The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07″. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing victory but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese, predicted destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with different conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as another deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach left no stone unturned as she extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most of the Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their open admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by other players like Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. There were only three notables from the Labor first rank not to have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from appearing and raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake in my view, he should have had his say and explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is much to go by). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but sooner rather than later he should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season he launched into open warfare after the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is hopelessly inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah effectively demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly strident. The ABC is portrayed as duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch has provided an effective bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Malik is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season should be seen for what it was, classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screechings of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

Australia: a country in desperate need of a climate change policy

Before someone puts Tony Abbott out of our misery, the Liberal Party should take a long moment to think about climate change and what its next leader should do about it. It is a process it needs to complete by December because its government will be representing Australia at the Paris Climate Change conference. That conference has the goal of containing “climate disruption” within a two degree upper limit and the adoption of an international agreement to move the world towards a low-carbon economy by 2020. Australia hasn’t the slightest hope of meeting any such commitment based on its current policies.

The working document for this conference is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report (or whatever will supersede it this year).The climate change science in this report is telling us we are in bad shape. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any decade since the 1850s. The last 30 years are likely to be the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The upper ocean temperature is warming and ocean acidification has increased by a quarter in the industrial era. Arctic sea ice is decreasingly by 4% a decade and the sea level rose 0.2% in the 20th century. This has resulted in large increases in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, particularly in the last 40 years.

The future the report is predicting is more rising sea levels, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more extreme weather events including cyclones, droughts and floods across the world. This is a dire scenario and if inter-generational theft means anything at all, then surely this is it. What then, is the government of Australia doing about it?

It’s actually hard to tell it is doing anything at all. While it is unsurprising to note Tony Abbott hasn’t mentioned climate change in a speech in over three months, it’s more surprising to note a search of the Liberal Party policies page has no official policy on climate change. That is, unless you think scrapping the carbon price, removing government oversight mechanisms, building highways and tunnels, and supporting the coal industry amount to addressing climate disruption.

The closest thing the Liberals have to an official environment policy is a $2 billion green army aimed at heritage and agriculture protection as much as the environment. The Green Army is a John Howard-style militia inspired by the motherhood vision for Australia where “individually and collectively, we can more often be our best selves” so they can “do the right things by those around them.” This army lacks the artillery to deal with bigger environmental problems especially in two industries Australia is vulnerable in: manufacturing and mining.

Then there’s “direct action”. Seen by almost everyone outside the government as a hopelessly ineffective solution, it does not even merit its own policy page on the Liberal website.  There is blurb on the Emissions Reduction Fund (the centrepiece of the policy) on the environment department website but is lacking in detail. Its reliance on big government intervention to meet targets is also stark contrast to the laissez-faire attitude the Coalition has in other areas of the economy. A market-based cap-and-trade approach seems a more logical approach but that would admit its opposition to Labor policy for the last four years was wrong.

This extraordinary inaction to the world’s biggest problem can only be explained one way. This government has been captured by those who do not believe the climate change science. When the government repealed the carbon price legislation last July, Liberal Senator Ian McDonald said what many in his party room would agree with. “If there is global warming, notwithstanding that in Brisbane on Saturday morning we had the coldest day in 113 years – but I have always indicated,” McDonald said, “I have an open mind on this.”  McDonald was incoherent but what he meant is he has a closed mind on this. Climate change is bunkum, he believes, or “crap” as his party leader once offered. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who was instrumental in wrecking bi-partisan agreement on carbon pricing, takes a similar view.

Joyce doesn’t have a vote on who should be the next party leader but he will be active behind the scenes. He is a fan of Tony Abbott because he knows Abbott will continue the ‘do nothing’ approach. But even Abbott’s one and only speech on climate change in the last three months admits that is no longer an option. On December 14, 2014, Abbott was dragged kicking and screaming into pledging $200m over four years to UN’s Green Climate Fund, despite it being what he called “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. Abbott did this not only because he was friendless on the issue but because he knows Paris is looming. Abbott admitted he needed a taskforce “to propose possible new post-2020 targets for Australia to take to the Paris Conference of the UNCCC in December 2015.”

That taskforce is yet to materialise leaving Australia no closer to effective action. “Direct Action” may or may not fluke its way to achieving Australia’s miserly 2020 target but is utterly useless beyond that. Abbott and his supporters can doubt the science all they like, but the world is moving on anyway. Australia needs a climate change policy before December. This is the problem Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and anyone else who would be prime minister needs to grapple with urgently.

Closing the gap to 2030

Closing_the_Gap_2015_coverIt was the anthropologist Bill Stanner who described Australia’s attitude to its Indigenous people as a “great history of indifference”. Stanner was speaking in 1963, just after Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders (hereafter ATSI) got the vote.

That brought Indigenous people into the Australian story, a process accelerated by the 1967 referendum that ensured “Aboriginal” people (ATSI people) were counted in the census and the Commonwealth had a role to play. One of the referendum’s instigators, Faith Bandler who died yesterday aged 96, wasn’t Indigenous but her polyglot Melanesian-Scottish-Indian background was emblematic of a new Australia gradually looking beyond the coattails of empire for inspiration, and prepared to dig deep for the descendants of its original inhabitants.

Australia’s story over the last 50 years has been one of an attractive, open, vast and vibrant country with great wealth and freedom, attracting people from around the world. The conditions of ATSI people has greatly improved in that time but because they started from a low ebb, they remain adrift of the general population in most statistical markers. Their place on the census allowed economists to easily measure the state of the gap while Commonwealth involvement gave the problem a much needed national focus.

In March 2008, Kevin Rudd used his popularity as prime minister to coax the new Australian Government and Opposition to sign the Close the Gap Statement of Intent. Rudd hosted the Indigenous Health Equality Summit which committed to closing the health equality gap between ATSI and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030.

The rationale was a dichotomy revealed by the UN Human Development Index which ranked Australia third in the world off the back of its mining boom. The score ranked Australia highly on such matters as life expectancy, employment, health and other indicators. Yet the life expectancy of an ATSI person was 17 years less than the Australian average.

The gap was a stark reminder of a great divide in Australia across education, incoming, housing, mental health, chronic disease, child and maternal health, and access to health services. The gap led to an immense burden of suffering and grief for ATSI people which was a “scar on an unhealed past” and a “stain on the reputation of the nation”.

The impact is felt by the states as well. Victoria and Queensland got on board the Statement of Intent in 2008, WA in 2009, the ACT, NSW and SA in 2010. WA and NT have not yet signed up but the committee recognises states have as big a role to play as Canberra. They spend the Commonwealth tax dollar on health and education.

But the Commonwealth takes the lead, producing the Closing the Gap report since 2008. In this issue as in many others Rudd overpromised and underdelivered yet there has been much progress in seven years. The improvement is hard to see because while Aboriginal health has improved, the health of the general community is also improving. We are failing to “close the gap” fast enough.

Women are bearing the brunt of the problem. In the last five years, Indigenous life expectancy has gone up by 1.6 years for men but just 0.6 for women. Both sexes still die 10 years earlier than non-Indigenous people, so the good thing is the gap has narrowed by seven years since 2008 and is a reminder that closing the gap takes a lot of continuous effort and time. In New Zealand it took 20 years to improve Maori life expectancy by four years.

Prime Minister Gillard never had the same focus as Rudd on Indigenous affairs. She guided a minority government through many controversial issues but ATSI legislation never floated to the top. In her final closing the gap report in 2013 she claimed victory on access to remote pre-schools but admitted there was still a “massive and unacceptable” standard of living gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Last year was the first Closing the Gap report of the post-Labor era. Like John Howard, Tony Abbott put great store in what he called “practical reconciliation” (ruling self-determination off the table.) Like in the Labor years, the report spoke of the “stark reality of health inequality” and called for measures to reduce smoking rates, improve maternal and children’s health and to make inroads into chronic disease.

This year is much the same. The committee wants greater focus on access to primary health care services to detect, treat and manage Indigenous health conditions. They have evidence to suggest Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services gives the best bang for contested government dollars, providing wide-scale, quality access to health services.

The committee supports the government’s priorities of education, employment and community safety. But they want the Closing the Gap strategy to have a “clearer connection” with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. Education, employment and community safety lead to good health but good health is also important to driving education, employment and community safety. Health services is the bigger employer of Indigenous people so increased investment will lead to increased employment.

The year 2030 remains the target and by then we should see a further shrinking of difference. But “the gap” must remain a priority well beyond then. Indigenous injustices, shielded by settler indifference for 180 years, cannot be wiped away in the health service schemes of a single generation. There must be continued commitment to the removal of the gap for ATSI people as populations. But integration or assimilation is not the complete answer. There must also be a commitment to support ATSI people as distinct peoples with their own culture and languages, regardless of health and employment outcomes.

Scott Buchholz and Pauline Hanson: why Queensland politics matters to Canberra

Pauline Hanson chats with a voter in Gatton (photo by Amy Lyne).
Pauline Hanson chats with a voter in Gatton (photo by Amy Lyne).

TWO closely related events took place in the last two days, one in Australian federal politics and one in Queensland.

In federal politics the shenanigans (a lovely word meaning mischief that sounds as if it should be Irish and probably is via Tammany Hall) of #libspill week, ended with its first victim: chief whip Philip Ruddock. Canberra’s press gallery believes the father of the house was sacked because he miscalculated the size of the backbench rebellion in the party room.

The spill did not reveal who was ready to step into Tony Abbott’s shoes. The likeliest contenders Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop kept their powder dry, but the 39 MPs voting for a spill of the leadership positions revealed a deeply wounded leader.

Abbott is a fighter and like the Black Knight will claim his troubles are just a flesh-wound and he has the wherewithal to continue to provide “adult government”. Ruddock was the most senior adult in that government, a moderate who successfully implemented John Howard’s hardline anti-immigration policies to electoral success.

He was never close to Abbott and he was made a scapegoat yesterday losing his position to his deputy Scott Buchholz. Very few people outside of Canberra and a small part of south-east Queensland have heard of Buchholz, an amiable man, though not a deep political thinker.

I met him first at Roma races and liked his bonhomie and charm. He is well connected as Barnaby Joyce’s former chief of staff and a businessman who ran a transport company out of Toowoomba for 18 years.

He is also the federal member for Wright, a seat with a ridiculous shape (looking a bit like Iceland) that bolts together Beaudesert and the Gold Coast hinterland with the Lockyer Valley, with mountains dividing these dissimilar communities and no direct roads between them.

Its shape and scope is similar to the equally absurd Queensland seat of Lockyer, which almost played a big part in deciding the fate of the Queensland Government.

It took 13 days for Palaszczuk to form government and it took 12 days for Lockyer to be declared. Labor won the election and the LNP won Lockyer but if Pauline Hanson had got in, she would have been a thorn in both their sides. Labor would be delighted low profile incumbent LNP party outsider Ian Rickuss (who had a hate-hate relationship with Premier Campbell Newman, but will be more in with Springborg) held on, defeating Hanson by 114 votes on two-party preferences.

Hanson was just 59 votes away from getting a shot at the balance of power with independent Tony Wellington. I wanted Hanson to get in, if only to liven things up, but I would have been nervous to give her such a shot at power.

While the election was in play, the left-wing Hanson haters got their knickers in a twist in moral panic and castigated Lockyer voters for their “stupidity”. It was hypocrisy on a grand scale from people who believe Abbott supporters are always blaming the voters for bad polls. In Lockyer it was easy to see her appeal, and she grabbed votes from the left, the centre, and the right.

Hanson is a serial candidate and her near success in Lockyer, and wide approval, will encourage her to have another go. She told me she has signed up as a volunteer with a crisis care centre in Laidley. Her first shot at another campaign would have been the council elections of 2016 and a run at Lockyer Valley mayor.

There are three reasons why that won’t happen. Firstly, she said herself, she won’t run. Secondly, she is ineligible, living across the border in Scenic Rim council area. It didn’t matter in the state election, “where she put her head down of a night” as she put it (though it meant she couldn’t be one of the 59 votes needed to turn the election around) but she must live in the seat to run in the council election. Thirdly she ran with the blessing of Lockyer Valley mayor Steve Jones, a feisty old-style conservative linked to his cousin Alan Jones. Steve Jones hates the LNP and particularly detests Ian Rickuss. I’ve had my ups and downs with Steve Jones, but Hanson is unlikely to want to cross him if she can help it.

A more likely strategy is for Hanson to run for Wright in the next federal election in September 2016. She lives in Wright and can count on a good vote from the Lockyer Valley. Beaudesert and the coastal fringe will be a challenge but her rock star appeal in the electorate may get her over the line.

Labor preferenced her last in Lockyer and are likely to do so again in Wright. But 60% of Labor voters ignored the how to vote card and put Hanson ahead of Rickuss. Federal elections are not optional preferential like Queensland so voters have to vote all the way down the line.

Wright is held by Buchholz, a fierce supporter of Tony Abbott. Abbott was Howard’s point man who ensured Pauline Hanson’s arrest and imprisonment for electoral fraud, a case overturned in the Court of Appeal after Hanson served three months in prison.

Hanson hates Labor, but has good motivation to hate Tony Abbott more. This is why Abbott has shored up Buchholz’s position with a promotion. A minority government in the 2016 election with Hanson in Canberra would be as disastrous for Abbott (assuming he is still Prime Minister and not just a dead man governing) as it would be for Labor.

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.

Wayne Swan still in the ring for ‘The Good Fight’

swanAustralian male politicians like their violent metaphors especially when describing their own exploits. Tony Abbott’s autobiography Battlelines reflected his pugilism while one of his former opponents, former Labor deputy PM and Treasurer Wayne Swan, prefers to be remembered for “The Good Fight”. Swan was my local MP and as I started my journalism career I interviewed him before the 2007 election (an interview for which I remain extremely grateful – his LNP opponent turned me down). Swan batted away my questions with aplomb, but tougher questions were coming. Labor won that election, and Swan was installed Treasurer of a country about to sway in vicious global headwinds. His Good Fight was just beginning.

He begins the book in early January 2008 while on holidays at the Sunshine Coast with a recollection of a phone call from his American counterpart. US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was worried by an economy buffeted by a sub-prime mortgage crisis that started in mid-2007. US housing prices were falling and the country was in recession. Paulson told Swan a recovery was possible but only if there wasn’t a “meltdown” in housing prices. Swan’s Treasury advice was that global risks were substantial but Australia was well placed to ride it out. His holiday reading of Alan Greenspan’s memoir combined with a biography of Australian depression-era treasurer EG Theodore brought the fear of another collapse home to him and made him realise the next few years would not be “an easy cruise”.

Though it started in 2007, the prospect of a financial crisis made little impact on the election that year. It never came up in my own interview with Swan and I was not alone – neither the media nor the Treasury saw it as a live issue. The priorities of the incoming Labor government were carbon pricing, water reform and federal financial relations. The massive overspending of the final years of the Howard Government had led to inflationary pressures and interest rates were on the rise thanks to China’s enormous appetite for Australian iron ore. Labor, keen to be seen as economically cautious, committed itself to a 1.5% budget surplus and its razor gang went in search of savings. By the time of its first budget, interest rates had risen to over 7% though the sub-prime crisis in America rumbled on. Swan had just returned from IMF meetings in Washington which predicted world losses of 1 trillion dollars. Swan was walking a tightrope between global turbulence and an overheated Australian economy, a paradox expressed in talking points as “countervailing forces”.

The budget promised $33b in savings but only $7b in the first year, which caused The Australian newspaper to complain it didn’t tackle inflationary pressures. But Swan’s American experiences meant he didn’t want to ‘slam the economy into a wall’. That wall was fast approaching and by August 2008 Swan was discussing the possibility of a recession with officials. Treasury boss Ken Henry told him if a stimulus was needed, it had to be 1% of GDP, about $10b. The June National Accounts showed just 0.3% of growth, not a recession, but very close. On September 7, US mortgage underwriters Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had to be bailed out by Washington. Then a week later came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. A day later AIG also needed a Federal bailout. Immediately credit markets froze and investors ran for cover. Swan admitted it was terrifying news but publicly said Australian ‘fundamentals remained strong’. An extraordinary week ended with a US $700b financial rescue plan to mop up toxic assets.

The first Australian response was to buy $4b in mortgage-backed securities to keep the flow of credit and preserve mortgage competition. When US Congress voted down the rescue package, the Dow plunged 7%, the ASX went down 4% the following day. The RBA cut interest rates by a full 1% and Henry advised Rudd and Swan to ‘go early, go hard, go households’ on a stimulus especially with a slowdown on Chinese growth. The stimulus came in at $10.4b targeted at pensioners and low-income earners in time for Christmas. Half the surplus was gone in one hit and Swan’s staff prepared for an even bigger second package. The world was a different place from 2007. The G7 was recording negative growth and global stocks had lost half their value. Rock bottom had not yet been reached.

Swan was “rewarded” with growth of 0.1% which meant recession was technically avoided but the knock on effects of the global crisis were starting to hit. More policy levers were pulled. The government established the OzCar special purpose vehicle to provide liquidity to car dealer financers, brought forward transport projects, and people were encouraged to spend their Mark I stimulus bonus. Mark II would cost another $42b, 4% of GDP, including a $900 ‘consumption payment’ for individuals, the school Building the Education Revolution program and the insulation program for 2.7 million homes. The idea was that for every dollar providing immediate stimulus, another $2 would have future benefits.

With the Opposition’s wait and see approach against the package, the government negotiated with cross-benchers including Nick Xenophon who wanted a water buyback scheme. The December quarter had negative growth of 0.5% with the global economy expected to contact 1% in 2009 so the pressure was on for the next three months again to avoid recession. Swan’s second budget would be the victim of massive write-downs and unemployment around 0.5%. It project a deficit of $7b though as Swan called ‘a massive own goal’, he never mentioned the actual figure.

He was on safer ground when he said Labor protected Australia against the brutality of a global recession. His strategy worked – Australia recorded 0.4% growth in the March quarter and technical recession was avoided once more. With the worst of the GFC apparently over, there were calls to halt or decrease the stimulus. Swan held the line that growth was still weak and stimulus filled the gap. There was now a ‘two speed economy’ with coal and gas demand rising in 2009-2010 pushing the dollar up while other industries stagnated. GDP growth continued around 0.5% for 2009.

The story of slow recovery continues in the second half of Swan’s book. But it is overshadowed by growing political conflict between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Swan begins with the July 2009 backflip by Malcolm Turnbull on Opposition support for a carbon price. Rudd ordered ministers to negotiate with the Liberals on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme but also told them to deliberately drag it out to extract maximum political advantage. It was a fatal miscalculation. Rudd dithered on forcing the double dissolution on carbon and pinned his hopes on a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009. His failure there sent him into meltdown, according to Swan.

By then Turnbull had been replaced by Tony Abbott who called the CPRS a ‘great big new tax’. Rudd went to Christmas without making a decision on 2010 strategy while Swan was tied up with the Henry Tax review recommendation to introduce a mining tax. In the New Year Rudd threw his energies into a federal takeover of the health system leaving Swan and Gillard to carry the messy CPRS and mining tax. In April Rudd announced the CPRS would be delayed three years.

May 2010 brought the fight over the mining tax. Swan said mining profits in 2008-2009 were $80b higher than 10 years earlier but the government was only collecting an additional $9b in revenue. Royalty and resource charges had reduced from 31% to 14%. The industry, the Opposition and Murdoch newspapers said the world would cave in if the tax was implemented and the scare campaign ramped up with slick advertising. Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers collapsed exposing his weak support in the party room.

Swan said he was a reluctant starter on the idea of replacing Rudd with Gillard. “I could see Kevin was leading us into the wilderness,” he said, “but I was torn between the dread of that and the undoubted ugliness that would accompany his ousting”. Swan said Rudd was prone to vengeful behaviour and over-centralised leadership due to a “pathological fear of leaks”. He dragged meetings on for hours without making decisions and complex briefing papers went unread.  There was high staff turnover in his office.  A Labor mauling in a NSW state by-election was partially put down to federal issues and by mid June 2010 Gillard was ready to challenge.

Swan knew removing a popular first-term PM was dangerous but saw it as unavoidable. When the spill came, Rudd did not stand. Swan said this robbed the party of a frank debate in the party room. Swan said he felt sorry for a man he had worked with since their days in the Queensland Goss Government from 1989 and their families had been close for a decade with Rudd a godfather to Swan’s only son. But he was now deputy prime minister under Gillard.

They focussed on three problems: climate change, asylum seekers and the mining tax.  They hammered out a deal with the big mining companies that dropped the profits-based tax from 40 to 30% and applied to iron ore and coal only.  It cleared the way for a 21 August election. Rudd remained in the spotlight and his strategic leaks damaged Gillard who didn’t help her cause with her talk of ‘the real Julia’.   There was a sizeable swing against Labor in an election that ended in a draw. Swan narrowly retained his seat.

Suddenly the independents held the balance of power and after 17 long days and a $11b costing blunder by the Coalition, Windsor and Oakeshott gave the reins of power to Gillard. Swan thought minority government was suited to Gillard’s collegiate style but he later realised the uncertainty suited Rudd too.

While Australia was recovering, Europe remained in strife and Treasury was making plans for a second GFC. Swan had reduced government spending but revenue shortfalls were making return to budget surplus more difficult by the day. Swan’s budget revenues had declined by $160b in 2007.

Natural disasters like the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi were costly and the Japanese tsunami and the Auckland earthquake also suppressed demand. Though unemployment was down to 5.1%, the lowest in the industrial world, the budget fetish meant the media roasted Swan in December 2012 when he finally admitted Australia would not return to surplus in 2012-2013.

Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions emerged openly in 2012. He resigned as foreign minister in February over a perceived slight by Simon Crean. Gillard called a leadership ballot and beat Rudd 71-31. Rudd slid off to the backbench but immediately started plotting his return.

Labor pressed on with the NDIS and Gonski reforms, but their hopes of getting ‘clear air’ were destroyed by issues such as Speaker Peter Slipper’s and Labor MP Craig Thompson’s legal problems.  Rudd’s strategically-timed leaks also caused media disasters. On March 21 2013, Simon Crean engineered another leadership challenge, apparently promised the deputy PM position by Rudd. But Rudd didn’t take the bait forcing Crean to resign.

In Swan’s final budget he funded Gonski and the NDIS over ten years by closing corporate tax loopholes. With Gillard’s poll numbers never recovering from her broken promise on carbon taxing, Rudd was irrepressible. By June 2013 commentators were openly saying Gillard would not make it to the election. Gillard called a third spill on June 26 and lost 57-45. Swan resigned as deputy leader and treasurer. Rudd’s three year war of attrition had succeeded. But the cost was high. Though Australia’s economy had grown 14% since the GFC, Australians did not feel better off. Labor’s leadership turmoil added to the sense of disgruntlement. The trenchant criticisms of Rudd made by Swan and other senior leaders after the failed March coup would haunt Rudd in the election campaign which was one disaster after another. As Swan said, Rudd’s campaign was only “selfie deep”. By election day, many were predicting Labor would have been better off sticking with Gillard. Rudd lost comfortably to Tony Abbott.

Swan’s “good fight” went on to his own election in Lilley, which he won “against the odds”. It was one of Labor’s few success stories on the night. Swan said Rudd had a plan for getting rid of Gillard but not for ruling the country. Swan said his own political philosophy was ‘where do we stand?’ not ‘what’s in it for me?’  Whether Swan’s fighting instinct still has something in it for him remains to be seen. Though now in opposition and on the back bench, the call remains. “For me,” he concluded, “the good fight will never be over.”

Victorian bells toll for Federal Liberals

On this morning’s Insiders, Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb explained why Victorian Liberal colleagues loss in yesterday’s state election had nothing to do with the Federal Government. Victoria’s problem was not a new one, he said, the Liberals were down in the polls by the same “flatline difference” for at least three years. Robb was correct in his assessment but left himself open for an obvious retort, which Barrie Cassidy pounced on. Wasn’t this what was happening in Canberra now, Cassidy asked. A flummoxed Robb asked what did he mean. Cassidy repeated Robb’s point the Abbott Government were also flatlining in the polls. Robb said that was different, they still had two years to improve their position.

Robb was granting his government the gift of the future, not granted to the Victorian Government. The Abbott Government is hopeless adrift and compromised by the raft of promises and resolutions it made in opposition it could not possibly fill in government, especially as its right-wing credentials started to be felt when it took office.

There are warnings for Abbott in Denis Napthine’s defeat overnight not least that Australians will dismiss a first time government. It was the first time it happened in Victoria for 60 years but federally the electorate is volatile. Newly elected governments held on in their first elections in 1984, 1998 and 2010 but all were extremely tight and in all cases the incumbents had the preferred Prime Minister. This time round the Government is in freefall with an increasingly unpopular and hapless Prime Minister. Their management of the Senate independents is execrable and their few policy victories had to be shared with Clive Palmer. Tony Abbott’s area of strength was a strong leader in the wake of MH17 but he squandered that goodwill with his idiotic Putin shirtfront comment and then looked like a bumbling, irrelevant provincial fool at the G20 meeting.

The silly games he played to keep climate change off the agenda rebounded badly and he is unlikely to garner much credit even if they succeed in 2.1% world growth. The slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” is itself stupid and does not take into account confidence levels and perceptions of a shambolic leadership. Victoria’s economy was in good shape before this election as was Australia’s economy before the 2013 federal election. But Victoria was undone by the wrangling over Geoff Shaw and federal Labor was fatally debilitated by the Rudd/Gillard wars.

Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has been castigated by the left as a ‘do nothing’ politician but he remains popular and could assist in the Victorian election campaign to help a similarly anodyne but effective leader Daniel Andrews. The Abbott brand was too toxic to be seen anywhere south of the Murray this month.

Abbott once famously called himself a weather vane. He must be aware heavy storms are coming especially as he charts a course for a second budget while still negotiating the tricky reefs of his first one. Treasurer Hockey has been a poor performer but the people will blame Abbott not him. As Insiders pointed out this morning, Abbott’s Prime Minister’s Office is becoming as notorious as Kevin Rudd’s for its obsessiveness with the message and its failure to deliver. Whether that is a problem with the office or the man is a moot point, but it is looking like a doomed Prime Ministership.

Abbott will face his reckoning at the next election, if he is lucky, or more likely stabbed in back by his own colleagues next December as panicked parliamentarians look to someone else to save their skins. It will be, as Andrew Robb inadvertently pointed out today, already too late. The Liberal goose was cooked in early in 2014 and will stay uneaten and poisonous on the table until Labor feasts on its entrails in 2016.