And then there was one.

Malcolm Turnbull — ostensibly still leaving, but hopefully announcing this week that he’ll remain — is now the only senior politician in federal parliament who wants to take effective action on climate change.

Turnbull’s successor in the coalition leadership doesn’t, mainly because he thinks climate change is “crap”. Liberal moderates are too cowed or too self-interested to say otherwise. Greg Hunt, he of the thesis on emissions trading and the oft-proclaimed commitment to climate change action, cut and ran last December to save his shadow ministry, signing up to a “direct action” policy that he is smart enough to know is utter bollocks.

The government is no longer interested, pushing an ETS off into the never-never, into a sort of timeframe that should be called Nelsonia, after the hapless Brendan who lost his job for suggesting similar timing. Who in the government ever really believed in the cause of taking effective action on climate change?  Peter Garrett, most assuredly. Who else? Not, it appears, Kevin Rudd or his Teflon-coated Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, who seems to have escaped responsibility for presiding over a complete debacle.

The Prime Minister rightly copped it last week for letting Greg Combet and Kate Ellis — Kate bloody Ellis — announce some bad news. Yesterday Rudd did the dirty work himself (assuming he would have done so had not Lenore Taylor pushed him into it), but Wong needs to bear considerable responsibility. I said ages ago that if Julia Gillard had been running this issue — because, as we all know, she has a lot of spare capacity — we might have had a very different outcome. Hell, even Nicola Roxon has been able to secure passage through the Senate of controversial Bills.

But as much as Rudd and Wong are the stand-out performers here — played strong, done fine — it was a team effort. Reading the savage commentary from the press gallery this morning, I was reminded that my dear colleagues in the press have had a not-insubstantial role in this. I speak not merely of that malignant tumour on the face of Australian policy debate, The Australian, but of the many other outlets that did so much to corrupt debate over the ETS and, ultimately, over climate change itself.

Every journalist and editor who ran a piece on dodgy polluter-commissioned modelling from economics consultancies, with their patented Rubbish-In-Rubbish-Out Job-Loss-O-Meters, demonstrating that vast swathes of industry would close because of a 1% or 2% increase in costs —  you too can hold your heads high. Every editor who gave climate denialists and their wingnut theories coverage — you too can claim some credit.

And our friends at the national broadcaster should not be forgotten — the ABC’s sterling commitment to “balancing” climate science with the ravings of conspiracy theorists (“balance” in some cases meaning ignoring the former and giving generous coverage to the latter) earns them a nod as well.

So, all those swingeing, outraged attacks on Rudd today from the press?  Let he who is without sin, etc.

In the early days of the Rudd government I thought the question would be whether it would be a major reforming governments in the Hawke-Keating-Howard tradition, or a risk-averse, Bob Carr-style government that achieved incremental reform, spun big but let long-term problems pile up. That question has now largely been answered: Kevin Rudd is much closer to Carr than to Hawke and Keating.

History suggests governments’ second terms are better than their first, but also that they run out of reform puff after two terms.  The Rudd government is nearing halfway through what history suggests will be its most reforming years and what has it got to show for it? It’s been fine at valuable small and medium-level reforms (like the over-hyped health package, or Chris Bowen’s excellent financial services reforms), but what about the big-picture stuff?

With an economy set to resume a resources boom and big questions around infrastructure, housing, the banking sector and skill shortages, there’s no lack of reform opportunities.

Its two excuses don’t wash. The coalition’s reflexive opposition to pretty much everything needn’t be a barrier. Labor routinely tried to stymie John Howard’s most significant reforms, but he negotiated many of them through the Senate, figuring the benefits of reform were worth doing deals with clowns such as Mal Colston, Brian Harradine and Meg Lees.

And yes the GFC has stripped the Budget bare of surpluses that could have been used to fund reform, but the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments all had poor fiscal circumstances to deal with — and it made them even hungrier for reform.

This Sunday’s Henry Review could be the last chance for the government to set itself a real economic reform goal. Like the health system, our tax system is routinely bagged but actually works well compared to internationally. Nevertheless, there’s considerable room to improve efficiency — not to mention fixing the problem John Howard (not Peter Costello) bequeathed us of an over-reliance on corporate tax.

Instead, there’s the sense that anything that might cost Labor support is off the agenda for Rudd. And you can’t take on real reform without risking support.

Which leads to a question for Rudd: what exactly does he want to achieve as Prime Minister? Because that’s not clear any more.

Peter Fray

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