Yesterday in Australia, a politician I once believed in, Kevin Rudd, challenged our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. I responded by doing something I never thought I would do: I emailed every Labor MP and Senator urging them to oppose Rudd’s attempt to regain the Prime Ministership.
Although I was too young to vote in the 2007 election, if I had had a vote I probably would have voted Labor, because I misguidedly believed Rudd would take serious action on climate change. For the first two years of Rudd’s government, I felt reassured the Government knew what it was doing and had the problem under control. Rudd and the Labor Party accepted the science of climate change, while the opposing (conservative) Liberal Party, currently led by Tony Abbott, tended towards denial. I assumed the Rudd Government believed its rhetoric.
I was right about the Liberals, but I was wrong about Rudd. The more I learned about Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, the less I liked it. I realized Labor wanted to set weak targets diluted by dubious international offsets and unnecessary compensation to polluting industries. The scheme’s most fundamental flaw was that it would have locked in Rudd’s pathetic targets for at least five years, and a target range for fifteen years.
Rudd’s policy was repeatedly blocked by the Senate – by the Liberals because they generally oppose any action, and by the Greens because of the policy’s locked-in targets and numerous other flaws. Still Rudd refused to even talk to Greens leader Bob Brown during the last year of his Prime Ministership. For Rudd, emissions targets were non-negotiable. Finally, when he could have called an election to resolve the deadlock, in April 2010 (on Gillard’s advice) he chose to walk away from emissions trading. To me this was the last straw – Rudd was demonstrating he didn’t really believe in climate action or even his own policy.
Just two months later, Rudd was sacked by his party and Gillard was appointed Prime Minister. The apparent trigger for Rudd’s removal was an unpopular mining tax which I supported. Gillard subsequently struck a deal with Australia’s biggest mining companies to water down the tax – one instance where I agreed with Rudd and not Gillard.
Gillard has shown better leadership in the present minority government: she, the Greens, and independents negotiated through the new Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and legislated a new improved carbon price policy. While it contains many of the same flaws as Rudd’s version, it does not immediately lock in targets. Instead the price will be fixed for three years, then from 2014 an independent Climate Change Authority will recommend rolling-five-year targets, the Government will have to justify any deviation from its advice, and the Parliament will have the chance to scrutinize and the power to disallow those targets (with default one-year targets applying if necessary). Another positive addition was the creation of a Clean Energy Finance Corporation which is yet to be legislated.
However, it is now clear Rudd has been deliberately undermining the Gillard Government for a long time, perhaps from the very beginning. Rudd was allegedly responsible for a series of damaging leaks. For months, journalists have reported he was plotting a comeback, citing unattributed rumors which can allegedly be traced back to Rudd himself briefing reporters on his plans. The effect has been to drown out Gillard’s achievements and polarize the party. When Rudd dramatically resigned as Foreign Minister, Gillard responded by calling a leadership spill and Rudd announced his intention to run.
I have a long list of disagreements with the Gillard Government, but nevertheless I have concluded she is a better person to lead the country than Rudd. Rudd’s colleagues now say the underlying reason for his removal in 2010 was a personality flaw in Rudd himself: his leadership had become increasingly autocratic and erratic. This explanation rings true. My impression is Rudd is only interested in himself; he is not acting in the interests of the people or his party. I suspect Rudd’s intent is to tear apart the Government if they won’t let him be Prime Minister, potentially threatening the carbon price (flawed and insufficient as it is), and the promised Clean Energy Finance Corporation whose fate still hangs in the balance.
What might happen if Rudd is elected? The signs are not good. Based on past form I cannot see Rudd holding together his own party, let alone a minority government. Yesterday he indicated continuing antipathy toward the Greens, saying: “A Labor government with Labor values doesn’t need a Green party to tell it how to protect the environment.”
Worse, in the latest twist in the convoluted history of Australian climate policy, Rudd indicated his intention to take a backward step. If he becomes PM, Rudd said, he will review the carbon price at the beginning of 2013, after six months of operation. The Minerals Council of Australia’s Mitch Hooke seized on Rudd’s remarks, saying the carbon price should be reviewed immediately. Rudd hinted he wants to move to an emissions trading scheme as soon as possible – which means setting a target. I fear Rudd wants to revert to his original vision of indefinitely locking in weak targets.
If Rudd is elected as Labor leader and it becomes necessary for the Greens and independents to negotiate with him, they should oppose any attempt to lock in emissions targets. Rudd is unlikely to be easy to negotiate with, so the next few days could be the Greens’ only chance to influence Rudd’s policy. The Greens should not agree to support a potential Rudd government unless he rules out an early move to emissions trading, and guarantees the Government will follow the proper rigorous process negotiated by the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and legislated in the Clean Energy Act. The alternative – an Abbott Government that would destroy everything the Greens have gained – is not pretty, but as the Greens argued in 2009, even no action may be preferable to locking in low action.
Hopefully it won’t come to a choice between Rudd and Abbott. I am optimistic Gillard has the numbers, considering so many people within the party seem to hate Rudd. Even those publically backing Rudd seem to be only doing so because they are disgruntled with Gillard for one reason or another. And although Rudd may superficially appear popular in some opinion polls, I believe this is merely nostalgia and would quickly dissipate if Rudd actually was reinstated.
Julia Gillard should remain the Prime Minister.