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In Australia’s rough climate politics, can Earth win?

One of the great guilty pleasures of visiting Australia is to be able to witness, at close quarters, how a sports-obsessed nation engages in its bloodiest, most bone-crunching and belligerent competitive pursuit.

No, not rugby, not Aussie Rules, but federal politics. Capital Hill in Canberra is a bruising place at the best of times, and these are not the best of times for the Liberal Opposition.

(A quick clarification. In Australia, the federal Liberals are essentially like Canada’s federal Conservatives. Right-of-centre, pro-business and industry, no friends of the environment. They govern Australia more often than not, usually in a coalition with an even more right-wing rump of rural politicians known as the National Party.

But they aren’t governing now, after John Howard’s humiliation at the polls two years ago – and judging by this week’s events, they’re in no danger of governing again any time soon).

At issue has been Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s attempt to get an emissions trading scheme adopted by Australia before he goes to Copenhagen next month for the climate summit there. For that, he needs the coalition’s support in the Senate.

Thus Rudd’s push for an ETS opened up some heavy trading in horses with the Opposition, which pursued relief for industry and agriculture as the price of its support – and actually won concessions from the government worth an estimated $7 billion between now and 2020.

But the win must feel like a loss to Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, whose coalition is full of climate skeptics, some of whom called for a leadership “spill” after Turnbull agreed a deal with Labor, even though he carried the caucus (or “party room”) only 47-46.

It seems Turnbull has something in common with Canada’s Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, in that he has a caucus that is in a constant state of seething discontent. Or in Turnbull’s case, open revolt.

After agreeing to side with the government, thus opening up an ugly disagreement inside the coalition, Turnbull dodged a spill by a vote of 48 to 35, but he goes into the Australian summer a very wounded man.

Kevin Rudd will go to Copenhagen boasting a scheme that, however flawed, is at least a demonstration of legislative action on climate change (pay attention Jim Prentice), and one that Turnbull now cannot score many political points against since he staked his political future on backing the PM.

But politics aside, is the deal any good? Greenpeace called the deal a “fraud.” WWF Australia said while weakened, the deal would at least start Australia on the road to a low carbon economy. Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said:

“While it is still possible for Australia to cut emissions by 25 per cent by 2020, the transformation to a low carbon economy will be undermined by this deal. It is disappointing that the Government and Opposition have caved in to the relentless lobbying of the big polluters. Every increase in handouts to big polluters diverts revenue away from climate change solutions and creating clean energy jobs.”

One of the most concise critiques came from Ron Tandberg, veteran political cartoonist for The Age in Melbourne, who had a marvelous front-page cartoon featuring three belching power station chimneys, a bunch of smiling executives sitting around a table with a sack of money with $1.5 billion written on the side, and a caption that read: “Coal industry cleans up!”

A messy few days indeed. Rudd got what he wanted, Turnbull was left wiping the soot out of his eyes, and Australia may or may not have taken an important new step towards coming clean on climate change.

This is the last Hook dispatch from Australia by B.C.-based Ian Gill, who is president of Ecotrust Canada and interim CEO of Ecotrust Australia. His new book is All That We Say Is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation.

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