Kevin in the Middle. Mr Moderation. A common sense voice in between hardliners. That’s the Government’s positioning on its trading scheme, and the line Kevin Rudd has been pushing since yesterday:

Well, you know something, we’re going to get attacked from the left, and that’s what the Greens are doing. We’re going to get attacked from the right and that’s what Dr Nelson is doing. My job’s to get the balance right for the future.

Judging by his rhetoric on The 7.30 Report, Rudd has given up on the possibility of negotiating a deal with the Greens on emissions trading:

The Greens on the left out there, they may not like what we’re going to do and they will say it’s not as pure as the driven snow. Well I’ll cop that on the chin. And you will have the climate change sceptics on the right corner saying that we shouldn’t be doing anything. My job is to face the facts, the economic facts, the science facts, and prosecute a balanced course of action.

See, it’s all about balance. And there’s an element of truth in that, admittedly. The Greens, one suspects, don’t care much about what the rest of the world does, and want Australia to plunge into serious and deep emissions cuts that would have major economic consequences. And therefore major political consequences. No policy or political blame attaches to the Government for failing to run with the Greens’ agenda in the absence of international action.

But the Government’s idea of balance is rather closer to the climate sceptic end of the scale. The trading scheme proposed yesterday won’t reduce our emissions. Key groups — big polluters, trade unions, motorists — have been bought off with a promise they’ll have to do little or nothing about their emissions over the medium term. Despite Penny Wong’s denials yesterday, this will be business as usual.

It’s a lot like the Budget, really. We’ve been fed a lot of stuff about how important it is that the Government make tough decisions for Australia’s long-term future, but when we see the decisions, they’re about as tough as custard. There are few, if any, casualties.

For all his talk about “great moral challenges”, is Kevin Rudd prepared to ask anyone to make a sacrifice for the sake of reducing our emissions? Evidently not.

Then again… let’s explore the alternative. The Coalition pretended global warming didn’t exist for twelve years and now Australia is significantly behind several other countries, including our biggest trading partner, in addressing carbon emissions. Within seven months of its election, the Government has moved swiftly to lay out an emissions trading scheme to commence as soon as humanly possible. It will initially be mostly painless, maximising its chances of popular acceptance. There is virtually nothing for the Coalition to object to except the timing, and in the absence of some major implementation problem, that’s not going to be enough for them to oppose it. The scheme will initially be weak, yes, but once it is in place, it can be strengthened to make a serious dent on our carbon emissions.

Not to mention that there’s a serious financial crisis playing out in the US at the moment and there’s a real threat of a global recession. Now isn’t a good time to be slapping a massive new tax on our industries. Particularly in the absence of an international agreement to seriously reduce carbon emissions. Caution isn’t just good politics, it’s good policy.

Well, as they say in the classics, maybe. But yet again the Government has shown it is unwilling to risk any political damage, even in prosecuting major reforms. Bob Hawke once declared — a trifle sanctimoniously — that he was willing to risk electoral defeat rather than avoid responsibility for driving major economic reform. It’s impossible to see Kevin Rudd making the same bold declaration about climate change, or courting electoral disaster like John Howard did in an effort to introduce the GST.

Maybe Rudd knows better than us. Maybe he knows that those who say Australians are crying out for genuine, big-picture leadership are wrong, and that Australians are small-minded and only interested in their household budgets. Today’s press coverage certainly suggests that.

And that’s obviously the conclusion of Brendan Nelson, although given his brief and puerile response yesterday, he should’ve stayed on holiday. The bloke is becoming an embarrassment. Greg Hunt and Malcolm Turnbull — given very little to exploit — have tried hard to push the line that the petrol and diesel offsets are only temporary and that the lack of modelling means the whole process is being unreasonably rushed. The rush, of course, is about the only good thing left in the Government’s soft proposal, although 2010 only remains an “ambition”. (Hunt in his Herald Sun piece talked about the need to “use price signals where they will have a positive impact.” Greg, you’re a smart guy and you know more about emissions trading than anyone else in Parliament, but using price signals where they’ll have a positive impact is like fighting for peace or f-cking for virginity.)

At the very least, if the Government was hell-bent on rewarding our biggest polluters with free permits, it could’ve spelt out a clear timeline for this rort to be ended. If the scheme isn’t going to do much for the first few years of its operation, at least give us some assurance it will ultimately have an impact. But even that politically innocuous move was beyond this safety-first government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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