If we needed any more evidence that the relentless campaign by climate change deniers is working, we need look no further than the Australian Government's late April decision to delay introduction of its carbon trading scheme until at least 2013. The Prime Minister provides two reasons - his government can't get the sceme through the Senate, and global responses have been slower in coming than expected.
I was a bit cheered up, but not much, when immediately after this the government had a sharp fall in its popularity. Only a bit, because what's happened is our government has gone from aspiring to global leadership to being just another follower. The loss of momentum resulting from the failure of the Copenhagen talks, and the last minute refusal of the Opposition to support a modified scheme, has resulted in the whole thing grinding to a halt.
The Government is clearly in a difficult position. It has only 32 seats in in the 76-seat Senate, which means it needs to attract at least seven more votes to get any legislation through. The opposition parties hold 37 seats, with one held by an independent and one by the Christian conservative Family First party. The Greens hold five seats so a Green-Labor bloc vote still needs two more votes to be successful. This might work on some legislation if the independent and FF can also be brought on side. However both these Senators were quickly captured by the climate change skeptics.
This put the Govenment in the middle of a tug-of-war. One one side, the Greens wanted a tougher scheme, fewer exemptions and concessions, and higher emissions reduction targets. The Opposition, on the other hand, appeared willing to support the scheme but wanted more concessions. Knowing that they couldn't get the scheme through by negotiating with the Greens, they went the opposition's way, and were on the verge of success when the Liberal Party blew up in their faces and re-emerged firmly opposed. When the bill was finally presented to the Senate, two disgruntled opposition members did cross the floor, but by now the Greens were so far alienated that they also voted no.
In this situation the government can do one of two things. They can accept defeat and move on. Alternately, they can call a double dissolution election, where the entire House of Representatives and Senate is re-elected, following which the defeated bill can be put to a joint sitting of the two houses.
If the government had taken the latter course, they may well have won through. The Liberals were in disarray, government popularity was still fairly high, support for action on climate change was still holding up. But Rudd is not a risk-taker. He waited, the corrosive effects of Copenhagen and the skeptic campaign did their work, and the government has now lost heart and will.
The saddest aspect is that the Labor government is the only one that will deliver action on climate change. The Greens could support this if they could learn the art of compromise, but they will never govern. The Coalition is now firmly in the skeptic camp. This means that Labor need a majority, or at least to be able to form a majority with only the Greens' help, to have any hope on this issue. Yet their failure, and their meek acceptance of it (along with other things like stuffing up some of the big ticket items in their economic stimulus package) has decreased the chance of this happening.
Should we throw up our hands in despair? It seems like that sometimes. But instead, I think those of us who see the need for action need to remind ourselves that change is slow, vested interests are strong, and we need to stay in there for the long haul. Unlike our government, which seems to have a certain yet to be determined date in late 2010 as their furthest, increasingly uncertain, point of reference.