The Black and White Knights of Australian climate policy

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There is a dream scenario for clean energy and climate action advocates that might just be unfolding in Canberra. It’s one that could lock Australia’s political and economic system into a steady transformation to a low carbon economy.

It could also see us avoid years of international ridicule as a rogue nation on climate. I don’t relish the prospect of a deeply religious leader of Australia lecturing heads of state at international meetings on how modern science has it all wrong.

The key is the Black Knight of Canberra, aka Kevin Rudd. Remember the famous scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where the Black Knight continues to fight on despite the obvious absurdity of his situation? After having both his arms cut off in a sword fight, the Black Knight famously cries “It’s only a flesh wound” and fights on, still going when he loses a leg as well! As Wikipedia refers to him “Although supremely skilled in swordplay, he suffers from unchecked overconfidence and a staunch refusal ever to give up.” Sounds like our Kevin.

But how would Rudd’s return as leader tip the national political conversation on climate to a sensible place? The key is Abbott’s unpopularity. I don’t recall a political party having such strong support while it’s leader was so disliked. It’s so bad that it’s only levels of voter dissatisfaction where Gillard is competitive with Abbott!

What if Rudd, installed again in a desperate attempt by Labor to prevent a wipeout, actually made them competitive in the polls, threatening the Abbott ascendency? The public has long felt Rudd was unfairly dumped and might just give him another go. What would the Liberals then do?

Enter the potential White Knight of climate policy, Malcolm Turnbull. With so much written on how unpopular Turnbull is in the Liberal Party, we often forget Abbott only beat him by one vote. It would only take a few Liberal pollies, lusting for power and staring down the risk of Abbott in opposition or Turnbull in government, to turn and it would be Lazarus II.

Turnbull would surely romp it in electorally, even against an ascendant Rudd. He captures the center as strongly as Abbott repels it. Business leaders like Turnbull, seeing him as one of them – a genuine free market advocate with runs on the board in business. And the center of politics likes him because he understands that markets are a mechanism to achieve things not an ideology and is thoughtful on questions like asylum seekers and climate change.

A Prime Minister Turnbull would change the politics of climate change in Australia forever. Getting business on side wouldn’t be hard. Coal barons aside, the vast majority of business leaders in Australia and globally now understand that climate change is a serious economic challenge and want strong, sensible policy to address it, but through the market rather than technology picking.

John Howard understood this when he proposed an emissions trading scheme, and did so with the support of the business community. Howard too thought climate change science was crap, but he understood that losing office was even crappier. I suspect if Australia had elected John Howard in 2007 we would likely today have a price on carbon supported by both sides of politics and by the business community. Life is full of irony.

A Turnbull-led Coalition government would put Australia back in the camp of most countries, where both sides of politics and most of the business community accept action on climate change is an economic imperative. It would lock the business community into acceptance that carbon must be priced and it would lock the public into accepting that climate change is not a left vs right issue but like defence, one of national interest, with legitimate debate about levels of ambition and the best mechanisms to get there.

It is inevitable that Australia like all countries will get to this point because the science marches on despite our political shenanigans on the issue. But with a Rudd-Turnbull ascendency we might get there a lot sooner.

A Black Knight vs White Knight election in late 2013 leading to a climate friendly Coalition government might seem an unlikely outcome, and I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. But stranger things have happened in politics. And as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously reminded us “Never underestimate a man who overestimates himself.”  

  • Warwick

    About as likely as Latham and Hewson contesting the next election….

  • Malcolm Scott

    More probable that the unexpected happens in year 2 of an Abbot led government. Recent history gives precedent to leadership change in first term being an acceptable option (state and federal).

    Michelle Grattan at the Wheeler Centre last night opined that leading the government will be challenging for Abbot. This might be the pathway for Turnbull, but she also said that Hockey still holds leadership ambitions.

    Can we remember a government that has got through year 2 without problems with the electorate’s expectations as measured in the polls?

  • MrMauricio

    Its a pipedream-We want to shoot ourselves in both feet as well as lose our arms before reality has a possibility of dawning!

  • Michel Syna Rahme

    Turnbull, thoughtful on questions like asylum seekers and climate change?

  • James Wight

    If Rudd and Turnbull are reinstated, I expect they will try to replicate the deal they did in 2009: ie. an ETS which locks in ludicrously weak targets, and allows international offsets which will displace domestic decarbonization and (based on the present state of international carbon markets) cause the carbon price to crash to merely a few dollars per tonne. It seems strange that this is seen as a good outcome by someone who advocates a One Degree War Plan. It would be better to continue with the current policy: a fixed $23 carbon price and a Climate Change Authority that will hopefully recommend greater ambition than the Rudd-Turnbull ETS.