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CLIMATE change can be a killer. This has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with its impact on political leaders. Look at the list of those who have felt its sting in the past three years: John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd. And Julia Gillard?

It’s not just senior politicians who have been either damaged or vanquished by climate change; the political system itself has taken a knock, too. If not for climate change – the issue that runs like mercury through the hands of big-party leaders who try to grasp it – would the nation now be without an effective government, the numbers in Parliament tied up in a logjam, the voting public refusing to entrust either Labor or the Coalition with power in their own right?

The problem with climate change is that because it is a concept, a theory, a belief, it provides a blank piece of paper upon which every voter can write their own political message.

Climate change has been good for business for some political leaders. Not surprisingly, those who place themselves at the extreme ends of the argument have prospered.

Greens leader Bob Brown embraces the argument in toto and favours the substantial deindustrialisation of Australia as a result; his party increased its vote by 3.6 per cent and won control of the Senate last weekend. Liberal leader Tony Abbott is not a firm believer and does not see the need to make serious changes to the economy to curb carbon emissions. A champion of voters who reject climate change, he has turbocharged his party and could within a couple of weeks be prime minister.

As the three country independents, Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter, consider whether to support Abbott or Gillard, and the talk in politics turns to compromise and co-operation, the power of political difference should not be forgotten. Last year, Turnbull, as Liberal leader, tried cross-party co-operation and it destroyed his leadership. Turnbull believes in climate change and committed the Coalition to working with the Rudd government to legislate an emissions trading scheme.

It was a good example of what the independents, and many voters who say they want to see a different kind of politics, have been calling for – setting aside the political differences and trying to maintain policy consistency.

And look at how it turned out: for the Liberal party room and the party’s base this was altogether too much. They were appalled that their leader would work towards a common policy goal with a government they had never regarded, and would never regard, as legitimate or worthy of respect. They ditched Turnbull and went for the most combative replacement they could find in Abbott.

This led to the Coalition’s resurgence at the expense of the Labor Party and has brought it to within an ace of government. The lessons of the 2010 election are twofold: for the Liberals, standing firm and cutting up rough pays dividends; and, for Labor, trying to govern from the centre seriously undermines its base support.

Labor is in very, very deep trouble and its long-term viability as a stand-alone mainstream political party is in doubt. The Greens’ assault on the party in the Senate has now moved to the lower house and the Labor soldiers have started falling.

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