At first glance the Government’s revised agenda for climate change has little to recommend it — an even more wishy-washy compromise which will end up achieving not much and gaining support from not many.

This is true enough, but it is worth remembering that its unmourned predecessor ended up with even fewer friends and no chance at all of getting passed into law. Plan B at least provides a basis for negotiation.

The consensus of the commentariat is that Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong performed the face-lift for two reasons only, both political: to regain control of the issue and to wedge the opposition, possibly even setting up the circumstances for a double dissolution. Certainly these considerations would have figured in their planning, but there is also some reason to believe them when they say that they seriously want the legislation passed.

Unlike far too many of their fellow Australians, including a sizable chunk of the opposition and most of the pundits of the Murdoch press, Rudd and Wong accept the science of climate change and believe that it constitutes a clear and present danger; they actually want to do something about it. And if the only way to do anything at all is to minimise their ambitions still further, then so be it.

They do not want to go to Copenhagen empty-handed, admitting that in the nearly two years since Bali they have been unable to deliver a single concrete achievement. They have their own reasons for giving business the certainty it says that it craves.

By and large Australian industry has been seriously recalcitrant: the big polluters have done as little as possible to prepare for change and have made it clear that they will continue to seek delays, special treatment and general mollycoddling for as long as humanly possible; obviously they hope that if they can postpone serious action for long enough the government — whoever it may be — will eventually give up. The only thing that will stir them into any sort of reform agenda is legislation and if the only legislation that can get through the senate is a minimal scheme that won’t operate till 2011, that will have to do.

All but the most Jurassic of the business organisations are now moving towards acceptance and Malcolm Turnbull, after a reflex flurry of rejection, is now prepared to negotiate. And so he should: the new package is almost exactly the same as the one he espoused while in government. Moreover Wong has been able to tempt some of the conservation movement with a promise to up the ante if international agreement can be obtained. She and they both know this is most unlikely, but at least it gives Australia a half-way credible stance to take to Copenhagen.

However, it is not going to satisfy the Green senators, so Rudd will have to rely on Turnbull to stand up the sceptics in his own party and the downright flat-earthers of the Nationals if he is to break through. And if not? Well, a double dissolution will only become an option after the legislation is knocked back a second time. If a stubborn senate resorts to every delaying tactic at its disposal, it could be hard to set one up this calendar year.

Rudd must now be regretting he left the climate change debate to languish on the backburner for so long. Six months ago a well-run public campaign might have forced the opposition to accept that the government had a mandate to press ahead with its policy. Rudd says that the Global Financial Crisis has changed everything; well, it has certainly changed his priorities and the issue of climate change has been allowed to lapse.

Unfortunately the issue itself has not been changed; it remains, as Rudd once called it, the greatest economic, social and moral challenge facing the world. Except that the world is no longer facing it.

But even the GFC has its good points; it can be used as an excuse to break an election promise and get rid of some truly terrible legislation.

When John Howard introduced his private health insurance rebate scheme the then shadow minister, Jenny Macklin, described it as the worst health policy she had ever seen. She had a point. It used money which should have gone to the struggling public health system to subsidise buyers of private insurance.

It was supposed to attract more people to take out private insurance, but in fact it simply subsidised those who already had it. Effectively, it constituted a direct hand out to the rich. When Howard introduced his so-called safety net for medical expenses it was more of the same: by definition the rich use expensive procedures far more frequently than the poor do.

To its discredit Labor let both measures pass rather than get involved in divisive debate and Rudd promised to maintain them if elected in 2007. But finally some social and economic sense is to be applied; the basic concepts will stay, but the rebate is to be means tested and some of the more extravagant services are to be removed from the safety net.

The excuse for breaking hitherto sacrosanct election promises is, of course, the burgeoning deficit and the need to constrain government spending — both notions to which Turnbull vehemently subscribes. It is unlikely that this will do much to modify his rants about breaches of faith and the betrayal of the electorate. But it will add to the pressure on him to explain just where he would save money and what cuts he would make.

So far he has shown no inclination to undo any of the excessive handouts of the Howard years, which leaves his options fairly limited. Of course, he could simply go back to basics. Can we perhaps look forward to a reappearance of that grand old budget headline: “Beer, cigs, petrol up”?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey