Daily Media Quotation
On A Green Wicket, Howard Plays, And Misses
November 3, 2006
by Michelle Grattan - The Age
For weeks the Government's thinking on climate change has been opaque. Some movement was occurring. But political shuffle or fundamental shift?
The clearest signpost came on Wednesday, when John Howard said that "just as I was interested in practical reconciliation, I'm interested in practical measures to address climate change". That "practical" sharply defines both the limits and nature of what he'd be doing.
Howard knows he has a political problem. Climate change has grabbed voters' attention; those talking it up can no longer be dismissed as just "green". This week's report by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern has further galvanised the debate.
But Howard isn't convinced about the dangers. Don't get mesmerised by a single report, he told his party room after Stern labelled climate change "the greatest market failure the world has ever seen". Howard continually hedges his bets. The globe's getting warmer, he concedes, while reserving judgement on how bad the effects will be.
Meanwhile, he fashions his policy and hones lines. Projects to clean up coal and (to a limited extent) develop renewable energy have been unveiled, although the money had been announced earlier.
Howard's argument runs this way. The jury remains out on the ultimate implications of climate change. Australia's natural resources, which make for high emissions, give it big comparative economic advantages, which it would be foolish to cede. But when (or if) every nation is willing to become part of a "new Kyoto", Australia is ready to be in it, part of an emissions trading system. As for Britain or the pesky Europeans wanting to lecture Australia, remember that they have different interests from us.
He says we should be cleaning up our coal and, when the price of coal power goes up, looking to the "big N option", as he calls nuclear power, becoming economic. Renewables get a modest look-in.
The PM is on the back foot in the climate change debate, but we're seeing a quintessentially Howard response, as he goes onto the offensive.
First, there is his "new Kyoto" concept. You'd have thought in Parliament on Tuesday it was just round the corner. In fact, as he admits, it's over the horizon stuff.
Talk of "new Kyoto" is Howard's attempt to sound as though he has some idea about the future. Environment Minister Ian Campbell will push it when, later this month, Australia chairs a conference in Kenya, part of a suite of United Nations climate change talks; Campbell will also argue that greater political will should be applied to getting low emission technology deployed quickly from the developed world.
Second, there is Howard's pledge to be the champion of Australia's national interest, as he defines it. "I'm going to stick up for Australian jobs and Australian investments," he said yesterday
Gradually, he says, as fossil fuel is cleaned up, people will have to accept that things will become dearer. But don't expect Australia to be out in front.
Howard is making a tactical adjustment, putting in place some modest measures, but basically drawing a line in the sand with what might be dubbed a "no disadvantage
to Australia" test. This raises two issues. Is Howard's substantive position justified? And how will the politics play out?
Anyone convinced by the Stern report would say Australia should be doing a lot more, that it should be setting an example, even at the price of a modest comparative cost — making an investment in the country's and the world's future.
Elliot Morley, Britain's special envoy on climate, this week put the counter case to Howard's proposition that Australia would only join a universal scheme.
"If we all take that attitude, then there'll be no progress at all, and we will just sleepwalk to oblivion in relation to the effects of climate change," he said.
An unimpressed Howard slapped down Morley's comments as rather "patronising", insisting that they didn't accord with Tony Blair's view.
Politically, Howard has a real challenge.
There is some mileage in appealing to people's perception of costs, and the Government has started a scare campaign against Labor's altenative.
Greg Hunt, parliamentary secretary to the Environment Minister, yesterday claimed Kim Beazley's policy was directed to "the latte set" and would massively drive up the price of petrol and pensioners' heating.
But while there are risks for Labor, climate change could be an issue where talk of the cost to the country — and even individuals — resonates less than the emotion about the future danger (with the attendant cost that will bring).
For the young particularly, worries about their threatened global inheritance do seem compelling. They don't see it as primarily a hip-pocket issue, yet much of the Government's argument is being pitched at the (national) hip pocket.
Howard's sending out of somewhat contradictory messages also complicates his selling job. As only a half believer in the climate problem, he is caught between warning against exaggeration and panic and assuring the public the Government is on top of the task.
Climate change will be Election '07's environmental issue. In 2004 it was forests, and Howard snookered Labor. But he will have a much tougher job to hold his own on climate change. No wonder the Greens' Bob Brown is predicting "the May budget will be the biggest environmental budget in history".