Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rudd takes a stand, Libs lose footing on emissions

DID Kevin Rudd's recent didgeridoo-breathing effort to explain emissions trading leave you dazed and confused?

The process at its most simple (a limit is placed on carbon production and lesser polluters are able to sell their carbon rights to bigger filth-makers) is a brain-twisting concept, to be sure. Unless you're Kevin Rudd, in which case you'll try to canvass every nuance and qualification in a single answer in a single TV interview in a single breath.

Voters who've conceded to opinion pollsters that they don't understand carbon trading but reckon it's a good idea will doubtless be heartened to know Rudd is on the job, even if they don't understand what he's talking about.

Be it on the stump or in Parliament, Rudd, we know, is not an orator of natural gift. But as he gears up to formally respond this week to Ross Garnaut's recommendations on how Australia can do its part to save the Earth, Rudd might just be rediscovering a mojo that many of his colleagues feared had disappeared with last year's election win.

He's doing it by largely avoiding what we might anticipate as a characteristic strength: a capacity to ponder the complex specifics about the probable short-term negative impact of carbon trading on the Australian economy when the world's biggest polluters are yet to set their own targets. His answer, instead, is simple and emotive: act now by leading the world or bequeath your grandchildren the disastrous legacy.

It's a courageous political strategy that is not without a medium-term risk — not least should the Federal Opposition finally install a leader capable of enunciating a credible alternative.

First, of course, the Coalition should agree on its position. That's easier said than done, of course, at the end of a week in which the Liberals displayed more positions than good sense could possibly dictate.

Consider what happened.

At the last election Labor and the Coalition agreed that emissions trading should proceed even if the big emitters had not set their own targets. But this week Brendan Nelson said Australia should not start its own scheme until the rest of the world had "a start date for dealing with climate change itself".

The ever-patient, ever-understanding Malcolm Turnbull came forth to explain that Nelson had been misunderstood. Nelson, Turnbull said, had actually meant that Australia could adopt even tighter targets when the big emitters finally did set their targets.

Nick Minchin had his say, too, arguing the Nelson line that Australia should not "push the button" on its emissions trading scheme if China, India and the US had not signalled their intentions. It took young Greg Hunt to clarify things. "I am the shadow spokesman. Nick Minchin is not the shadow spokesman. I am telling you what the position is," Hunt told The Australian.

Phew! Now that the important stuff has been clarified, let's move on to the policy. "The thing that could vary depending on what other countries do is not whether we start our domestic ETS (emissions trading scheme) but rather the depth of the targets we commit to," Hunt said.

Even John "I won't be commenting from the sidelines" Howard, whose climate change intransigence constituted the longest political suicide note since John Hewson's Fightback!, had his say. He backed Nelson. What a kiss of death! Then Nelson changed his stance — again — saying he would support the cap and trade policy after all.

The platitudes from Nelson's colleagues have flowed thick and frighteningly fast recently. This naturally bodes badly for the good doctor. For political leaders should beware when colleagues start saying things like: "(insert name) is a person of great decency and a leader of integrity" and "(insert name) has my full support."

Such sentiments ring as hollow as the constant refrain from government that: "We believe it is in the interests of democracy to have a robust opposition and a strong opposition leader."

This brings me to the greatest fear of several senior ministers: the potential return of Peter Costello. "My greatest fear is that Costello will come back to lead — they're stupid if they don't draft him. But they are stupid. He is their best parliamentary performer, their best public proponent — much stronger than Kevin, and wipes the floor with Swannie (Treasurer Wayne Swan)," one says.

There's little doubt Costello has the economic and political experience, and the communication skills, to guide the Coalition through the policy minefield of climate change. We should also remember he was a climate change progressive in Howard's largely sycophantic cabinet.

Three months ago, Labor thought Turnbull would become leader. Today they're afraid Costello will beat him to it. Now that could really steal Rudd's mojo.

Paul Daley is The Sunday Age's federal political columnist.

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