SYDNEY, Australia — Even before the Copenhagen talkfest opened this week, a climatic wrangle cost an Australian political leader his job. Even before the expected international fallout from Copenhagen, Canberra is on alert for national electoral turmoil.
Jet-setting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, having personally lobbied what seems like half the world’s decision- makers, is pleased with whatever influences he has had in recent international sessions. At home he can justifiably take heart from the self-destructive forces engulfing climate change skeptics sitting on the opposition benches in Federal Parliament.
First to fall was opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. The Sydney-based former merchant banker and barrister was ousted by fellow Liberal parliamentarians in a close leadership ballot. The trigger for the internal revolt was the climate change row that spotlighted Turnbull’s guarded support for an emissions trading scheme (ETS). A majority of Liberal-National Party coalition parliamentarians say Copenhagen proposals are sure to penalize energy-rich Australia.
The ruling Labor Party could not believe its luck. By quietly backing an unspecified ETS with its unknown costs, it hung Turnbull out to dry. The Liberals turned on their leader and voted in Tony Abbott.
Within days, another leadership spill hit politics, this time at the state level. In Sydney, New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees fell from power, the third NSW head to be dismissed by his own party in as many years. The fall was directly linked to Labor Party incompetence in local issues such as health and transport. It must be a warning to other state Labor premiers having to cope with domestic issues while waiting for the main national debate due to explode after Copenhagen.
Abbott, the new leader of conservative politics, may take some interpreting in Tokyo. He talks slow but moves fast. Unlike fellow Sydneyite Turnbull, Abbott disagrees forcefully with the climate case that Rudd is putting to the world and, in contrast to Turnbull, says so loud and clear. With a possible early election in mind, Abbott has come out fighting.
“If the Americans have an (ETS),” Abbott says, “then it will become part of world trade and it will be hard for Australia to avoid it. But until they have one, we really don’t need one and we should not have one.” He adds that Rudd is “just wrong” to say climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time. “The idea . . . that war, want, man’s inhumanity to man are all trumped by climate change — I mean, come on.”
On opposite sides of politics, Rudd and Abbott are superficially similar: Both are 52; both hold higher degrees (Rudd in Mandarin at the Australian National University, Abbott in politics as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford); both worked in politics before pushing to the top in Parliament; Abbott trained for the Catholic priesthood before dipping out, while Rudd, raised a Catholic, attends Anglican church.
But stark differences in philosophies make for interesting days ahead, possibly as soon as February. Labor is already advertising: “The Liberal Party under Abbott will take Australia backward.”
The touch-off point will be the washup from Copenhagen. If Rudd pushes ahead with an ETS that he believes will conform to Copenhagen ideals while Abbott insists it will bankrupt industries, a rejection of a government bill in Canberra’s conservative-dominated Senate could trigger a double dissolution of Parliament followed by an election.
Labor strategists are divided on tactics. Some say Rudd should strike early in the wake of the Liberals’ leadership bloodletting. Rudd, however, will wait for the polls, the post-Christmas holiday lethargy, and his stated intention to serve a full elected term. By February the public mood will be clearer.
Dissolution of the Senate and House of Representatives could be called at any time, but opposing forces in the climate change debate plus domestic wrangles could persuade Rudd to hold off until August. He could then call an election in mid-September.
The conservatives, under the shaky banner of urban Liberals and rural- strong Nationals, must get their divided houses in order. The electorate’s acceptance depends partly on how they sell the added cost of ETS and partly on new-boy Abbott’s outspoken utterances as well as the Nationals’ straight talk via spokesman Barnaby Joyce.
Meanwhile, Sydney, the biggest Australian city, where most Japanese corporate branches are based, is still reeling from party powerbrokers’ sudden anointment of the state’s first woman premier. Bored electors are waiting to judge how this fourth premier in four years will perform.
Kristina Keneally, now ruling the country’s oldest parliament, is different from the usual politician. Elegant and charming, she is a feminist theologian and former teacher. Born in Las Vegas to an Australian mother and American father, she was reared in Toledo, Ohio. Her parents were staunch Republicans, but the young Kristina Kerscher went left. In Poland for the 1991 Catholic World Youth Day she met Ben Keneally, an Australian management consultant and nephew of author Tom Keneally.
Married with two children (who call her “Mum” instead of the American “Mom”) and a naturalized Australian since 2000, she still speaks with a slight American twang (which may be a problem with tough Labor voters).
Keneally is a force to be reckoned with. Despite being criticized as a puppet of Labor powerbrokers, she could yet be the first Labor premier in decades to push New South Wales into top gear.
Alan Goodall is former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian.