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Australia: New Leaders Feel The Heat On A Costly Climate Conundrum

THE debate on imposing a carbon price has not taken long to heat up in the new term. It is set to be difficult for both sides of politics, and especially complicated with the new makeup of both houses.

The dramatic intervention by BHP’s Marius Kloppers has put fresh urgency into the argument. He is looking for a middle way on this fraught issue, but also emphasising that Australia should move ahead of other countries.

His speech is a boost for the government and a blow for Tony Abbott, who is simply saying no to any carbon price.

Abbott, given his election pledge not to embrace a carbon price, can’t move even if he wanted to. He won’t even put representatives on the proposed parliamentary committee, which will only include people committed to a carbon price. But his new frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull as recently as this week reaffirmed his support for a carbon price. Eventually that split surely will cause grief.

While Kloppers’s stand is a plus for Labor, it too has big problems ahead. It’s the government that makes the decisions and wears the backlash from them. With the Greens set for the balance of power in the Senate from July, the government will be under constant pressure to ‘green’ any initiative. Not that it wants to decide anything quickly. Labor’s present timetable would not see it making decisions before 2012 at the earliest. But the momentum could create pressure to bring that forward.

Kloppers has also put the cat among the business pigeons. At one stage last term business got as much consensus as it is ever likely to achieve on emissions trading. But that all fell apart, and business will have to start over to find common ground.

Last time round, the attempt to price carbon was central to the fall of three leaders, one of them a prime minister. Even if it doesn’t take a scalp this time, there is going to be a great deal of pain again, and still no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 2010