Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Climate heats up Australian politics

Australia's Liberal leader is being forced out over emissions trading. The crisis may be a taste of what's to come elsewhere
Julian Glover
guardian.co.uk, Monday 30 November 2009 15.30 GMT
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Australia is experiencing the world's first political crisis of the climate change age. No one in Britain is paying much attention – because the story involves the country's opposition Liberal party and politicians hardly anyone outside the country knows. But what is happening matters. It is a test case of political will – especially on the right – to pay the price of global warming.
In Britain we've been spared a political bust-up between sceptics and zealots, thanks to David Cameron's rather brave and early decision to make the environmental agenda his own. But there was nothing inevitable about his victory, or Tory support for green measures that will be hugely unpopular with voters once they have to start paying the bills. If David Davis or Liam Fox had beaten him to the leadership in 2005, Australia's crisis would be Britain's, too.
First, a brief political history. Australia, one of the world's highest per capita carbon polluters, stood aside from the Kyoto protocol until John Howard's right-of-centre coalition was defeated by Kevin Rudd's Labor in 2007. After that, Australia moved into the mainstream on climate change, and the Liberal party elected Malcolm Turnbull, as the opposition leader.
Turnbull is interesting – he was the lawyer who took on the British government in the Spycatcher case, then championed an Australian republic, and, as environment minister in the Howard government, he was the greenest member of the cabinet. To the Australian right, he's always been a bit suspicious: a flash Sydneysider from Australia's richest constituency whose got enough money to indulge environmental concerns.
In opposition, he's been struggling, hit by bad poll ratings and a car crash of a crisis a while back when he called on the prime minister to resign on the basis of some emails that turned out to be fake. His rivals have been manoeuvring. In the past week they have pounced, after Turnbull forced through a controversial vote to back the government's emissions trading scheme in the Australian senate.
Without at least some Liberal support, this scheme will not pass, since Labor doesn't have a majority in the upper house. If you want to be generous, you could say that Turnbull has decided to sacrifice his leadership for his principles – a "climate change martyr" as the Sydney Morning Herald put it. Or you could say he is trying to face down his critics on an issue where he can hold the moral upper hand, and that this whole saga has more to do with egos than climate change.
Either way, Turnbull is toast: a large chunk of his frontbench resigned rather than back emissions trading, and at least one member of it, Tony Abbott, has confirmed he will fight Turnbull for the leadership tomorrow, on an anti-emissions trading ticket.
He might win. If he doesn't, another member of the front bench, Joe Hockey, is likely to get the job. He is Turnbull's preferred candidate but risks becoming a hostage of climate sceptics if he takes over with their backing.
For the Liberals, it is a hellish mess. For Australia, it is a testing moment. Does the country have what it takes to cut emissions? For the world, it might be a foretaste of politics to come.