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The politics of climate change in Australia

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 18 December 2009


There has been international media attention on the loss of power by the Australian Opposition Leader (Malcolm Turnbull) over his policy on climate change. He seems to be the first leader in the western world to be sacked by “climate change deniers”. He has become a climate change martyr.

The incident has also been an interesting example of how quickly opinion can shift from supporting the idea of there being human-induced climate to denying that, if there is any change, it is not being caused by humans.

This note begins with the November 2007 election as the benchmark to show how much change has occurred in two years. It then examines the controversy surrounding the Rudd Labor Government’s proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS). This note is particularly concerned with the way that public opinion has moved (or been moved).


Benchmark: November 2007 Federal Election

The November 2007 election of Kevin Rudd’s Australian Labor Party was a great surprise to most people. Those who were hoping for a Labor victory could not believe the extent of the victory. Even the Prime Minister, John Howard, lost his seat. The opinion polls had been predicting a Labor victory throughout the year but most people did not believe them. Somehow it was assumed that conservative politician John Howard (Australia’s most skilled politician) would find a way of (again) snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat.

The major cause of defeat was the Howard government’s harsh industrial relations policy.

The environment provided a second battlefield. Howard himself was ambivalent on the environment. He could see the electoral benefits of being seen to be protecting it. But he was primarily motivated by economics and believed that most Australians preferred to put jobs ahead of the environment.

It was always therefore a low priority for him. He decided to follow the lead of the US in not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. His final Minister for the Environment was millionaire lawyer/businessperson Malcolm Turnbull who was eager to make his mark in politics. Turnbull failed to change Howard’s mind on this subject and Howard was painted into a corner.

Rudd’s Labor party did a fine job of scaring voters with dire predictions on the extent of human-induced climate and the potential damage to Australia. He was able to exploit media reports of natural disasters, such as droughts and the decay of the giant Great Barrier Reef (reputedly the only living object on Earth visible from the Moon with the naked eye).

The first action of the new Rudd Labor Government was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol - the first time that the first act of an Australian government was to ratify a treaty. Australia was well represented at the December 2007 Bali UN conference to negotiate the next treaty to follow the Kyoto Protocol.


The new Leader of the Opposition (former Defence Minister Brendan Nelson) dumped the Howard policies on industrial relations. He also supported the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and so it seemed that climate change had been neutralised as an Australian political issue.

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme process (CPRS)

The Rudd government has wanted to take to the December 2009 Copenhagen Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change its own legislation. The main driver of the government’s plan is the CPRS. This is an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) which will use a cap and trade mechanism.

Under the proposed CPRS the government will set an annual limit (cap) on the total amount of carbon pollution that can be emitted under the scheme within Australia. The cap will be gradually lowered, thereby reducing the level of carbon pollution.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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