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Time for a backflip

September 17th, 2007

As I foreshadowed, my Fin column last week gave John Howard some unsolicited advice on how to deal himself back into the electoral game; namely ratify Kyoto. Of course, he’s done nothing of the kind, but still I was surprised by the lameness of his latest offering, a retro stunt involving hospital-based training for nurses. With this and the Merseyside fiasco a month or so ago, Howard seems determined to discredit himself with anyone who takes health policy seriously.

Anyway, I think Howard would still benefit by breaking with Bush and ratifying Kyoto. As my piece concludes “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.

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.

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  1. BilB
    September 17th, 2007 at 09:32 | #1

    John,

    I have drawn the same conclusion, that ratifying Kyoto would be the only land mark action that Howard could take at this stage the buy back into the game. But I had decided to keep it to my self. I had an extended conversation the other day with an ex Liberal MP with whom I talk about these issues periodically and he conceded that there is no reason to not ratify Kyoto as, according to the government at least, Australia is within the Kyoto frame work of commitments. There would be no cost.

    More fundamentally though, having just heard Downer on national radio pushing this point, is Howard’s belief that the population at large hate unions. I don’t think that that is the case. Unions work on behalf of the people on mass, why should the public see this as a bad thing? This points out a huge flaw in the Coalition thinking. Certainly many people may not like the way unions go about their business, but that does not translate into Howardlike hatred for unions.

    The absolute reality is that Howard is living in a fantasy land of his own making, and the Coalition have decided to live there with him. Change of government. End of story.

  2. swio
    September 17th, 2007 at 11:47 | #2

    I have to disagree that doing a backflip on Kyoto is politically viable for Howard.

    Howard is incredibly careful with his language and one of the ways this shows is how carefully he makes statements that cannot one day be taken back. Normally when a politician backflips its pretty easy to pull out quotes of them attacking what they now support and accuse them of inconsistency. When you try and do this with Howard you discover that though you can be assured juicy quotes from the likes of Downer and especially from the careless Costello you rarely find anything useful from the lips of Howard himself. I guess a lifetime in politics has taught him that over the years you will have reverse your positions many times so you should try to attack things in ways that are plausibly reversible.

    On Kyoto Howard has not held back. He has said outright that it is a bad idea. I assume that not signing Kyoto was something he thought he would never have to reverse and consequently locked himself into it.

  3. Hermit
    September 17th, 2007 at 14:01 | #3

    My feeling is that action taken under UN auspices (such as Kyoto mark 2) will be slow and pedantic http://www.un.org/climatechange/ . Rather I think a series of local climate disasters and bilateral agreements between countries will merge to form a stronger multilateral agreement. Likely elements not properly covered by current Kyoto include border adjustments and weeding out ‘soft’ credits. This could take a few years which of course we don’t have. Formal declarations mean nothing if they are not kept; for example I predict PM Rudd will increase coal exports to meet Asian requests the way Iemma has approved new NSW coal mines and power stations. I’m saying I think it has to get worse before it can get better.

  4. observa
    September 17th, 2007 at 21:21 | #4

    “NURSING educators, professional bodies and unions have vociferously rejected the Federal Government’s $170 million plan to establish new schools in hospitals to train an extra 500 enrolled nurses a year.

    The nursing groups say the policy, announced by the Prime Minister, John Howard, yesterday, will not tackle the underlying causes of the shortage of nurses…”

    But then they don’t offer us an explanayion as to what those underlying causes are. Let me hazard a guess eh girls? (and they largely are just like plumbers are largely blokes) Could it be that now the profession has worked so hard to make nursing a tertiary educated one, that many working class girls no longer take it up? They now have to finish YR12 and then do a degree by which time they have eaten well into home establishment years, given that this cohort of women starts child rearing well before their middle class sisters. Those sisters, many of whom, by the time they’ve finished their degrees and perhaps some post grad studies, no longer want to engage in yucky nursing or tiresome shift work. So, we have to import nurses from OS, that can’t speak English properly, or may have dodgy credentials (recall some problem nurses from Zimbabwe recently- Mugabe’s mob will sell anything at present) Apparently like the Dr Patels, that is much safer than hospital trained locals. So when the lad was in hospital last time with a broken jaw from footy, recovering from the op, I realised he would need some painkillers before the anaesthetic began to wear off fully and the pain kicks in big time. A stitch in time as I well know before the need for the RMO. Ring the buzzer a number of times and no answer. Finally up to the nurses station and ‘yes I’ll get him something’ Still nothing after another return and the same answer. The third time I stood blocking the exit and said ‘if you don’t have time for the patients, show me where the stuff is and I’ll do it’ That got the desired result finally. A similar tale with a mate getting chemo. The drip was not monitored and instead of taking a couple of hours as prescribed, it ran through in less than 30 mins. Lots of worried staff, constant blood pressure readings and an ECG hookup, all of a sudden. Still it’s mistakes like that that progress cancer treatment I suppose(He’s ‘cured’ now) The nursing profession, unions and educators all have a vested interest in the current, restrictive tertiary system and bugger the patients. Lots of nursing can be carried out by lesser skilled nurses and needs to be urgently, but the profession doesn’t want working class scabs, meddling on their middle class patch.

  5. observa
    September 17th, 2007 at 21:30 | #5

    And what’s the bet Rudd’s new Skills Commisariat will come up with exactly the same conclusion after a year or two on the taxpayer’s drip eh?

  6. observa
    September 17th, 2007 at 21:35 | #6

    Can’t have local enrolled nurses risking patient’s lives now can we folks?
    http://www.newzimbabwe.com/pages/aussies3.15005.html

  7. Jill Rush
    September 17th, 2007 at 23:39 | #7

    Howard is stubborn and will only bend if he can evince some kind of sympathy. Kyoto will not do that for him. The nurses are too credible and he has attempted to undermine their IR campaign. As Observa’s response shows he has tapped into a nostalgic thread older people will have for a golden past when women knew their place (caring for others for low pay and conditions).

    Nurses however have not been lower class but middle class and intelligent. The reason that they have become university educated is that the equipment and medications have become increasingly complex and they saw that the only way to get decent pay was to get credibility through educational qualifications.

    Medical misadventures abound – doctors after all bury their mistakes. However an undereducated workforce under the apprenticeship scheme favoured by the PM will not boost medical outcomes.

    It is about neutralising the effective Industrial Relations campaign being run by the nurses. Nurses have caused the government grief and so are being paid back. Joe Hockey has written an open letter published in weekend newspapaers to the nurses stating that they have nothing to fear from Workchoices as they are either under state awards or under collective agreements. (It doesn’t say much for his confidence in Workchoices for the ordinary person however it was written to reassure us all that nurses are being looked after).

    The cleverness of the government will not be in ratifying Kyoto but by playing to populists notions, which don’t stand up to scrutiny, but will sway voters who are likely to have a knee jerk reaction. This is the modus operandi – not to appeal to people who can think through his ideas but to appeal to those who can’t.

  8. BilB
    September 18th, 2007 at 05:20 | #8

    Jill,

    I favour the proposed nurse training programme as a supplimentary programme partly for point that observa makes above and partly because it gives women wanting to embark on a health oriented career a paid entry into work allowing part time study rather than the 3 years full time study along with all of the costs and debt that goes with that path (I should add that I am not clear on how the whole nurse training programme works particularly how the tech training path fits in). There is no way that this replaces the university trained professional nurse, rather it provides another way to get there. My brother spent 17 years doing part time study to get his MBA degree working and supporting a family all of the way. That is not cup of tea but it worked for him.

    The other thing that it does (and I am supposing here) is provide hospitals with a little more flexibility. University trained nurses (I am told) become specialised, ie trauma, intensive care, neo natal, paediatric, etc, and are less suitable for a variable department workload. However, as they are effectively junior doctors there professional level very essentially facilitates the ever increasing technical nature of hospital operations.

    So as long as this is additional nursing support and NOT replacement, and it is supported by the nursing profession, then I think that it is a positive direction. I don’t accept at face value the “universal condemnation” flag that has been waved. I would want to see a considered judgement.

    At the bottom line I certainly do not see this as vote puller for Howard. He might, but I don’t.

  9. Razor
    September 18th, 2007 at 12:55 | #9

    Kyoto – what a raging success!!!

    When the BRICs sign up to the same targets, and the current signatories actually hit their targets, then it might be worth signing.

    Otherwise, if the climte disaster Hanrahans are right, were are all royally stuffed (so I intend to enjoy the ride instead of partaking in worthless tokenism, such as Kyoto).

  10. Hermit
    September 18th, 2007 at 21:54 | #10

    I see Malcom Turnbull and Geoff Dixon want us to plant mallee trees every time we fly http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22441588-29277,00.html. According to my calcs each tree will apparently absorb nearly half a tonne of CO2 equivalent to about 2000 km of flying in a fully seated plane. Maybe the trees should have little tags eg ‘Fred’s trip to Perth September 2007′ which Fred could look down at next time he flies overhead. He’d have to plant another tree for that trip as well though.

    Maybe it’s easier to fly less or take the train.

  11. BilB
    September 19th, 2007 at 01:36 | #11

    Heaven help you if there is a bushfire and your mallee trees burn while you’re in the air.

    This is a symptom of Turnbull waking up environmentally, with his mouth open. He has a lot of realisations to make yet.

  12. observa
    September 19th, 2007 at 09:08 | #12

    “As Observa’s response shows he has tapped into a nostalgic thread older people will have for a golden past when women knew their place (caring for others for low pay and conditions).”

    Jill, wanting more nursing services has nothing to do with IR, although the nursing unions, like other trades unions clearly have a vested interest in qualifications creep and their own scarcity, in direct conflict with the interests of the consumer. Basic nursing is hard work and requires the strong backs and weak minds of our fittest. That’s essentially the youthful years and they shouldn’t be wasted meandering about sandstone monuments, learning how to avoid physical effort. Plenty of time for that later on in life/career as BilB pointed out. Technology is a double edged swoprd here too. Sure, specialist and intensive care, and para medic nursing requires greater skills and noone’e denying that. But technology gives us digital machines that blind freddy can use to take blood pressure readings without the need for the old manometer and stethoscope and they stick a digital thermometer in your ear and press the button nowadays. No broken thermometers or mercury poisoning for the careless anymore. As for the nursing federation claiming stays in hospital are much shorter nowadays, what can I say to such scintillating argument against a modicum of basic care while they are there? it doesn’t need a university degree to take obs, dispense prescriptions, monitor drips and organise bedpans and the like, no matter what the experts try and spin us.

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