A cooling climate of ALP relevance

Behind the Shakespearean scheming and carbon tax distractions Labor's fundamental problem is a hollowing-out support base. The Greens may be the big winners from Rudd's challenge.

Leadership struggles within parties are never about fundamental policy differences, but this one is even less so than most.

Kevin Rudd lost the leadership after he ditched carbon pricing, having promised to do it, and Julia Gillard is about to lose the leadership after she introduced it, having promised not to.

So it would be tempting to observe that climate change policy has claimed a succession of political leaders, starting with Malcolm Turnbull, and is about to claim another, and that the electorate’s view has shifted from enthusiasm to concern over the past three years. But that’s not a superficial enough analysis.

Climate just happens to be part of the background scenery for a Shakespearean drama about ambition and treachery, along with the resources boom and the credit crisis. As with Hawke/Keating and Howard/Costello, Gillard/Rudd is simply about being prime minister, not differences in what anyone would do with that power.

In fact with the departure of Nick Minchin there is no obvious climate change sceptic in a political leadership position in Australia. Rudd was in favour, then against; Gillard was against then in favour; Abbott is against a carbon tax but in favour of "direct action” to achieve the same result; Bob Brown, at least, is consistent.

It is probably too late for Rudd to ditch the carbon tax if, or rather when, he becomes prime minister again, and in any case he would lose the support of the Greens if he did that and would have to go directly to an election.

It is becoming increasingly clear that if there is a fundamental issue at work here it is the declining relevance of the Australian Labor Party.

Party elders have been warning for years that its support base is hollowing out as a result of the declining membership of unions and the increasing support for the Greens among the left-leaning inner-urban middle-classes.

Since Whitlam, the ALP has been a successful coalition of these two forces, but that is now breaking down, as more and more of the working classes become contractors and small business people, and the Greens capture an increasing slice of the young urban vote.

If there is an answer to this problem, Labor’s brains trust hasn’t found it.

The prime minister after the next election is likely to be Tony Abbott, but the big winner may well be the Greens.

There probably won’t be a hung parliament in the lower house, so even if the Greens won another urban seat or two it wouldn’t make much difference, but the Greens should gain numbers in the Senate and be in a position to block any legislation the ALP did not support, including, of course, repeal of the carbon tax.

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