Climate policy turning politics upside down

In 2008, 67 per cent of the Australian population supported an emissions trading scheme, but Kevin Rudd could not get one through Parliament.

In 2008, 67 per cent of the Australian population supported an emissions trading scheme, but Kevin Rudd could not get one through Parliament.

In 2008, 67 per cent of the Australian population supported an emissions trading scheme, but Kevin Rudd could not get one through Parliament.

In 2011, only 38 per cent of Australians support a price on carbon, but Julia Gillard looks likely to win parliamentary approval for hers.

Again, climate change policy is turning the norm of politics on its head.

In a complete reversal of the usual instinct to run away from anything the public doesn't like, this Parliament has strengthened its resolve on the issue even as it has become less popular.

The latest anomaly flows from the upheavals that have gone before - the clawing down of a Liberal leader who refused to renounce what he believed to be true, and then the stabbing of a Labor prime minister because of the public backlash when his party persuaded him to make exactly such a renunciation.

And it is not the result of a sudden assertion of deep inner political conviction.

Labor rediscovered its spine only because it ran out of expedient options, almost losing the 2010 election in part because of its lack of convictions and then re-embracing climate change policy as part of the price of forming minority government. The Greens, of course, discovered political pragmatism once they had a good look at Tony Abbott's policy alternative.

The Prime Minister's talking points say Labor has "always believed in the need to tackle dangerous climate change". Yet everyone who has been paying even scant attention to this debate knows that belief was well hidden for a while.

And meanwhile, as the Nielsen polling figures show, its task had become much harder.

But again, not in the conventional way.

In the normal order of things, when a controversial public policy is unveiled, businesses and lobby groups would use the wavering balance of power holders in the Senate to prosecute whatever changes they desire.

The minor parties and independents propose amendments, the lobby groups exert public pressure, the amendments are haggled upon, the fate of the bills hangs in the balance and a compromise is finally agreed upon. But when the carbon tax is unveiled on Sunday, the deal to get it through the Parliament will have already been done.

The Greens and the three lower house independents have all said they will vote for it.

Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie was the last to declare, but as a former Green who won a Labor seat on Green preferences and who supports carbon pricing, voting down a Labor/Green carbon deal would have been a very brave career move.

So the climate deal will not be fought out in Canberra backroom deals over amendments or the passage of legislation. This is now a fight to the death in the arena of public opinion.

And because of Labor's prevarications, Tony Abbott has had an 18-month head start in that battle ? and he has spent his time well.

He has convinced many voters they should measure whether Australia is ahead or behind or in step with the rest of the world on the basis of whether other countries have a carbon tax - rather than whether they are going to meet the emission reduction targets that both major parties agree line up fairly against Australia's bipartisan minimum target of a 5 per cent cut.

Abbott has tried hard to give the impression that his Direct Action alternative is painless and almost cost-free.

And he has embraced the climate sceptics by emphasising that his plan ''makes environmental sense'' even if you don't believe in global warming.

Initially he hitched his anti-tax campaign to public anger about increases in power bills occurring for other reasons. Lately he has targeted the possible impact on mining and manufacturing industries, already under pressure because of the high dollar and the mining boom. It is through exactly those relevant electorates that he will ''barnstorm'' next week and throughout the five-week parliamentary winter recess.

His barnstorming is intended to stop the ''Clean Energy Future'' bills from passing Parliament in August or September by finding the political pain threshold of at least one of the parties who say they will vote for it.

Julia Gillard is banking on the underlying support in the community for taking some kind of action, as well as the fact that what she unveils on Sunday will not be anything like as scary as Abbott has been making out.

She is also banking on the fact that the members of the multi-party committee have just as much riding on this issue as she does.

But as well as Abbott's untiring anti-tax campaign, Sunday will also mark the start of the Greens' efforts to differentiate themselves from Labor, with claims about what they achieved in the carbon tax deal.

Labor will want to present the scheme as at least as cautious as Kevin Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme. The Greens will emphasise all the other elements, like the flexibility to argue for more ambitious targets in the future and the extra money for renewable energy, which they insist makes it tougher, although not as tough as it should have been.

Lost in the entire melee will be the truth that, however it compares with the carbon pollution reduction scheme, the final package will be a modest scheme, imposing modest costs on households and businesses to achieve the gradual reductions in emissions which both major parties ostensibly support.

It will even include some elements of the Coalition's Direct Action, including a tender for the early retirement of some of the highest-emitting, brown coal-fired power stations. It will leave fuel out, possibly dealing with transport emissions through regulation: which is exactly what the Coalition environment spokesman, Greg Hunt, said should happen back in 2008, when he insisted there was little evidence that higher petrol prices would drive down emissions and backed regulation as a more effective way to cut pollution in the sector.

In another political universe, in fact, this is the kind of scheme both major parties could have backed. In the current world of knock 'em down and drag 'em out politics, that really would be turning things on their head.

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