeting convinced him to act against the policy.

In November Penny Wong and Ian Macfarlane finally began negotiations on the CPRS. The resulting deal was good for the big polluters. The LNG industry got a top-up allocation of permits, the coal industry’s handout was doubled, there were more handouts to electricity generators, steelmakers and other manufacturers and the global recession buffer was extended to 2020. Yet it was still a climate deal. Turnbull was delighted but his party room was not. There was a spill on December 1, 2009 and Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott by one vote. The third contender Joe Hockey ruled himself out with his accurate but cowardly stance that voting on climate change was a conscience decision. Abbott had no conscience on the matter. He immediately reneged on the deal with Labor and the climate consensus was finished.

Rudd’s office was initially delighted by the result thinking Abbott would shoot himself in the foot and never be electorally popular. But Abbott pushed hard on the simple message of the “great big new tax” saying emissions could be reduced by other less costly means. Rudd’s hope of getting the Greens onside were destroyed by the Wong-Macfarlane compromise. The CPRS was defeated a second time in the Senate in December 2009 by the Opposition and the Greens, despite two Liberal senators voting with Labor.

Rudd went to Copenhagen undaunted, convinced by his ability to knock together world heads. The conference was chaotic to the point of anarchy with many different alliances and divisions. Rudd told delegates a grand bargain was within their grasp but no one was listening. The conference ended without agreement. An emotionally drained Rudd blamed “Chinese fuckers” for trying to “ratfuck us” but as the Chinese economy continue to expand, it was mandarin scholar Rudd that ended up “ratfucked” in 2010.

Abbott began his onslaught buoyed by the failure of the summit and the release of hacked emails of climate scientists that wrongly suggested the environmental threat was exaggerated. Unable to openly embrace the sceptics, Abbott developed “direct action” to reduce emissions. Rudd became paralysed by doubt at the prospect of a double dissolution election. He gave the impression he would call the election in January so many staffers cancelled holidays to work out a campaign. Rudd’s supporters later claimed Julia Gillard talked him out of that election though Gillard said it was Rudd’s idea.

By Australia Day Rudd had abandoned climate change and was instead promoting health reform, leaving staff and ministers speechless. In early 2010 UK climate sceptic Chris Monckton toured Australia, garnering public legitimacy through huge media coverage. Abbott met Monckton and later parroted some of his views. Rudd was nowhere to be seen and never publicly attacked Monckton’s rubbish. Instead he looked at an abatement plan suspiciously similar to Abbott’s direct action and just as useless in meeting targets. This “Abbott lite” plan gave him an excuse to indefinitely delay the CPRS. The decision was leaked to the media in April and Rudd publicly admitted it was pushed back to 2013 unless there was “credible action” in China, India and the US. The moral challenge was not so great after all.

The impact was disastrous and immediate. The Coalition had their first lead in the polls in four years and Rudd’s personal approval rating dropped 15 points. The disaffection spread to the party room tired of a command and control leadership style with no substance. Incredibly by 24 June, he vacated the leadership without a fight. Rudd saw the numbers were against him. Julia Gillard took the reins without a vote and without explaining the darkness at the heart of government that caused the change. The outcome left Rudd to successfully play the martyr for the next three years.

Gillard’s immediate poll numbers were encouraging but it was a short honeymoon. On climate change Gillard pushed to restore consensus with a citizens’ assembly. The idea was ridiculed as “a giant focus group” and an excuse for inaction. Gillard struck deals on the mining tax and immigration to fend off the right and climate change did not feature much in the 2010 election. Abbott reiterated his doubt of climate science while Gillard publicly ruled out a carbon tax. The campaign was a disaster for Labor as well-timed Rudd leaks undermined any momentum. With the electorate still suspicious of Abbott, the election produced a hung parliament and a tug of war for the balance of power.

Labor quickly signed a formal alliance with the Greens which was widely derided. Gillard felt it would provide momentum for negotiations with the other independents and have constitutional weight with the governor-general. The decision sparked outright war by the Murdoch media stable which hated the Greens. They waged war against the government and did not cease until the 2013 election. Andrew Wilkie also signed up with Labor while Bob Katter sided with the Coalition leaving the decision of government with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. The former Nationals cared deeply about climate change and consulted with Garnaut and Nicholas Stern to work out their position. They agreed to go with Gillard demanding a re-examination of the carbon price, an updated Garnaut Review and a productivity commission study of international action on emissions reduction schemes.

Gillard appointed a Multi-Party Climate Change Commission (MPCCC) which Abbott would not support. The MPCCC made good progress and within six month came up with the framework for the Clean Energy Future package. In February 2011 The Australian revealed Gillard would introduce a carbon tax in 2012 and an ETS in 2015. Gillard and Bob Brown formally announced a fixed carbon price would begin on 1 July 2012. Gillard said Australia had to put a price on carbon early to manage inevitable change. Abbott called the carbon price a tax and said he would campaign constantly against it. That night Gillard went on ABC’s 7.30 where she could have described the new fixed price as a charge on the country’s biggest polluters. Instead she admitted she was happy to call her “market-based mechanism to price carbon” a tax. The damage was done, Gillard lost the next election there and then.

The Opposition immediately called Gillard a liar. Gillard was stuck in a losing battle of semantics reflected in abysmal polls that never recovered. The Opposition colluded in a public campaign of intimidation bordering on violence. It legitimised scepticism in a scare campaign with five parts: unimaginable price rises, huge power bills, the destruction of coal, steel, cement, aluminium and motor industries, thousands of job losses, and the death of regional towns.

The media constantly called out the negative impacts of the carbon price. When Cate Blanchett advertised support of carbon pricing, she was lampooned in the press for a week as a “pampered star” and “Carbon Cate”. Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the government said nothing. Gillard was making the same mistake as Rudd: ignoring the voters while the details were going through the sausage factory. Gillard’s silence was deliberate, she didn’t want to antagonise MPCCC support but the effect was public disdain. Her approval rating plunged to 17%, equal with the worst rating of Paul Keating.

The government took heart in the electorate’s continued suspicions over the relentless negativity of Tony Abbott. What Labor could not deal with was the return of Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s backers asserted they could still win the next election with him at the helm. The Government introduced the Clean Energy Fund in June 2011 and Gillard successfully marshalled it through parliament. The carbon tax would be introduced a year later at the European price of $23 a tonne giving the electorate 12 months of “lived experience” of carbon pricing before the election. Labor also gave $10 billion over five years to a new Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a green investment bank idea borrowed from the UK.

Finally the government gave thought to the communication strategy. Its research said they should avoid explaining climate change or justifying carbon pricing. Instead they would immunise the public by paying them off. But when it came to the “lived experience” people could not easily determine if the effects were good or bad. Abbott’s claim the world would fall in was ludicrous but dissatisfaction remained at rising costs, with massive electricity price spikes due to rising network charges. Gillard’s hope for “clear air” to explain the package ran into a renewed Rudd leadership challenge.

The leaks and briefings escalated in 2013 and by June the destabilisation had made Gillard’s leadership untenable. But the collateral damage was intense and Rudd and Labor were swept from office in September 2013. The summer of 2012-2013 was the hottest on record but that was of no interest to the new government. Abbott moved quickly to axe the Climate Commission, abolish the Climate Change ministry and appoint a climate sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target. The victory of the sceptics, however temporary, has left the “wicked problem” of climate change as far from a solution as ever. Hopes for a consensus remain poor as long as the Abbott clique remains in power. As Chubb writes, Australia could long rue its power failures between 2008 and 2013.

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