Climate change election

2007-11-22 00:00

John Howard has been prime minister of Australia for 11years and by normal political standards he has done almost everything right. The country is having an unprecedented economic boom thanks to China's limitless demand for Australian natural resources. Unemployment is at a 33-year low, and Howard appeals to the underlying racism of many Australians by severely restricting asylum for refugees and subtly signalling that he will limit immigration from Asia. Yet he is probably going to lose the national election on Saturday.

The latest opinion polls give Labour a lead of eight percent over Howard's Liberal (i.e. conservative) party. Howard might even lose his own seat in suburban Sydney, which he has held for almost 34 years. It's not over yet, because under Australia's compulsory voting system a third of the electorate usually make their minds up in the last few days before the election, but it looks like Howard has contrived to throw away a seemingly unbeatable hand. If so, the main reason will be global warming. Like many climate-change deniers in politics, Howard has been frantically readjusting his stance over the past couple of years in an effort to stay abreast of public opinion. (Even George W. Bush has been heard to utter the phrase “global warming”.) But he still refuses to sign the Kyoto accord and he still insists that “technology” will solve the problem without any need for major changes in lifestyle. It used to work, but one huge fact has turned politics around in Australia. The country is in the seventh year of the worst drought since European settlement began over two centuries ago and very many Australians have begun to fear that it is permanent. Droughts are cyclical events and will eventually end. But if this is really an early example of what climate change will do to countries in the mid-latitudes, then it's never going away.

In that case, Australian agriculture as an export industry is doomed and most of the country's farmers are going to have to seek jobs elsewhere. Even the water supply for the big cities is becoming a problem. It is a very bad time in Australian politics to have Howard's record and reputation on climate change issues: in a recent poll in several marginal seats, 73% of voters said that climate issues would have a “strong influence” on the way they vote.

Howard is talking about climate change now, but he may have left it too late. Labour has fielded former diplomat Kevin Rudd against him and, at 50, Rudd is 18 years younger than Howard. He's not a very colourful character, but he's learning fast: when he was accused of going to a lap-dancing club in New York during a visit to the United Nations four years ago, he replied that he was too drunk to remember what had happened. In most countries that would be the end of a political career, but in Australia it was the right answer.

By comparison Howard seems rattled, boring and worn out. His sole remaining function, in comedian Billy Connolly's cruel formula, is “to let you know what Harry Potter's going to look like when he's old”, and his main election tactic is to bribe the voters with their own money. He launched his campaign by promising A$9,4 billion in tax cuts and more goodies are offered every week: the most recent round included tax rebates for the parents of all school-age children and tax-free savings accounts for first-time home buyers.

Labour, by contrast, offered only A$2,3 billion in tax cuts and Rudd bills himself as a fiscal conservative. It's a familiar turn-about from other places, where the old pattern of tax-and-spend liberals and fiscally responsible conservatives has long been reversed - consider the U.S. where Republican administrations have been running up huge deficits and Democratic administrations have been paying them down again for the past quarter-century - but it's new in Australia.

And the biggest change if Labour forms the next Australian government? It will be that Australia, the world's largest per-capita producer of carbon dioxide, signs the Kyoto accord. That could make a big difference in the negotiations over the next year about will happen after the Kyoto accord expires in 2012.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries

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