The next leadership battle is much bigger

On climate change and refugees, Julia Gillard has completely failed to take a vision to the public. At present it seems Tony Abbott will fall flat here too – but more than ever is at stake in the contest to solve these problems.

The fire in the belly of the ‘Rudd journalists’ – the few who so doggedly have fanned speculations that a leadership change is imminent – seems to be burning itself out.

There is no sign of a formal challenge for Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership. Rudd cannot, it would seem, be drafted by a majority of caucus colleagues. And Gillard sure as hell isn’t stepping down.

With luck, then, the daily news cycle will be cleared for a return to more substantive issues. The battle between the Rudd and Shorten camps (for really there is no ‘Gillard camp’) will turn into a vicious power struggle after the election, with those two wrestling for the right to rebuild Labor in their own image.

Yuck.

Meanwhile, the policy achievements and problems of the Labor years are being brought into focus by new developments.

Today I wish to look at two major problems, and the interrelatedness of their solutions – the issues of ‘boats’ and ‘carbon’.

In the past week we have learned two important things.

Firstly, the PM will travel to Indonesia to a top-level dialogue with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which is likely to produce some firmer statements on the flow of sea-borne refugees to Australia.

Secondly, it has become clear through a poll conducted for the Fairfax papers that two-thirds of Australians do not wish to see Labor’s carbon-pricing legislation repealed. While many people are angry about the ‘lie’ of a ‘carbon tax’, a growing majority understand that reducing carbon emissions by using tax revenue to pay polluters to shut down is no better – indeed, it's a lot more expensive.

‘Carbon’ and ‘boats’ have become Labor’s greatest electoral liabilities, but they are also two of the most diabolically difficult problems that Australia needs to solve.

To put it in its starkest terms, Australia needs a leader who will see the bigger picture, and who is able to articulate that vision to what has become, thanks to all the bile and acrimony of the 43rd parliament, a bemused and disgusted voting public.

Labor’s response to these two issues has been far from perfect. However, the government has made a concerted effort to listen to expert advisors. Economists overwhelmingly favour carbon pricing as the lowest-cost way to aid the transition to low-carbon energy; and on ‘boats’, the Houston panel made clear recommendations about creating a regional solution to the displaced persons of our region.

Where Labor failed was the in the selling of these positions. Some of that is due to Gillard’s poor performance in front of cameras. Some of it is due to Tony Abbott’s brilliance in using short, and mostly nonsensical slogans to wrong-foot the goverment, day after day.  And much of this failing is due to the ongoing Rudd-Shorten battle that has ripped a once-proud party apart.

But just because Labor has failed so completely in a political sense, does not mean that they got the policies completely wrong as well. 

Reports in the Fairfax press today remind us that repealing Labor’s carbon pricing package, and funding carbon abatement directly from consolidated revenue, is going to cost a Coalition many billions of dollars – billions it cannot afford in such tight fiscal times. 

And on boats, Labor last year presented the parliament with legislation, amended by Rob Oakeshott and passed in the lower house, that would have begun the long road to a real, permanent regional solution to the issues of unchecked migration and people smuggling.

The six-hour debate over that bill made this columnist more angry than anything else during the course of this parliament – the legislation contained a plan that was not perfect, but it would have saved many lives. It was blocked in the senate by the Greens and Coalition for what I still believe were utterly flawed reasons (The boats bill must be allowed to pass, 28 June 2012).

On both these issues, Australia needs a leader who can take the wisdom of our best expert minds, and make it comprehensible to voters. Kevin Rudd, in his day, failed to do this. Likewise Julia Gillard.

And at present, PM-in-waiting Tony Abbott is outlining solutions that suggest he will fail on these two crucial issues as well.

There is hope, however – hope that Abbott will not follow through with clearly unworkable plans. 

The Coalition’s Direct Action plan is a fig-leaf of a policy, but it will almost certainly be changed beyond recognition after the election.

Likewise the Coalition’s plan to tow boats back to Indonesian waters will have to be altered. At present, the Coalition's the policy is equivalent of stuffing bread in one’s ears, closing one’s eyes, and saying “Nah, nah, nah, there’s no problem.”

On each of these fronts there is a collossal problem. And if Tony Abbott takes government with a large majority – possibly even effective control of the senate – he will have the opportunity to be the historic figure who begins to address these problems.

The first step in that process is to understand how intertwined they are. The displacement of human beings due to war, poverty and oppression is an accelerating problem.

And, though we cannot know with absolute certainty, doubling the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is extremely likely to bring unpredictable disruption to water and agricultural systems around the world. That means more war, poverty, oppression and ... more boats.

Whoever leads the next government, Australia needs to think beyond its territorial waters and recognise that it has a vital role in convincing the biggest carbon polluters (particularly China) to follow the lead of rich nations and reduce per-capita emissions.

And whoever leads the next government should position us firmly within a regional framework to handle the large numbers of refugees moving within our region. It’s not a case of ‘stop the boats’, so much as manage a spontaneous, unstoppable refugee problem.

There is a parochial idea in some quarters that we can simply ‘adapt’ to human induced climate change – perhaps tell a few cockys to move their farms a bit to the south and plant a few more trees.

That view exposes use to the greatest danger – adaption really means working with the rest of the world to solve enormous problems. 

Labor has lacked the political skills to solve these problems, and the Coalition is pretending at least that it is unwilling to look at real policy solutions.

Whether it's from Gillard, Rudd, Shorten, Abbott, Hockey or Turnbull, Australia is badly in need of some leadership on these crucial issues.