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Climate change has become the third rail of Australian politics: hazardous, untouchable and normally lethal. What Ross Garnaut described as the most diabolical public policy issue of our age has, for Australian politicians at least, become the most diabolical political issue as well.

Since the middle of last decade, no leader on either side has come up with an environmental policy that is politically sustainable; quite the opposite.

Climate change has contributed already to the downfall of three Liberal leaders and a Labor prime minister.

Julia Gillard is but the latest politician struggling to plot a course through the mists of the country’s billowing emissions.

Consider first the 2007 federal election, misleadingly described by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper as the world’s first climate change election — alas, the “Work Choices election” did not make for such a globally resonant headline — but a race nonetheless in which green politics contributed to the downfall of John Howard.

Here, global warming became an emblematic issue, with the then prime minister’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol woven into the narrative of an elderly leader who was out of touch, too set in his ways and too closely aligned with the Bush administration.

For Howard’s successor, Brendan Nelson, climate change also reinforced the central criticism of his leadership, that he was not a natural leader.

Trying to straddle a divided party, Nelson first adopted a sceptical line on the emissions trading scheme, only to reverse himself under pressure from Malcolm Turnbull. From that moment on, he was destined to spend more time with his family.

Neither could the member for Wentworth fully master the politics of climate change.

Convinced of the science and impressed by the example of David Cameron in Britain — for whom environmentalism became totemic in his rebranding of the Conservatives — Turnbull offered bipartisan support for the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.

Yet he might have learned another lesson from the British Conservatives, which was the danger posed from mutinous sceptics.

At Westminster, it was euro-sceptics. In Canberra, it was enviro-sceptics.

Pushing hard for the ETS to be minted into law in time for Copenhagen, Turnbull was viewed by critics within his party as being in too much of a rush, which again echoed a familiar complaint about his political style overall.

For Tony Abbott, scepticism first helped win him the Liberal leadership, then it helped propel him, unexpectedly, in the polls as he harnessed the mood of growing public scepticism in the months after Copenhagen. Still, it only got him so far.

Labor seized on Abbott’s “absolute crap” line, thus reinforcing his plausibility problem with large swathes of the electorate.

On the Labor side, Kevin Rudd’s difficulties on the issue are well-documented, not least because the former prime minister has helped document them so publicly himself.

Again, it was what the retreat on the ETS came to signify, as much as the policy change itself, that was defining.

By retreating from his signature issue without much of a fight, Rudd had failed the great Australian ticker test.

Like Rudd, Gillard has been savaged by her own sound bite: for “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”, read “no carbon tax under a government I lead”.

Caught in the clutch of circumstance, with the Greens and independents insistent on action, she has been forced to champion a policy that is ostensibly the same as the one she argued against in cabinet this time last year.

Once again, it is worth reflecting on how the climate debate has crystallised wider concerns about her leadership and all the others who have wrestled with the issue.

With Howard it brought to the fore his cranky stubbornness, which was once a main selling point but increasingly off-putting in his twilight years.

With Nelson, a one-time member of the Labor Party, it revealed how he was prone to vacillation.

With Turnbull, the debate showcased his intellectual arrogance and self-centredness, according to his Liberal detractors.

For Rudd, the ETS climbdown heightened concerns about his ability to deliver on policy.

With Gillard, it has fuelled criticisms that she is essentially a political manager rather than a genuine national leader.

What they have all shared in common is a difficulty in reading the public mood on this vexed question, which is entirely understandable. After all, the shift in Australian public opinion from the green-friendly salad days of An Inconvenient Truth, the Stern report and the studies of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been extraordinary. Here, Climategate undermined the green cause, as did the failure at Copenhagen to secure more meaningful commitments from the leading emitters.

The end of the Big Dry, along with Barack Obama’s failure to attach a price to carbon, has contributed, too.

But the great public relations coup of the growing band of opponents to the carbon tax has been to shift this from a debate about the environment to a debate about the economy.

To borrow two unlovely phrases from the world of economics, first they pitched the argument at the macro-level: a carbon tax would threaten Australia’s prosperity by penalising the sectors that make it rich.

Now, even more powerfully, they have prosecuted the case at the micro-level: at a time of rising fuel prices and energy bills, a carbon tax would stretch household incomes to breaking point.

Environmentalists have bemoaned the fickleness of voters who only a few years ago professed fears for the planet but who now seem worried only about their pockets.

But the politics have followed the money or, more accurately, the personal finances of average voters. Thus, whereas Howard once faced an acid shower of criticism for doing too little, Gillard is being lambasted for proposing too much.

There is another conspicuous paradox. Though the Australian environmental movement has been pushed back on to the defensive since Copenhagen, its political wing, the Australian Greens, is about to gain more parliamentary power than ever.

For Gillard, who has already been accused of being Bob Brown’s poodle and of being dragged too far to the left, this will make the politics even more diabolical. It also means she does not have the luxury of deferment.

Given the experience of Howard, Rudd, Nelson and Turnbull, it would be tempting to argue that whichever Australian politician manages to engineer a policy that is environmentally sound, economically viable and politically palatable could dominate Canberra for years to come.

Yet here we are dealing with an altogether different kind of journalistic trope.

Not a third rail but a holy grail.

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s Australia correspondent.

The Australian, 30 April 2011