WHEN historians come to deliver their judgments of the Rudd and Gillard governments, even the most partisan of them will be constrained to acknowledge the series of ironic reversals that brought both leaders undone
In April last year Julia Gillard and her deputy, Wayne Swan, persuaded Kevin Rudd to abandon his commitment to action on climate change. This year a motley collection of independents and Greens persuaded Gillard to break an election promise and commit her government to introducing a carbon tax and, eventually, an emissions trading scheme.
Insofar as Rudd can be said to be a conviction politician, his rhetoric suggests that he believed in human-induced global warming. I think we can take it as read that Gillard and Swan weren't true believers and their argument to him about the need to stop crusading on the issue was entirely based on considerations of realpolitik.
Admittedly the Climategate emails scandal in November 2009 had begun a rapid erosion of public confidence in the supposedly settled science. However, few observers doubt that had Labor called a double dissolution in February or March, when it was still comfortably ahead in the polls, with Tony Abbott only recently installed in the leadership, Rudd would have won comfortably and would in all probability still be prime minister.
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It's a measure of Abbott's political skill that so early in the piece he left Rudd disinclined to contest an election and preferring the politics of drift, apart from the introduction of a mining tax that Swan had persuaded Rudd would be a populist masterstroke. Labor's support in Newspoll at the time registered a corresponding drift, from 43 per cent to 35 per cent.
Rudd's Newspoll ratings had always been inflated by the millennial hopes so widely invested in his leadership. A single decision - relegating climate change to the second-order agenda - cost him the moral legitimacy to govern and, in very short order, his job.
The circumstances in which Gillard succeeded him might well have prompted a more cautious politician to take the time to settle into the role and display the kind of competence in governing that would restore people's confidence in Labor. But Gillard, immune to self-doubt, expected a honeymoon with the electorate and a comfortable win. So she rushed to the polls, forfeited the honeymoon effect and lost her majority.
The arrangement she has cobbled together is precarious enough so that these days you'd expect her to be taking a broad range of advice and developing a deliberate style of government. But if she still goes through the process of consulting widely it's by no means clear that she listens to unwelcome advice.
The uncovenanted breach of faith with the electorate on a carbon tax, bereft of any detail on its costs and consequences, looks like a desperate decision by someone bereft of all conviction. Tuesday's Newspoll suggests that most people no longer give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she has acted in bad faith.
Although I referred earlier to the way historians would view Rudd's and Gillard's leaderships, it may be that the sociological perspectives are more instructive.
For example, I'm expecting the debate over anthropogenic global warming will collapse within the course of the next decade under the weight of its own internal contradictions, to borrow a phrase that so-called scientific Marxism once used in reference to capitalism. It's probable that quite soon the recent mild warming trend will come to be seen as par for the course and in no way a threat to the planet or mankind. The manufacture of statistical artefacts such as the hockey stick, with which a couple of ingenious climatologists hoped to erase from popular and scientific consciousness the whole medieval warm period, will come to be seen for the astonishing confidence tricks they are.
The development of the global warming debate will be analysed primarily in terms of what the sociology of knowledge calls plausibility structures.
What part did the Blair government and its friends at the Royal Society play in turning suspect computer modelling into the state religion throughout so much of the Anglosphere? How did Rajendra Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change get away with so many flawed and incoherent reports? Who were the first reputable scientists to express reservations, who were the late-comers and who can best be described as " still in denial"?
From about 2004 most of the Australian public were prepared to believe in dangerous, man-made global warming and willing for governments to legislate accordingly. Although there were several turning points in the debate, Climategate revealed in detail how small, powerful and manipulative a clique the anthropogenic global warming theory's advocates were.
At that point lots of young people, previously convinced, began to read through the emails on their computers and to post about them on websites. As well, it was the time when the electorate began to focus on the question of who stood to benefit from the widespread acceptance of anthropogenic global warming and to find compelling answers.
If Gillard had a few sociologists among her advisers, they could have told her a carbon tax was no longer a viable policy option. Once bitten, twice shy. When a mass panic begins to lose momentum, it takes more than solemn warnings from the likes of Ross Garnaut, who's perceived as parti pris, to get it going again.
An Institute of Public Affairs poll a fortnight ago found that the public felt the same way now as eight months ago and only one-third of Australians believe anthropogenic global warming poses a serious threat. In recent months the dwindling numbers of people who say they're prepared to spend any significant sum on averting it is even more illuminating in showing what people think.
The private NSW Liberal polling leaked last weekend captured the extent of disenchantment, where more than three-quarters of respondents said they weren't convinced a carbon tax would do anything to help the environment.
Graham Richardson isn't a sociologist but he does have his wits about him.
On Wednesday, after Gillard's ratings and Labor's primary vote plummeted, he told Sky News: "The tragedy is that, spurred on by the press gallery in Canberra, day after day, written in newspapers, everyone came to believe that unless she announced a carbon tax and did it quickly then it would look like she didn't stand for a thing. They were all wrong.
"You have to look where it got her. The worst result in the history of Newspoll."