Date created: 15/11/08 3:02 PM
Last modified:15/11/08 3:02 PM
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Time for PM to backflip

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

13 September 2007

APEC has come and gone and far from helping John Howard, it has cemented the perception that he is finished as a leader, a view that apparently extends to a majority of his own Cabinet. Only a radical move can save him and his government now.

The idea that a photo opportunity with George Bush, regarded by 52 per cent of Australians as the worst president in US history, was going to help Howard’s electoral standing was always misguided. Among the other world leaders at APEC, neither Vladimir Putin nor Shinzo Abe appeals to Australian voters. And, while Hu Jintao went over well, it was Kevin Rudd, with his fluent Mandarin, who gained the benefit.

The big hope was the Sydney Declaration on climate change. The Howard government was hoping for an agreement that would form the basis of an alternative to Kyoto. Unfortunately, no-one else at APEC shared this goal.

As with Howard, George Bush has spent his term in office trying to stave off serious action on climate change, but has now recognised that simple rejectionism is no longer tenable. So, Bush is keen on the idea of an agreement that would give the appearance of action while not requiring anything beyond token gestures.

The problem is that Bush has his own meeting planned for Washington the end of the month. For Bush, APEC was never going to be more than a curtain-raiser for his own event.

As for the other participants, most have no reason to ditch Kyoto. Japan,where the deal was negotiated, is naturally a strong supporter, and New Zealand is also enthusiastic. Russia got a very favorable deal and, unlike Australia, chose to stick with it.

For the less developed countries, Kyoto embodies their central demand; that developed countries should move first in reducing emissions, and bear most of the cost of solving a problem they created in the first place. In addition, they benefit from trading emissions reductions under Kyoto’s

The result was that, the Sydney Declaration produce little in the way of concrete commitments. The term that recurs through the ‘Action Agenda’ is ‘aspirational’. Whereas the draft statement ‘endorsed’ a variety of initiatives, the final declaration merely ‘welcomed’ them.

Most importantly, the final declaration spelt the end of any idea of a new agreement outside the process that led to Kyoto. Developing countries insisted on the inclusion of an explicit reaffirmation of commitment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to which the Kyoto Protocol is attached. This commitment, repeated several times, replaced much weaker references to UNFCCC in the leaked draft document.

The idea of an alternative to Kyoto is dead. The new global agreement under UNFCCC for which negotiations open in Bali at the end of the year will be based squarely on Kyoto.

But when one door opens another closes. The Sydney Declaration provides Howard with an opportunity to neutralise, at least in part, one of his biggest negatives. Instead of pursuing the phantom of an alternative to the Kyoto protocol, Howard should ratify it.

The Sydney Declaration gives Howard a plausible reason for abandoning the rejectionist stance he adopted in 2001, following the lead of George Bush. At least arguably, the declaration marks the first occasion on which China has accepted the need to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases.

The absence of a requirement for emissions reductions by China was the government’s main pretext for walking away from Kyoto. So, there is now an equally good pretext for reversing course.

In electoral terms, it’s hard to see any negatives in this option for the government. It’s a backflip, but Howard has executed this manoeuvre gracefully and successfully in the past.

Most importantly, ratification of Kyoto would mark a clear break with the government’s record of automatic adherence to the policy line of the Bush Administration. With Bush’s Washington meeting only a few weeks away, ratification by Australia would leave the US isolated, and could potentially have a big impact, pushing the world towards a real solution.

Despite all the arguments, and the desperate straits in which the government finds itself, the prospect of Howard breaking with Bush remains remote. Although his loyalty to Bush has scarcely been rewarded (look at the raw deal we got on the US FTA), it remains unshaken.

Ratifying Kyoto would be good policy and even better politics. If Howard won’t take this step, it’s good evidence that he is, as both internal and external critics have claimed, out of touch and out of ideas.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

Read more articles from John Quiggin's home page

Go to John Quiggin's Weblog