The great moral challenge of our generation – junked

The behaviour of the Rudd Government during the last couple of weeks has been, simply put, erratic. There’s been a whole lotta junking going on. The election promise to build 260 new childcare centres in schools has been junked. The Prime Minister’s commitment to hold three, independently regulated debates during the election campaign has been junked. Any further talk from the government regarding a possible federal bill of rights has been – that’s right – junked. And to cap it all off, the policy that Federal Labor framed as its response to the “great moral challenge of our generation”, its carbon pollution reduction scheme or ETS, has been rather ingraciously junked, until 2013 at least.

There are a number of plausible political reasons as to why we are seeing this pattern of behaviour. The first is the fact that this is all happening relatively early in the election year. There is undoubtedly a push from strategists close to the Federal Cabinet to get any bad news the government has out the door now, presumably a good six months from any federal election. Secondly – we are very much in pre-budget territory. It is highly likely that pressure from Treasury and Lindsay Tanner’s Department of Finance and Deregulation has driven the government’s decisions in relation to childcare centres and emissions trading. For various reasons, neither proposal appeared to be going anywhere fast in terms of implementation. This being the case, it obviously didn’t make a great deal of sense for the funding for these proposals to be incorporated into this year’s Budget, which is already comfortably in the red due to the government’s stimulus measures. Thirdly, these announcements have been made during a period when the Rudd Government was finalising the central plank of its re-election strategy for later this year: health reform. Despite the intrastringence of Western Australia’s Barnett Government, Federal Labor came out of the negotiations with the states looking like it has achieved something quite worthwhile. One would imagine that some advisors would be of the view that the good news on health had the capacity to “absorb” a bit of bad news from other quarters, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned.

The government’s decision to delay its emissions trading scheme further may prove to have been a scuttle too far. It looks set to alienate some of its base. I don’t always agree with Paul Kelly, often finding him too dogmatic once he has made up his mind, but I find myself agreeing with a lot of his combative column in today’s Australian:

In truth, Rudd has lost his nerve. This is a political and policy retreat. He says the ETS remains “the most effective and least expensive” means of combating greenhouse gas emissions. His tacticians will call this smart and they may be right. But it betrays a government weak to its core. Understand what this is about: it is giving Rudd a political strategy to maximise his re-election by removing the only mechanism he had to deliver his ETS policy. He has chosen safe politics over policy delivery. Any voter who believed Rudd was genuine about climate change needs to reassess.

The rhetoric from the government – in particular the Prime Minister – has been just too big on this issue for it to be credibly delayed for three years. A good government does not delay its response to the “great moral challenge of our generation” merely because it can not get its legislation through parliament. A good government fights for such a cause using all the legitimate tools of persuasion and negotiation at its disposal, including mechanisms like double dissolution triggers should they prove necessary.

Truthfully, I can abide the other disappointing announcements mentioned above, but on climate change, the Prime Minister has effectively asked its supporters to defend the indefensible. This transcends the question of whether the government has the courage of its convictions – does the Rudd Government really even have the conviction to decisively act on climate change?

Is climate change a burning issue and a call to action, or is it merely a launchpad for rhetorical flourishes?

ELSEWHERE: Even Dennis Shanahan is making sense.

On the Liberal Party, schisms, and curious steampunk machines

In considering how events have played out with respect to the leadership of the Liberal Party, a certain image springs to mind for me. For just a moment, picture the federal party-room of the Liberal Party in your mind’s eye as an elaborate, archaic, steampunk-ish contraption giving off heat and billowing steam, emitting all manner of clanking and wheezing sounds. There’s brass, there’s rust, there’s lint, there’s probably even some asbestos in there somewhere. It is an engine that has survived beyond its time and in some dubious way evolved, with strange, artificial improvements bolted higgledy-piggledy around the exterior. If you squint you might just make out what appears suspiciously to be microchips “growing” under a moist alcove, or what could well be a miniature LED screen replaying the tumultuous events of the last week or so over and over again, on silent repeat. Needless to say, despite the odd snatch of modern bling, this is a machine that doesn’t hum like your new home computer; it sounds kinda like a Datsun that hasn’t been serviced since 1982.

This curious machine has taken all the ingredients generated by the ructions of the last week and spat out a response to the leadership question, but it is the wrong response. A 42-41 decision is hardly a decision, particularly given that three likely Hockey/Turnbull supporters could not vote (Kelly O’Dwyer, Paul Fletcher, Fran Bailey). It doesn’t seem to be the response a majority of the party-room actually wanted. It doesn’t seem to be the response the eventual victor expected. It is, practically speaking, an non-sensical result. I am not sure that it really matters if the Liberal Party primarily blames Turnbull’s virtuoso but unconsultative approach to the CPRS for what they have now, or Hockey’s bizarrely principled vacillation on the precipice of his triumph. Oddly enough, both men proved their mettle and that they were worthy leaders since late last week, but still failed. What matters in the wash-up is that the moderate, liberal arm of the Liberal Party was holding all the cards over the conservatives and indeed had done so for most of the period since November 2007, but in a collective brainfart of truly epic proportions, they’ve managed to trade in all their aces for zippo, in one fell swoop.

The climate change issue has proven to be the most sublime wedge issue imaginable for the Rudd Government. Numbers-wise, the Coalition has been riven effectively right down the centre by the government’s CPRS, with the liberals and conservatives who played so nicely together during the Howard years now at each other’s throats. The marriage of convenience that holds the Coalition together has been ruthlessly exposed by the government as the shemozzle it really is. There is no effective consensus position for the Liberal Party on climate change, and no successful leader to call the shots first and sticky-tape the party together later, like there was during the Howard Government years. Dennis Glover does a fine job in today’s The Australian of spelling out why this issue so lethal for the Coalition, and why the Abbott Opposition needs to work out a credible position on climate change, and fast:

The evening news reports of the retreat of Greenland’s ice caps and the advance of solar power projects across the deserts of California will have far greater electoral effect than any theories Nick Minchin or Andrew Bolt try to sell on Lateline or Insiders.

Even cautious politicians such as Kevin Rudd are helping voters join the dots when the temperature gets above 40C.

For the coming months, a few predictions. I am extremely doubtful that we will see a double dissolution election. The Prime Minister, already sensing he has been gifted the upper hand by the Coalition’s bungling and the public’s goodwill, will not risk the ire of the electorate by pushing for an early climate change election. The Nationals and the Minchinites, having surprisingly emerged victorious with their candidate, are now perhaps just a little unsettled. Their “Anybody But Turnbull” approach has yielded the cut-through candidate that most gels with their own political philosophy, but has arguably as much capacity to polarise the electorate as anyone in the party. I sincerely doubt the Liberal Party pollsters are thrilled by the collected wisdom of the party-room. The first “post-spill” polls that emerge will be very interesting.

The moderates within the Liberal Party, having fielded two not unpopular candidates in the spill but still managed to lose, are now too enfeebled to challenge the leadership result or pursue the matter further. They will not speak up in support of the government’s CPRS. They will have to grit their teeth and mumble the Howard-era lines that they don’t actually believe in until the leadership changes again. Some may even decide to walk away from the party at the 2011 election. The rest of them will be hoping, of course, that their junk-tech party-room machine can, with a hiss and a puff of brackish smoke, spit out the right candidate for a modern Liberal Party the next time that the opportunity presents.

Which, in all likelihood, will be after Tony Abbott loses the next election.