The Rise and Fall of the Climate Change Debate and Political Upsets in Australia

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the Climate Change Debate and Political Upsets in Australia


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


KEVIN Rudd's Australian Labor Party (ALP) won the 2007 federal election partly on the basis of concern about climate change. But in less than three years, the issue has fallen off the political agenda with little accomplished, and Kevin Rudd himself was dismissed by his own colleagues in June 2010. The Lowy Institute for International Policy conducts an annual survey of Australian public opinion on foreign issues. In 2007 the issue of solving the climate change was ranked as the equal-highest foreign policy goal, with 75 per cent of Australians asked saying it was very important. But by May 2010 it had dropped down the list of concerns. [1] Within seven months, two party leaders - both committed to reducing climate change - lost their jobs, largely over climate change.

Having replaced Rudd in June 2010, Julia Gillard, the new Labor Leader and Australia's first female prime minister, opted for an early election on August 21, 2010. Climate change was largely ignored in the July - August 2010 election campaign. The new leaders of both the ALP and conservative Liberals wanted to distance themselves from the political disasters of their respective predecessors. Kevin Rudd, at the December 2007 United Nations climate change conference in Bali, had impressed the international community with Australia's new sense of commitment to solving climate change. Now that commitment has largely disappeared.

This article examines the rise and fall of climate change as a political issue. It is a tortured tapestry of personality, political and communications issues. The article begins with an examination of Kevin Rudd himself because part of the problem stems from his own personality. It then looks at how the issue unravelled in the political context. No one emerges from this survey with much credit. The article concludes with a broader discussion about the problem of how technical scientific issues are communicated to a wider public. On top of all the other failings of Rudd and others, one has also to acknowledge the inadequate role of scientists.

Kevin Rudd

As this article is being written there is still a sense of stunned surprise of how quickly Kevin Rudd rose and fell on the Australian political stage. He had enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings ever recorded for an Australian prime minister. But the ALP power brokers decided that as he slipped down in the polls so he should be replaced by a new leader. As he rose so he took the climate change issue with him, but once he was forced to drop the issue so his support evaporated and the power brokers decided that he had to go.

Kevin Rudd flashed onto the Australian political stage almost as an unknown entity. Unlike John Howard, the conservative prime minister he replaced in 2007 who had been around in public life for about three decades, Rudd was a largely unknown newcomer. Rudd was born in September 1957 into a very poor rural Queensland family. [12] His father died in December 1968 as a result of a road accident. With the loss of the lather came the loss of the farmer's estate cottage and the family were temporarily homeless. The family even lived in a car at one point. He evidently remains haunted by that early poverty. He learned from that childhood trauma that he had to be disciplined, hard-working, controlled and devoid of emotion. His ALP colleagues regard him as the most driven parliamentarian they have encountered. He did well at university (in Chinese studies) and in 1981 he entered the Australian foreign service.

Rudd took unpaid leave from the foreign service in 1988 to serve on the staff of Wayne Goss who was to become the Queensland state premier in 1989. Rudd acquired at that time his reputation as a micro-manager. Files went into the office but decisions were slow to emerge. He had a thirst for data and paperwork but he did not acquire a reputation for creative thinking and new ideas. In 1996 he tried for a Queensland seat in the Australian Parliament but failed. …

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