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Politics

Australia’s Climate Change Election

18 November 2007

Australia’s Climate Change Election

By Gwynne Dyer

John Howard has been prime minister of Australia for eleven years, and by normal political standards he has done almost everything right. The country is having an unprecedented economic boom thanks to China’s limitless demand for Australian natural resources. Unemployment is at a 33-year low, and Howard appeals to the underlying racism of many Australians by severely restricting asylum for refugees and subtly signalling that he will limit immigration from Asia. Yet he is probably going to lose the national election next Saturday (24 November).

The latest opinion polls give Labour a lead of eight percent over Howard’s Liberal (i.e. conservative) party, and Howard might even lose his own seat in suburban Sydney, which he has held for almost 34 years. It’s not over yet, because under Australia’s compulsory voting system a third of the electorate usually make their minds up only in the last few days before the election, but it looks like Howard has contrived to throw away a seemingly unbeatable hand. If so, the main reason will be global warming.

Like many climate change deniers in politics, Howard has been frantically re-adjusting his stance over the past couple of years in an effort to stay abreast of public opinion. (Even George W. Bush has been heard to utter the phrase “global warming.”) But he still refuses to sign the Kyoto accord, and he still insists that “technology” will solve the problem without any need for major changes in the lifestyle of countries like Australia.

It used to work, but one huge fact has turned politics around in Australia. The country is in the seventh year of the worst drought since European settlement began over two centuries ago, and very many Australians have begun to fear that it is permanent. Droughts are cyclical events and will eventually end. But if this is really an early example of what climate change will do to countries in the mid-latitudes, then it’s never going away again.

In that case, Australian agriculture as an export industry is doomed, and most of the country’s farmers are going to have to seek jobs elsewhere. Even the water supply for the big cities is becoming a problem. It is a very bad time in Australian politics to have John Howard’s record and reputation on climate change issues: in a recent poll in several marginal seats, 73 percent of voters said that climate issues would have a “strong influence” on the way they vote.

One suspects that it was Howard’s close relationship with President Bush that kept him shackled to climate change denial for so long, for conservative politicians elsewhere — Angela Merkel in Germany, David Cameron in Britain, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California — have been alert to the danger of letting the left occupy the high ground on the environment. After all, climate change is not intrinsically a left- or a right-wing issue, any more than earthquakes are, and the earliest conservationists were almost all on the right.

But John Howard, like Tony Blair in Britain, was seduced after 9/11 by the temptation to get close to what seemed the limitless power of the United States. Australia would be America’s “deputy sheriff” in Asia, and Howard volunteered Australian troops for service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush called him a “man of steel,” and he gloried in it. Climate change denial was just part of the package — and the normally adroit Howard forgot that he was an Australian politician, not an American one.

Howard is talking about climate change now, but he may have left it too late. Labour has fielded former diplomat Kevin Rudd against him, and at 50, Rudd is eighteen years younger than Howard. He’s not a very colourful character, but he’s learning fast: when he was accused of gong to a lap-dancing club in New York during a visit to the United Nations four years ago, he replied that he was too drunk to remember what had happened.

In most countries that would be the end of a political career, but in Australia it was the right answer.

By comparison Howard seems rattled, boring and worn out. His sole remaining function, in comedian Billy Connolly’s cruel formula, is “to let you know what Harry Potter’s going to look like when he’s old,” and his main election tactic is to bribe the voters with their own money. He launched his campaign by promising A$9.4 billion in tax cuts, and more goodies are offered every week: the most recent round included tax rebates for the parents of all school-age children and tax-free savings accounts for first-time home buyers.

Labour, by contrast, offered only A$2.3 billion in tax cuts, and Kevin Rudd bills himself as a fiscal conservative. It’s a familiar turn-about from other places, where the old pattern of tax-and-spend liberals and fiscally responsible conservatives has long been reversed — consider the United States, where Republican administrations have been running up huge deficits and Democratic administrations have been paying them down again for the past quarter-century — but it’s new in Australia.

And the biggest change if Labour forms the next Australian government? So far as the rest of the world is concerned, it will be that Australia, the world’s largest per-capita producer of carbon dioxide, signs the Kyoto accord. That could make a great deal of difference in the negotiations over the next year about will happen after the Kyoto accord expires in 2012.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“One…one”)