“My seat of Melbourne has been vulnerable to the Greens since 2001. I now hold it by only 4.7 per cent . . . There are three Labor seats in my area at risk of falling to the Greens in the forthcoming Victorian State election,” Tanner, the Finance Minister, wrote.
“Why is this happening? If the Greens had voted with Labor, the Senate would have passed the government’s climate change legislation, because two Liberals crossed the floor to vote with us. We’re now left with no legislation at all. The Greens’ political posturing took precedence over the need for action on climate change.”
Tanner, nominally from the ALP’s Left, presents as an approachable, moderate and articulate voice for Labor (he is, in some circles, viewed as a potential leader) but his comments about the Greens tell just part of a more complex story.
It is true that the Greens voted against the government’s emissions trading scheme legislation on the grounds that they believed its low greenhouse reduction targets squandered an opportunity to achieve more ambitious cuts. Yet it should be remembered that the government refused to negotiate with them at all.
It was determined, instead, to win passage of its emissions legislation with the support of Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals. Remember the timing? Rudd was insisting on having the legislated ETS bill in his pocket when he went to the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen late last year.
To take any other path, he said at the time, would be an act of political cowardice.
Rudd, his deputy Julia Gillard and the Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong, did not foresee (although plenty of signs were afoot) the possibility that Turnbull would be rolled and the Liberals would change their position with their leader before the Senate vote. Regardless, they have continued to blame the Liberals and to a lesser extent the Greens, for what has, effectively, been the death of the emissions trading scheme.
It has been about a year since Rudd has had a long face-to-face meeting with Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown. Why so long? The Greens – together with one or two recalcitrant Liberal senators and perhaps independent Nick Xenophon – might have co-operated, in the right circumstances, to pass the government’s ETS bill.
Even today, with Rudd’s environmental credentials under a cloud in the face of what promises to be a tight election, his government has been unwilling to enter good faith negotiations with the Greens over an interim carbon tax.
“Kevin was crystal clear from the start – the Greens couldn’t be allowed any sort of ownership of the [emissions] trading scheme and the Liberals would have to support it so that they’d wear the [associated increased] costs to voters,” a Labor source said.
It might be politically convenient for the government to blame the Liberals and the Greens for scuttling its climate change legislation but this flies in the face of the reality of legislating in a two-chamber parliament.
Voters expect governments to push their legislation through the Senate by force of negotiation. It should be remembered that is how the Keating government attained its Mabo legislation, how the Howard government won its Goods and Services Tax and how the Rudd government has already secured the passage of numerous contentious bills including those to facilitate the 2009 economic stimulus measures.
It will also need to negotiate the passage of its super profits tax on mining companies, its Commonwealth-state health reforms and its cigarette tax hikes.
The next Parliament will, hypothetically, be easier for the government.
That is because, barring a complete collapse in the Green vote, Brown’s party is almost assured of winning the balance of Senate power in its own right. Sure, the Greens would like to knock off Tanner, Plibersek and Albanese – but balance of Senate power is arguably more critical.
If Labor is returned, if the Liberals remain opposed to an ETS and if whoever happens to be leading Labor in 2012 wants to have another go at emissions trading, the Greens will hold the key.
It would seem to make sense, therefore, for Labor to begin building a more constructive relationship with the Greens.
In his post-budget speech to the National Press Club last week, Swan made it clear his government would do what was expected of it by attempting to negotiate the resources super profits tax through the Senate. In the same breath he uttered the Labor mantra that the Liberal Party was responsible for the postponement of emissions trading.
Governments can blame oppositions all they like for stalling their agendas. But in the end it is the government, not the opposition, that seeks re-election on the back of its legislative achievements.
Towards the end of last week it appeared that the prime minister was displaying new conviction on climate change.
“We’ve been frustrated domestically, politically, frustrated internationally by the lack of progress there, but we will not be deterred, we will progress this matter and we will achieve the best possible means of bringing down our greenhouse gas reductions, greenhouse gas levels in the future,” he declared.
“And the bottom line is this . . . there is no way you can stare in the mirror in the future and say that you have passed up the core opportunity to act on climate change. I will not do that.”
Pick up the telephone, Kevin. And call Bob Brown.