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Peter Wilson: Climate Change Threatens Politicians As Well As The Planet

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Climate change policy can create endangered species, as Kevin Rudd found out.

Governments worldwide have grappled with various responses to greenhouse gas emissions and Australia's version of an emissions trading scheme (ETS) wasn't much different to ours.

But Rudd couldn't get it through Parliament and put it on the shelf until at least 2013. That decision, according to Australian commentators, was the beginning of the end.

After winning an election with a campaign which rested largely on the vital need to react to climate change, and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol as soon as he could, Rudd's capitulation sent a signal to voters that he wasn't committed to his promises.

As other problems emerged, his popularity rating plunged and he was doomed.

When National won the 2008 election, an ETS was already in place but wasn't in force. Labour had done the hard yards and put it through Parliament during the last day's of its term in office.

The new government put it on hold, considering it was too harsh and would cost consumers too much. It delivered a cheaper version, which starts to take effect on Thursday.

It isn't remotely likely to bring about an end to John Key's prime ministerial reign, but it is causing plenty of problems all the same.

To most people the ETS is still just words, most of them incomprehensible.

When the price of petrol and power starts to go up, it will be real. The Government will again emphasise that if it had let Labour's ETS go through unchanged, the impact would have been twice as bad.

But consumers won't be happy, and although they will most likely get used to it and absorb the extra costs it won't be something they will thank the Government for.

There are some interesting dynamics going on around this which have the potential to damage National.

Farmers are making a lot of noise. Although agriculture isn't going to come under the ETS regime until 2015, and that could well be delayed because the Government is waiting to see what other countries do, the rural sector is extremely aggrieved even with the impact of the July 1 measures.

Warning signals are coming from National's heartland, and they aren't subtle.

"Rudd's demise is a timely warning to those who assume the rural vote is theirs of right," Federated Farmers president Don Nicolson told the organisation's annual conference on Friday.

"We have not done a 180 degree policy turn but National has. It stood shoulder to shoulder with us in 2003, again in 2005 and in 2008 with Labour's old ETS. Come 2009, suddenly the ETS is the solution."

Nicolson warned the Government it risked a winter of discontent, and Federated Farmers intends maintaining a campaign to make sure it does.

But if farmers switch off National over this, where would their votes go? Not to Labour, because they would have suffered more under the previous government's ETS.

To the ACT Party, perhaps? Rodney Hide hopes so, which is why he and his MP John Boscawen are running an energetic campaign against the ETS.

The original aim of this campaign, to stop the ETS altogether or at least delay its implementation, is a lost cause. Environment Minister Nick Smith has always been just as determined to have it in place as ACT has been to stop it, and Smith is the one with cabinet clout.

But Hide and Boscawen aren't giving up. They know there are votes in this and they are planning more public meetings.

ACT badly needs to raise its ratings, which are woefully low and well below the 5 percent MMP threshold. The party survived the last election because Hide held his Epsom seat, but National could probably take it from him if it really wanted to.

An alliance with Federated Farmers would greatly strengthen ACT's position, and it could carve off support across the rural sector.

That is ACT's aim now, and Hide and Boscawen are effective and articulate MPs who have honed their arguments over many months.

The points they make are that it is ridiculously risky for New Zealand to implement an ETS ahead of trade competitors, handing an advantage to those countries, and anyway New Zealand's emissions are so small on the global scale that even if they were shut down completely the effect on climate change would be about zero.

They specifically argue that it is madness to have an ETS in place while Australia doesn't, and in that regard the Government will be watching closely to see what Australia's new prime minister, Julia Gillard, does about hers.

She has said she will treat it as a priority, and our government will be cheering her on.

Smith disputes ACT's arguments, saying nearly all developed countries have schemes in place and if New Zealand opted out exporters could face disastrous consequences as consumers become more and more alert to country of origin labelling and shun goods from those who are perceived to be doing nothing about climate change.

Labour and the Greens don't have much to gain from all this. While Labour is left with an argument that taxpayers are getting a raw deal because National is favouring the big polluters, the Greens can only lament that the ETS is a feeble response to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and they would put in place something much more effective.

The Greens have constructed a regime which they say would be affordable, but they would have a problem convincing people of that.

The Government has roughly 18 months to make its ETS work and deal with any fallout. It won't want it to be an election issue in 2011 because it doesn't want to be on the defensive during a campaign.

Federated Farmers and ACT do want it to be an election issue and they will try to make sure it is. The ETS, like climate change, isn't going to go away.

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