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(DAVID GRAY/Reuters)
(DAVID GRAY/Reuters)

Jeffrey Simpson

In Australian politics, climate change equals grief Add to ...

Australia is green again. Fields baked dry for so long are verdant; ponds and river basins have filled. Water restrictions on urbanites are gone; farmers are hauling in bumper crops. The world's driest continent has been given a bath.

From 1997 to 2007, Australia suffered through the Big Dry or the Millennium Drought. Those 10 years changed everything, at least temporarily. The drought crushed farmers, reminded city-dwellers of the brutality of the country's geography, turned Australia's only large river (the Murray) into a trickle and forced the national government to take over its management, and made climate change into a huge political issue.

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Climate change, even for conservative-minded farmers, was no longer something in the abstract, an idea cooked up by dreamers and schemers, but a burning reality. Now, however, the weather has changed, and manifestly for the better, although the long-term climatic trends have not.

Rains began returning in 2008 and again in 2009 - except in southwestern Australia, where La Nina still keeps things very dry. Around Christmas in eastern Australia, where most of the people live, the rains came hard and plentiful. To fly over or drive through the landscape is to see something almost totally changed from 2007.

With the rain has come that most human of reactions: relief. With relief has come a dissipation of concern about climate change among some of the electorate who just a few years ago saw it as perhaps Australia's longest-term national threat. But climate change remains a political problem, notwithstanding the weather changes, that will not go away.

The issue of climate change helped do in one Australia prime minister, one opposition leader, and today gives nothing but political grief to Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Her coalition government depends on support from Australia's Greens, who are about twice as strong as the Greens in Canada. Come July 1, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the elected Senate. The one Green MP is part of her coalition in the lower house.

If Ms. Gillard does not satisfy the Greens on climate change, along with some of her anxious Labor supporters who want serious action, her government won't make it to the three-year electoral limit. On the other hand, as in Canada, Big Business says all the right things but really doesn't want serious measures. Unions worry about job losses. The opposition Liberal Party (actually a very conservative party) has moved from mild concern about climate change to debunking the science.

When in doubt, Ms. Gillard has punted. Off to the Productivity Commission, a body that studies policy issues, she has sent a request to study carbon pricing schemes elsewhere - because she insists that eventually, somehow, her government will place a price on carbon.

She knows that her party will demand that she do something. Many were the reasons why the Labor caucus suddenly revolted against her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, replacing him with her, but his swift and unilateral reversal of support for an emissions trading scheme was one. In Australian politics, where caucuses replace their leaders with a sudden knife in the back, failure to act will have some of Ms. Gillard's MPs sharpening their knives.

She will also have seen that climate change damaged the previous Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who seemed willing to compromise with Mr. Rudd in the national interest. But he got the knife and was replaced by Tony Abbott, who makes Alberta politicians seem progressive on climate change.

Australia, very much like Canada, has a poor record on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The country, again like Canada, is an energy hog, with vast distances, an unforgiving climate in some areas, big cars, suburban sprawl and huge coal deposits. Canada and Australia are exporters of uranium, but whereas Canada has nuclear power, Australia won't think of it.

A little over three years ago, an Australian task force under a former cabinet secretary produced a superb report on how to create a carbon emissions trading scheme. It appeared that report would become the template for serious action, with an eventual price on carbon.

Since then, nothing. The issue has ruined politicians, divided parties, and now befuddles another government. The weather has changed; the tricky politics of climate change have not.

 

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