The Howard Government has always conducted two distinct climate change campaigns, a domestic one and an international one. The sort of misrepresentations and distortions that characterise the domestic campaign − and which have framed the understanding of the less well-informed commentators − are counter-productive when deployed in international forums.

Indeed it was his inability to comprehend that domestic spin should be kept at home that was in part responsible for the demise of Ian Campbell as environment minister. When he attacked China at the UN conference of the parties in Nairobi for not doing “a single thing” to reduce its emissions, Australia received a sharp, public and unprecedented rebuke from the head of the Chinese delegation.

Alexander Downer is not as inept as Ian Campbell and so it is no surprise to see the contrast in rhetoric between his comments at home and those delivered last night in New York. Writing in The Australian on Monday, Downer attacked the Kyoto Protocol as “outdated ideology”, “past its use-by date”, and an approach that had failed.

There was none of the usual rancorous and hairy-chested rhetoric in his speech to the UN High-Level Meeting. In contrast to the incredible claims at home about how Australia is “leading the world” on climate change and is unwilling to hand over responsibility and just “follow the pack” on Kyoto, Downer knows that Australia’s real clout internationally evaporated when the Government repudiated Kyoto.

Having threatened at the last minute to wreck the hard-won consensus at Kyoto in 1997 unless given extraordinary concessions, our repudiation of the treaty and subsequent attacks on it have left a deep-seated antagonism to Australia around the world.

So Downer was all sweetness and light in New York. However, he was inevitably talking up the APEC meeting. The Sydney Declaration, he claimed, “broke new common ground on climate change”. But everyone in the audience would have known that the Howard Government’s strategy came seriously unstuck at APEC.

It had been clear for a year or so that the Howard Government planned for APEC to reach an agreement that would provide the basis for an alternative to Kyoto. It should have been clear from the abject failure of AP6 that this would not fly once the other main players got wind of it. Some weeks before the APEC meeting, Japan made it clear in private that it would agree to nothing that undermined Kyoto.

The Government should also have taken note of the dramatic back-flip by the Bush Administration at the G8 meeting in June, which endorsed the UN process as the only way forward. In the days before APEC and at the event one country after another sent an unambiguous message to Howard that they would not play his anti-Kyoto game. Malaysia said Australia “has no credibility to negotiate anything” on climate, China reaffirmed that Kyoto must be at the centre of global efforts, and the Philippines stressed the UN was the only game in town. Even the US acknowledged that the real action will be in Bali.

In an amazing display of chutzpah, our foreign minister characterised these comments as an attempt to water down the Sydney Declaration against the desire of Australia for a “more ambitious” statement. At the APEC cocktail parties, the irony of the world’s worst climate laggard claiming that the rest of the world was holding back its ambitious agenda would have drawn wry smiles and the odd guffaw.

The APEC leaders all knew that Australia’s real ambition was to undermine Kyoto, which was not on. Accordingly, the final Sydney Declaration was a strong endorsement of the global process. It reaffirmed the UNFCCC and its objective. Without actually mentioning it, the Declaration endorsed the Kyoto Protocol, calling for a post-2012 agreement that “strengthens, broadens and deepens the current arrangements”. Indeed, it goes much further than Kyoto in calling for an agreed long-term global emissions reductions goal. And the agreed APEC country actions are to be supplementary to Kyoto.

All of this represented a crushing defeat for the Howard Government’s plans. Undeterred, The Australian reached a new level of climate change absurdity by announcing that APEC was “a sweeping victory for John Howard on climate change”. The Australian used to be the most uncritical purveyor of Government spin on climate change; now it invents the spin for the Government.

In New York Downer outlined APEC’s seven principles for a post-2012 arrangement. Every one of them is laid out in the Kyoto Protocol, as we would expect in a statement agreed by a grouping of 21 nations, 19 of which have ratified the Protocol and are committed to it.

The Howard Government is now waking up to the utter folly of its position on climate change and the damage it has done to our international reputation. Thus, after years of bitter attacks on the UN process and the Kyoto Protocol, Downer last night conceded that it is indeed the only game in town.

So he told the sceptical New York audience that Australia calls on all Parties to the Framework Convention to build on the Kyoto Protocol for a stronger and more comprehensive agreement that leads to a global reduction in emissions.

We should not rule out the possibility that between now and the election the Howard Government could announce its intention to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Politically it would be an audacious move that would blind-side Labor. Howard has never been embarrassed about making U-turns in the past, and rarely has such a move been more enticing.