Kate Mackenzie Australia’s ETS palaver and the politics of climate change

Australia, often concerned about its status in world affairs, is certainly being closely watched for its progress towards introducing a cap-and-trade scheme. Although its economy is about 2 per cent of global GDP, an Australian system might be only the second significant emissions trading scheme to operate under UN auspices – the first being the European Union’s.

But the path to such an ETS in Australia has turned into an all-out political watershed for the country’s conservative movement; one that reflects poorly on both sides of politics. The opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, could well be defeated in a leadership challenge over his support for the ETS. Meanwhile critics have accused the centre-left Labor government of devising a cynical piece of legislation that would do little if anything to reduce emissions from a business-as-usual scenario, while spending vast amounts compensating the fossil fuel industries; particularly coal-fired plant operators. Moreover, it cleverly wedged the opposition into a very tight spot.

But the prospect of such a scheme, no matter how well engineered to meet industry demands, is anathema to parts of the conservative opposition coalition, which is made up of the urban Liberal party and the country National party. The Liberal-National coalition, already struggling against a popular government, has had its internal differences laid bare by the proposed ETS. Predictably, the members from more affluent urban seats tend to support the scheme, while most – but by no means  all – of the opponents are from rural seats. Those opponents have repeatedly referred in media interviews to phones ringing off the hook and deluges of emails opposing the scheme.

The odd thing is however that most Australians support an emissions trading scheme, at least if opinion polls are anything to go by.  And even more striking is that unlike the US, the big business groups actually support the legislation too (it is, remember, very carefully aimed at the coal-intensive Australian industry). That is the crux of the matter: the conservative coalition needs all its constituencies: big business, well-heeled urbanites and rural voters – but between (and even within) those groups, there are big divergences on climate change policy.

With the legislation about to go for a second time to the Senate – which contains six members for each state and two from each territory, regardless of population – what the majority of voters actually want isn’t altogether relevant. But as many others have noted, if it gets rejected there, prime minister Kevin Rudd can call an early election that would dissolve the entire Senate, throwing all the cards up in the air (though this option is unpopular with voters).

So the Australian ETS is a story about politics – in this case, the changing face of Australian conservatism – rather than climate change. But isn’t it always about politics?

Related links:

Australian emissions trading scheme bites the dust, for now (FT Energy Source, 13/08/09)
Australian resources companies under fire over carbon comments (FT Energy Source, 15/06/09)