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Climate change politics: Greens hold lever in Australia

Seventeen years less a day after Kim Campbell was sworn in as the first woman Prime Minister of Canada, Julia Gillard ascended to the Prime Minister’s office here in Australia, the first woman to ever do so. That was way back on June 24.

Unfortunately for Gillard, it now looks like the comparisons with Campbell didn’t end there. Campbell went on to preside over a sickening slide in the polls in 1993 and is remembered for a calamitous election campaign that almost wiped the Conservatives off the map. Some Canadians remember her as having been the shortest-serving PM in Canadian history, but in fact, at 132 days, hers was only the third-shortest-lived prime ministerial reign in the country (see Charles Tupper, 72 days, and John Turner, 80).

For her part, Julia Gillard woke up on Sunday to just her 60th day in office, having presided over a terrible election campaign that leaves her Labor Party unable to govern in its own right, and her leadership in tatters. In the coming days, if she fails to woo the one Green Party MP and a handful of Independents into a coalition with Labor, she’ll be out and Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Party coalition might squeak in. Like Campbell, she won’t be her country’s shortest-serving PM (Frank Forde, eight days), but like Campbell, she’ll have taken the reins of a party that seemed very much on the front foot and then, well, shot herself in it.

In Campbell’s case, it might just be that the unction of Brian Mulroney’s prior term hadn’t receded enough in the public memory for her to transcend his image and remake the Conservatives in her own. In Gillard’s case, the image she had to transcend was her own – the all-too-fresh memory of her hand on the dagger that dispatched Kevin Rudd two months ago proved too much for too many Australians.

On election night, an elegant Chinese-Australian woman in the swing riding of Bennelong told me that in the Chinese media, Gillard had been portrayed as a “witch” for her treatment of Rudd. The Chinese – an important group in the fast-changing ethnography of many Australian suburbs, Bennelong’s included – didn’t like the fact Rudd was rolled by his party, and they really didn’t like the fact that a woman did it. “It’s cultural,” the woman said.

On a muted night at the West Epping Bowling Club, Labor stalwarts who had gathered to watch the results saw their star candidate, Maxine McKew, go down in straight sets at the hands of former Aussie tennis star John Alexander. McKew, a former ABC journalist, had done the seemingly impossible in 2007 – she rode Rudd-mania into a victory over the sitting Prime Minister John Howard and knocked him out of Parliament altogether.

McKew stayed loyal to Rudd through the past few months, and couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the Labor machine on Saturday night. She said their 2010 campaign was “confused,” lacked “clarity,” and she claimed the electorate was “sullen” in the wake of Rudd’s dumping by Gillard.

She also said that Labor – and this is something others around the country have been saying, too – that Labor failed to claim victory for its stewardship of the economy throughout the global financial crisis, or what everyone here refers to as the GFC. “Everyone I know has a job,” she said, although some commentators say that because Australia was largely unscathed by the GFC, voters didn’t credit Labor with having saved them from anything.

McKew also excoriated the government for having weaseled out of one of its main promises in its first term, which was to bring in a carbon emissions reduction scheme. Rudd’s election in 2007 was seen in many quarters as a mandate to act decisively on climate change in a country that stands to lose more than most from its rapid advance. Labor got cold feet, and the political climate change decisively instead.

So now Gillard, or perhaps Tony Abbott, confronts not a Kim Campbell moment but a Stephen Harper one.

Both Gillard and Abbott are working overtime to cobble together a minority government at the pleasure of a resurgent Green Party, which got just one seat in the House of Representatives, but will hold the balance of power in Australia’s elected Senate, with at least five and possibly as many as nine seats there.

The Greens will bring climate change emphatically back onto centre stage, and Julia Gillard might yet survive -- but, ironically, at the “cost” of implementing an aggressive reform agenda with respect to climate change. Had she or Kevin Rudd had the courage to do so in the first place, it would have saved a lot of Labor pain. It might have even guaranteed them a second term, because most thinking Australians are desperate for someone to do something about climate change.

Somewhere in all this, one imagines, there must be a lesson about leadership. But in Australia right now, it seems, one cannot look to the major party leaders for that. Vive la minorité libre.

A former Vancouver Sun and CBC-TV reporter, Ian Gill recently returned to his native Australia as founding CEO of Ecotrust Australia.

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