A eulogy to Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd, and the government he led, ran into trouble by approaching climate change more as a short-term game of politics rather than a long-term battle of principle.

Rudd’s first instinct of chasing public popularity and grand moments in the spotlight worked well in the lead-up to the 2007 election. Unfortunately for the former prime minister, coming up with effective policy to reduce carbon emissions is more of a long, grubby slog. It requires the approach of a dogged Steve Waugh, rather than the flashy brilliance of his brother Mark.

There are several reasons for this:

-- It requires taking on some of the most powerful and well organised corporate interests in the country;  

-- The media debate is characterised by a range of extreme and highly vocal ideologues with no interest in compromise;

-- The energy system, with its huge physical scale, multi-billion dollar price-tags, and the essential nature of its product, acts to intimidate anyone that dares to change it; and most importantly,

-- The ultimate winners from efforts to reduce emissions are children who can’t even vote yet.

You don’t implement meaningful greenhouse emission reduction policies to achieve political popularity. Rather political popularity is an asset you draw down upon to implement these policies because you think they’re the right thing to do.

At his best, such as this speech, Rudd would illustrate a deep understanding and concern about addressing climate change. Just after Gillard assumed the leadership I met with an influential person within the environmental movement to ask his views on the implications. The answer was unequivocal, Rudd “got it” when it came to climate change, whereas Gillard’s concern was subject to the political winds. Rudd revealed as much on ABC’s Q&A when he spilled the beans on cabinet discussions that led to dumping the emissions trading scheme in mid-2010.

Yet Kevin Rudd failed to seize prize opportunities to implement the major emission reduction policies of his election platform, choosing to play politics instead. It shouldn’t be forgotten that at the time Rudd formed government in late 2007, Labor and the Coalition agreed on implementing an emissions trading scheme (ETS) irrespective of developments overseas. They also agreed on a substantial expansion of the Renewable Energy Target.

Nonetheless, Rudd made no attempt to engage with the Coalition to implement these policies when public opinion was ripe for change. All the government needed to do to the Renewable Energy Target legislation was change some numbers in a table and change the dollar amount specified for the penalty. Yet they didn’t introduce the legislation until June 2009, leaving the renewable energy sector paralysed by uncertainty for a year and half. The ETS required far more policy development work, but it was still excessively drawn out before genuine negotiations with the Coalition commenced. Ultimately these negotiations occurred too late, and Turnbull was deposed.

This all made sense after chatting with a former Labor ministerial advisor, who informed me that the Labor leadership (and Wayne Swan particularly) made a deliberate decision to drag-out the legislative process around the Renewable Energy Target and Emissions Trading Scheme. By drawing out the process they sought to foster division between the blue-blood true conservatives led by Nick Minchin, and the progressive wing of the party led by Malcolm Turnbull. Meanwhile over the next two years the Rudd Government did virtually nothing to engage the general public on what an emissions trading scheme would do, why it was necessary, and why households had little to fear.

This worked well for a period of time but then left them incredibly vulnerable when Tony Abbott turned the tables, switching the Coalition from defence to attack. If Rudd was driven by policy principle rather than politics he could have stood his ground and gone to a double dissolution election early in 2010. He probably would have won the election easily and history may have been very different. But he lacked the courage of his convictions and then wilted in the face of political difficulty, choosing to dump the ETS.

Another problematic symptom of Rudd’s excessive focus on political popularity instead of principle was a range of impulsive policy initiatives. I’ve already criticised Solar Flagships, which came out of the blue without any input from industry or the public service (Learning from the mistakes of Solar Flagships, February 22). And his complete abandonment of insulation businesses was an utter disgrace after he reassured them with pen and pad in hand that they would be taken care of. Decarbonising the Australian economy is a bit like changing the course of the Titanic. You can’t do it with impulsive, one-off grand initiatives and the NSW Labor disease of policy by press release.

The fate of Rudd should hopefully serve as a parable on the importance of being guided first by principle and second by politics. But judging by the conduct of the 2010 election and the current tone of political debate, I doubt much has been learnt from Rudd’s demise.

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