It wasn’t quite the end-of-the-year party that Kevin Rudd had planned. Copenhagen ended not with a bang but a whimper, and not even the most zealous apologist can possibly spin it any other way.

Even the Mickey Mouse position announced unilaterally by Barack Obama in the death throes was rejected by a large number of the participants, most of whom simply refused to believe that the heavies were serious about anything except their own self interest.

The Australian take on this debacle is that at least some of the opponents of the Obama declaration were “rebel nations”, which may have some truth in it, but is hardly the most diplomatic description if any kind of progress is to be resumed in the foreseeable future. Dividing the world into the goodies (our side) and some kind of axis of evil (those who don’t agree with us) is exactly what Copenhagen was supposed not to be about. The fact that it degenerated so far and so fast does not bode well.

The collapse of Copenhagen is not the end of the world; at least the urgency of the problem has now been acknowledged, and while the sceptics may continue to grumble in the privacy of their medieval cells, scepticism is no longer an acceptable political position, even for the National Party of Australia. A theoretical target has been set: the mean temperature should not rise by more than two degrees Celsius. How this is to be achieved is not even hinted at, but there is a general acceptance that all countries have to do something, and that they should start sooner rather than later.

And there is a tacit understanding that the lead has to come from the big polluters of the developed world, which, of course, begins with the United States, but very definitely includes the per capita gold medallist, Australia. If we are to get back on track at Mexico City next year, there is no more time to lose.

It was not meant to be like this. Rudd had hoped to go to Copenhagen with an Emissions Trading Scheme for Australia signed and sealed, and, his credentials thus proven, to operate as one of the inner negotiating group to bring the various competing blocs to some kind of consensus. After all, he had been appointed as a Friend of the Chair, had had lengthy discussions on the subject with most of the key players and was, uniquely, a professional diplomat as well as a head of government.

Securing a legally binding agreement from the 190-odd (and we do mean odd) participants may have always been too much to hope for, but it should have been possible to arrive at a more general understanding about what was required and how the burden was to be shared. If ever there was an occasion to apply the old socialist adage: “To each according to his need, from each according to his ability” then Copenhagen was it. But by the time Rudd arrived on the scene any hope of harmony was already destroyed.

From the beginning there had been antipathy and distrust, and these quickly led to a determination among many of the key participants to take the view that their most important job was to defend their own turf. Even Rudd talked constantly about doing what was in Australia’s national interest, not about what was needed to solve the crisis. Unsurprisingly, Australia was quickly identified as a member of the enemy camp by the groupings of smaller undeveloped nations, particularly the Africans and the Pacific Islanders.

The only hope of correcting this impression will be for Rudd to produce concrete evidence that Australia is doing its bit, and given the intransigence of the Tony Abbott-led Opposition, this will not be easy. Abbott made no real attempt to conceal his pleasure at the fiasco in Copenhagen, and promptly renewed his fatuous demand for a debate with Rudd about the whole issue of climate change, a subject on which he has no policy beyond wishful thinking. This is a slight improvement on outright denial, but not much.

The prospect of a year stuck in the dark ages must be something of a nightmare for Rudd, and he could hardly be blamed for pulling an election trigger as soon as possible. A poll in the first half of the year would be disruptive to the political timetable, but since Abbott has announced his determination to celebrate his leadership by disrupting the entire process of government, it might be the lesser of two evils.

They call this the silly season for the media, and it seems that the Sydney newspapers are determined to prove it. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph have decided that it’s time for the state Labor government to go, and they are not going to let the inconvenient fact that the election is not due until March 2011 get in the way of their convictions.

The Tele takes the straightforward approach: the governor should simply sack the bastards. This would involve tearing up the state constitution, which provides for dismissal only in the case of proven illegalities, but so what. Granny Herald is a little more subtle: she’s running a petition for people to sign, requesting a change to the rules, which would provide a way for the people (well, at least some of them) to demand an early election if they felt like it.

This is cheap populism at its worst; it took a long time to secure fixed four year terms of government, a campaign applauded by Granny for the stability it promised, and the consequent improvement to government. To seek to undo this important reform simply because one particular government is on the nose is too silly even for this season.

On which note allow me to say bah, humbug for another year. I’m sure Kevin Rudd would agree.

Peter Fray

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