Kevin Rudd: ‘I don’t know how Malcolm Turnbull faces his grandkids’

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Australia’s former prime minister talks about the failure of his country’s climate policy, the rise of China and the Carmichael coal mine.

Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia twice, between 2007 and 2010 and for several months in the lead up to the 2013 federal election (Photo: Salzburg Global Seminar/Flickr)
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Climate Home News

Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia twice, between 2007 and 2010 and for several months in the lead up to the 2013 federal election (Photo: Salzburg Global Seminar/Flickr)
Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia twice, between 2007 and 2010 and for several months in the lead up to the 2013 federal election (Photo: Salzburg Global Seminar/Flickr)

Climate change preoccupies the mind of Kevin Rudd.

This week it will be ten years since he became prime minister of Australia, a little over ten years since he called climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation”.

It remains foremost in his thoughts and tweets. One of the “great global megatrends”, climate change will define our future as a species, he tells Climate Home News over scones, jam and tea in an Oxford hotel. But Rudd is also keen to deal with the past, where climate change also looms.

Rudd’s 2010 decision to defer an emissions trading scheme is widely seen as a high water mark for Australian climate policy. The point where the tide changed and a decade of lost opportunity began.

Rudd has blamed that decision on the cabinet forces, led by his deputy Julia Gillard, that eventually deposed him.

The current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull faces a similar revolt, led by the man from whom he took the leadership –  Tony Abbott. This has led Turnbull to retreat on climate policy, most recently ignoring the advice of his chief scientist to create a clean energy target.

Given he faces similar internecine tensions to those Rudd dealt with as PM, should Turnbull be cut some slack?

“No,” says Rudd.

Turnbull became leader after a party room coup against the deeply conservative Abbott in 2015, says Rudd. “This guy takes over the Liberal party presumably with an agenda for government and he did so when they had a robust majority of twenty seats.”

The Australian economy was stable, the global economy was rebounding. Rudd says it should have been a platform for ambition for a Turnbull, who had previously held similar positions to Rudd on climate change.

“Turnbull at that point simply choked,” he says. “He choked on climate change, he choked on a whole range of policy measures, hence the collective disillusionment with him. Turnbull’s principle political and policy failing is that it became very clear he just wanted to be there.”

Rudd argues his government achieved significant gains on climate, including a national renewable energy target which remains Australia’s most significant carbon cutting legislation, while facing down the global financial crisis. To be judged on the deferral of a single piece of legislation is unfair, he says, especially when compared to Turnbull’s record.

In his current life as peripatetic statesman, Rudd says he takes every opportunity to criticise the Australian government over its “inertia” on climate change.

“I don’t know how those guys face their kids and grandkids in the morning. I really don’t. I just genuinely don’t,” he said.

To the climate policy failures of the Liberal-National government, Rudd suggests adding the neutering of the national broadband network he introduced while in power.

Without economic alternatives for people in rural areas, he said, there was no way Labor could oppose significant rural developments, such as the massive coal mine proposed by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani in Rudd’s home state of Queensland.

Access to high speed broadband would have been “the equivalent of the railway having arrived a hundred years before”, he says, creating opportunities for digital industries to grow beyond the cities. But the speed and ubiquity of the proposed network – the largest infrastructure investment in Australian history – was downgraded by Abbott after he was elected in 2013. Turnbull was then communications minister.

“What do these bastards do? They turn around and shoot it down,” says Rudd.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 3.09.36 pm

The Carmichael mine (located by the map above) has become a defining environmental issue in Australia. Both major political parties back its construction despite the prospect of it emitting 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

“You can’t just push [the Adani project] aside as a piece of good politics in the cities and marginal politics in the regions,” said Rudd. “There’s a policy reality here which shapes the politics, which is people don’t have economic opportunities anymore in this part of the world and it threatens their sense of local identity, legitimately.”

The former prime minister spoke to Climate Home News near Oxford University, UK, where he has spent the past several months researching Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Rudd is an expert on China and head of the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute. China’s relationship with the world is changing rapidly, he says, with important consequences for climate change.

The US withdrawal from activism on climate was seen as an opportunity within China to promote its own policy agenda. However that was being balanced against concerns over the country’s recent economic slowdown, while “at the same time being in the unfamiliar position of it being expected that they will somehow drive the pace”.

Just a day after Donald Trump announced he wanted to pull the US from the Paris Agreement, a strong statement of joint leadership between the EU and China faltered over trade disputes.

Rudd says the development of that relationship was critical but that China had been in a holding pattern for the past couple of years after unexpected economic stagnation spread caution and conservatism.

Within China, Rudd says, “there has not been a lot of progress” on environmental policy. This includes the scaling back of China’s emissions trading scheme launch, which was originally supposed to have been released across multiple sectors of the economy this year. Now, if it does emerge at all in 2017, it is likely to cover only the energy sector.

This “high degree of caution about overall economic policy direction hopefully will now resolve itself now the 19th party congress is out of the way”, says Rudd.

On the international front, Rudd says the retirement from politics of Xie Zhenhua, who was vice-chairman of China’s economic development ministry, had left a vacuum.

Rudd, who was part of a group of heads of state who crashed headlong into Chinese resistance during the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, says at that point, Chinese foreign policy was still dominated by an aphorism developed by former leader Deng Xiaoping: “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”.

But since 2015, Rudd says, “the dictum is an activist foreign policy, with China with new capacity and a new role. But if I’m to try to predict where they will land in terms of Chinese posture [on climate change], I don’t know. That’s why the next several months will be quite critical in looking for new directions to emerge.”

Source: Climate Home News. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Joe 1 year ago

    I was once a rusted on Labor voter, now I’m a Greens man. Climate and Environment policy was a big issue in my change. If we are to take Kevin ’07 at his word that the 2010 backdown on The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was internal / party politics holding sway then so be it. One wonders how it came to that after the 2007 election was heavily fought on ‘Climate Change’ and Labor won that election. But I cast my mind back to the years of ‘The Great Man’…Edward Gough Whitlam. He won the 1972 election on the back of a host of reforming policy agenda and he meant business as soon as he got to Canberra….the famous 2 man Cabinet ( with Lance Barnard ) governing Australia for a short period. As Gough said, there is no time to waste in fixing Australia after 23 years of do nothing COALition. The famous saying from Gough was…”Crash through or Crash”. He / Labor was elected on the back of well argued policies and those policies were in the main implemented despite a hostile Senate where the COALition were very keen to oppose Labor . We had the famous Double Dissolution election which Gough / Labor won…”Crash through or Crash”…again in operation. If only Kevin ’07 had a bit of ‘Crash through or Crash’ in him back in 2010 we would not be where we are now with the current ‘Climate Wars’.

    • Ken Dyer 1 year ago

      All good points Joe, but as this article comments, Whitlam lacked judgement, and Rudd was timid.

      Up here in Queensland I am hanging out for the first Green in parliament. I last heard he was in front of Labor by 116 votes.

      • Joe 1 year ago

        I’m in Sydney and we aren’t hearing much news on the counting anymore. The QLD election, its taking its time, how many more votes are there still to be counted? Then I guess the close calls will be automatically recounted, as they do, and the Court of Disputed Returns might even have a go for afters as well.

        • rob 1 year ago

          The Greens have taken the seat! Sucked in LIARebals!

          • Joe 1 year ago

            Yep, got the news down here in Sydney. Premier Annastacia has taken the big prize as well…3 more years. The Nicholls has quit…next victim please.

          • rob 1 year ago

            are you telling me the truth! IF SO i AM SO FULL OF JOY……BUT AREN’T BOOTHS STILL OPEN THERE IN NSW?

          • Joe 1 year ago

            Its the truth…it was on my ABC TV last night ( I trust them 100% . The Nicholls conceded defeat, Premier Annastacia has claimed the win. Booths still open…..not sure what you mean on that. Tuesday just gone was the deadline last day for any postal votes to be received. Only mandatory recounts in the really close results or claims to The Court of Disputed Returns could upset the result.

          • rob 1 year ago

            OH SO SOZ! I was thinking about the NSW GOOD BYE ELECTION…..LOL my bad! soz

          • rob 1 year ago

            Now I feel like a real tosser!

          • Joe 1 year ago

            Tossing…The Liberals… is something good to feel, yes.

      • wideEyedPupil 1 year ago

        It’s a weird generalisation to say Whitlam lacked judgement. In many ways his judgement was highly tuned… and would you have picked out that Rex Connor to be a dick/CIA stooge?

      • rob 1 year ago

        He won!

        • Ken Dyer 1 year ago

          And a bloody good thing too! He has awesome credentials. The Labor candidate Ali King was very good too. I reckon she could be a shoo in against Dutton in the Federal election, but doesn’t live in the electorate of Dickson.

        • Joe 1 year ago

          He did, first ever Greenie. But then we also got one from the Red Headed Bomb Thrower.

    • Ren Stimpy 1 year ago

      Between the late 90’s and mid 2009 Tony Abbott MP was considered to be a bit of a dick and not a serious leadership contender, and he was a climate agnostic. Tony even, incredibly and sensibly, suggested a carbon tax at that stage of his career when there was nothing at stake for him personally.

      But then he was made an offer of the leadership by the conservative climate denier bigwigs (Nick Minchin et al) if he opposed the bipartisan emission trading scheme (backed by Turnbull’s opposition). Tony then flung himself into climate denialism overdrive, and the only conclusion can be this change of attitude by him was driven by personal ambition due to the promise of the party leadership.

      Rudd and co should have used the change of Liberal leadership, to a fellow who the public viewed as a dick, to effect a double dissolution election victory right then and there. Thereby cementing the CPRS into law and vanquishing the climate/science deniers for several years and probably for good.

      But Rudd – the leader who had made the grand statements about climate change – didn’t do that. He let the climate deniers off the hook and for that his own government was soon replaced, and then his replacer Gillard who did put a very sensible carbon tax in place (just ask the pre-leadership-ambitions climate agnostic Tony Abbott) was soon undermined by Rudd himself.

      Sorry Kevin. You’re the real dickhead. Just fuck off.

      • Joe 1 year ago

        Hi Ren, a spot on summation of affairs.Nick Minchin was a real arsehole in affairs at that time. And Abbott didn’t need any great convincing the grab the Opposition leadership.If only we could turn the clock back, yes.The DD election opportunity was ‘The Crash through or Crash’ moment for Rudd. Whilst no one can be 100% sure, Rudd / Labor would have had a great chance at winning that DD election.

        • Ren Stimpy 1 year ago

          It’s fairly certain that Rudd would have won a DD election on the issue of climate change if he called it in late ’09 or early ’10 soon after the the change in Liberal leadership to a pretend climate denier.

        • Ren Stimpy 1 year ago

          Look, I don’t think Nick Minchin was an arsehole. He had strongly held but ultimately misguided and ignorant beliefs on climate. He manipulated the real arseholes like Abbott and called the bluff of real arseholes like Rudd to achieve his misguided ends. Kind of clever really, but in the end destructive. I only hope we have learned from that episode.

  2. howardpatr 1 year ago

    He doesn’t have to face them – just give a mansion and a few blocks of apartments.

    Turnbull rarely mentions words like anthropogenic climate change as he still lives in fear the the many RWRNJs like Abbott.

  3. MaxG 1 year ago

    It is being partisan what kills effective politics… plus the odd leadership battle…. and factionalism…

  4. Guy Stewart 1 year ago

    The Ups and Downs of Renewable Energy.

    It is difficult to be in the energy industry and not occasionally get drawn into the politics. Before Malcolm Turnbull slips into irrelevance, I thought we could look back into what his legacy could have been, if he’d stuck to his principles.

    Things are rapidly changing. For a long time, politicians could say the right things about reducing emissions, but also say their hands were tied by the economics.

    Today, solar panels and wind turbines combined with battery storage are the cheapest form of new power generation. 2017 will be the biggest year ever for solar installations in Australia, 2018 will be even bigger.

    Cost and risk grows year after year for coal, gas and nuclear.

    Renewables have won, yet many do not know it and some will not accept it. Big Industry is under threat, and that means Big Money is doing it’s best to stop the sun from rising, the wind from blowing and the tide from coming in. We should be celebrating; but our federal energy policy is the worst it has ever been.

    Believe it or not, the rest of this comment is a speech by Malcolm Turnbull at a
    Stationary Energy Plan Launch in Sydney on 12th of August 2010.

    MT: “The science tells us that we have already exceeded the safe upper limit for atmospheric carbon dioxide. We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we’ve got.

    We are told that 2010 will be the warmest year on record since records began in the late eighteen hundreds. We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency and while it is never possible to point to one drought or one storm or one flood and say that particular incident is caused by global warming, we know that these trends are entirely consistent with the climate change forecasts with the climate models that the scientists are relying on.

    But let me say this to you, concentrated solar thermal is a more proven technology than clean coal is. *Audience applause* Now when I was your environment minister, I spent a lot of your taxes on technologies designed to reduce our emissions including clean coal, including solar energy, including technologies to economically store electricity so that renewable sources of energy could provide baseload power, but one of the things and it’s a sobering thing to bear in mind and those of us who follow the literature on clean coal would be aware of this, that despite all of the money and all of the hope that has been put into carbon capture and storage there is still, as of today, not one industrial scale coal fired power station using carbon capture and storage, not one.

    Secondly lets remember governments should not be picking technologies. It’s tough enough for the private sector to pick technologies. It’s almost invariably the case that governments will get it wrong, that is why in the long term and really sooner rather than later, we must have a price on carbon.

    We need to send that price signal to the market that encourages the step changes in technology that will transform our economy and it may be that concentrated solar thermal wins the day, it may be that super efficient photovoltaics sprint ahead, it may be, despite my rather gloomy prognosis, it may be that carbon capture and storage suddenly leaps into the fore or it may be that they all have a role to play but without that carbon price you will not and can not unleash the ingenuity, the infinite ingenuity of millions of people around the world who once they know what the rules are, once they know what the price is, will then start to work to ensure that they have presented to us and to the world the technologies that enable us to move to that low emission future.

    Government support for innovation and investment in clean stationary energy is important, particularly at the early stages. It is much more important to focus on cutting edge technologies as to provide support for research into the basic science than with appallingly designed policies such as the recent cash for clunkers policy which delivers carbon abatement at a price almost $400 a tonne. I mean it is really a mockery of a climate change policy. Now we must give the planet the benefit of the doubt, we must act now.

    We work together, I trust, to a zero emission future, we know, is absolutely essential if we are to leave a safe planet to our children and the generations that come after them. “
    – End of MT Speech

    For now he is still the prime minister, but what good is that if you are powerless.

    • Joe 1 year ago

      The speech from 2010 should be read back to Two Tongues Turnbull everyday and perhaps Rupe’s newsrags would like to fill some column space and write a truthful story for once about RE!

  5. Malcolm M 1 year ago

    The politics have turned from Abbott’s pro-active attack on renewables to stalemate under Turnbull. For the renewable industry Turnbull is still better than Abbott because the rhetoric against renewables ha been turned down to just enough to satisfy the right-wing of the party.

  6. Aluap 1 year ago

    Turnbull has solar panels on his home. A pity he doesn’t put his mouth where his money is.

    • Joe 1 year ago

      …plus he has the home batteries as well. But then again, apparently it was his son with the ‘brains’ to get it all installed. Go figure.

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