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What does The Australian Leadership Change mean for Climate Change?

July 2, 2013

This post was originally published by The Adopt a Negotiator Project, and written by Luke Kemp, PhD scholar with Australian National University

Kevin Rudd may have won the Australian Game of Thrones, but what does it mean for the climate? Is winter (the conservative Liberal party) still coming?

Will the sudden change of leadership in Australia impact the country's climate policy?On the 25th of July our previous and now current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd usurped his colleague and rival Julia Gillard. The leadership change was driven by a profound fear of political annihilation at the upcoming Australian election.

Despite many achievements in policy, Ms. Gillard did not enjoy widespread public support. The Labor party was facing an election landslide. Rudd on the other hand is rather popular with the Australian public.

How will this switch from Gillard to Rudd affect Australian climate policy at home and abroad? How this influences the upcoming election will be crucial in shaping Australia’s approach to climate change in the lead-up to 2015. But in the short term the changes will mainly be superficial.

Both Rudd and Gillard have mixed credentials when it comes to climate policy. Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol (which Australia had previously rejected) and made a failed attempt to introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Gillard ratified the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and, more importantly, introduced the carbon tax.

Unfortunately the carbon tax has been one of the reasons for Gillard’s fall from grace thanks to the uneducated and fickle response of many Australians.

Neither Rudd nor Gillard have changed Australia’s overall carbon reduction target. It stands at a lowly -5% on 1990 levels by 2020.

Will Rudd seize the opportunity to scale up climate action and the climate diplomacy of Australia?But, a few changes are still possible with the transition to Rudd. Firstly, the Australian Carbon Tax may be transformed into an ETS sooner than expected. The tax is set to morph into an ETS in 2015. Rudd could choose to fast-track this move to an ETS so it occurs this year, before the next election. Rudd himself has always been more receptive to the idea of an ETS and the Australian public appears to largely follow his sentiment. Partially this is because Australians are terrified by the word “tax”. So, it may be a politically savvy move for Rudd to repackage the carbon tax into an ETS before the election.

A difference in the longer term could be the Australian approach to the international arena. Rudd is a career diplomat who speaks fluent Mandarin and was previously posted as the Foreign Minister. He may choose to place an emphasis back onto the international negotiations, as he did with the original ratification of Kyoto. How he would do so is a trickier question.

Would he be willing to increase Australia’s conditional or unconditional carbon targets leading up to the 2015 agreement? Will he opt for greater bilateral engagement with China and the US and maybe even look to link our carbon price with other countries (as is planned for the EU in 2015)?

These questions are ultimately irrelevant if Rudd does not win the next election. This is where the real fight for Australia’s contribution to the climate will be decided.

The consequence of this leadership change would be dwarf by the impact for climate policy of the possible arrival of Abbott in power in a few months.The policy differences between Rudd and Gillard are cosmetic in comparison to the positions of the opposition leader Tony Abbott. Abbott is a noted climate skeptic and champions planting trees as the centrepiece of his climate policy package. Worst of all, he has vowed to repeal the Carbon Tax. He would need to both be in power and have a majority in the senate to do so.

The fate of the election and the Carbon Tax are hanging on a knife’s edge, and both have been irreversibly altered by the leadership change. Gillard was doomed to lose the next election in a landslide. Even the loss of the senate and therefore the Carbon Tax was likely. But the return of the ever popular Rudd will breathe new life into the Labor Party.

Suddenly the loss of the senate and perhaps even the election does not seem so certain.

This entire saga shows some interesting points about Australia and even its climate negotiating partners in the Umbrella Group who have similar domestic circumstances. In Australia, the US and Canada, the political parties are extremely oppositional.

Our right wing makes the European right wing look like Martin Luther King and it’s difficult to take or maintain a strong position when the opposition party is antagonistic to climate science, let alone climate policy.

All it takes is one election for climate policies to be turned on their head. A volatile and divided domestic scene does not make a strong platform for negotiations.

Interestingly, many of the policy positions of the Umbrella group will not be affected by leadership change. The political time-bombs for COP19 such as finance and loss and damages will sat as they are. The Australian position will not soften because of the rise of Rudd, nor will the US shift due to some recent speeches by Obama.

The Game of Thrones in Australia highlights two key struggles for most Umbrella Group members. Firstly, that our leaders are always constrained by their surrounding parties and politics. Rudd can’t do anything radically different to Gillard and Obama has had to resort to some peripheral non-senate approved climate policies. It’s hard to be a climate leader when you are in shackles.

It’s harder to be a climate leader when the sword of Damocles (or the Kingslayer Jamie Lannister) is looming above your head. Luckily, in the case of Australia the change in leadership is unlikely to ruin the climate. But come the next election a new king may plunge Australian climate politics into a new ice age. For the Umbrella Group winter is always coming…..

Read Luke’s previous guest post here.

*Apologies for the numerous Game of Thrones references, but it seemed appropriate. For those of you who do not understand the references, I suggest you take a week away from work/study/life to read the books.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 2, 2013 8:43 am

    I really feel politicians won’t solve the climate change problems.

    Big business has too much vested interest to let politicians actually make any effective changes.

    Effective changes will mean less profits for big business, so we’ll all choke when the climate fails, as will big business regardless of all its money.

    My cartoon on it (among others) . . . . .



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