June 2014

Arts & Letters

Philip Chubb’s ‘Power Failure’

By Peter Christoff
Black Inc.; $29.99

Climate change has a habit of causing extreme weather in Australian politics. It has done away with four party leaders, including three prime ministers, and played a part in two changes of national government.

Power Failure: The inside story of climate politics under Rudd and Gillard is the first major book to look at the turbulent politics of climate policy under Australia’s two most recent Labor prime ministers. Philip Chubb’s nuanced account draws on interviews with senior politicians, bureaucrats and other key players – including Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, although Rudd strangely refuses to be quoted.

The book reads like a Greek tragedy. It is, mainly, the story of how hubris, madness, malice, political misjudgement and misunderstanding bring down an enterprise forged in common sense and goodwill. A series of compounding disasters seems almost fated to lead to the Abbott government’s assault on global warming action.

The two main acts each end in grief.

First, there is Rudd, elected amid overwhelming public support for substantial climate policy reform. Chubb argues that Rudd’s increasingly unstable behaviour undermined Labor’s capacity to govern effectively and thwarted any chance for climate legislation in 2009. 

To reflect on Ross Garnaut’s line about just how “diabolical” climate policy is, what became diabolical in 2010 was relatively straightforward in 2008 and even 2009. Climate reform in Rudd’s first years should have been easier than the successful tariff reforms of the early 1980s or the introduction of the GST in the late ’90s. Chubb lays full blame for the failure at Rudd’s feet, although lack of early interest or enthusiasm for this issue across the cabinet suggests a more complex tale.

Then comes Gillard, who was haunted not only by the way in which she came to power and her inability to explain the real reasons for the leadership coup but also by Rudd’s legacy, particularly in the climate policy domain. Her failure to immediately counter Abbott’s assault on “the carbon tax lie” further undermined her legitimacy.

In late 2010, Gillard announced the establishment of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee. Chubb shows how tough negotiations and tight deals produced a reform package that would win support, although it extended lucrative compensation for industry and its targets remained weak.

Still, Gillard’s and Labor’s fortunes sank further even after the bills became law. By the time the price on carbon became a reality, the politics of vitriol had drowned out rational debate. The masses had stopped listening about climate change. They wanted another sort of change.

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