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Posted on 14 May 2019 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

PHILIP CHUBB Power Failure: The inside story of climate politics under Rudd and Gillard. Reviewed by Kurt Johnson

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How did the politics of climate change become so intractable? Power Failure gives an account of the Rudd–Gillard years – a pertinent reminder as Australia goes to the polls in 2019.

Again, something is in the air. It is the acrid tang of a looming election. With it comes the awareness of a country disaffected and weary. Most of us only become passionate in rare moments of outrage. We have recognised the pattern, reinforced over time: our vote is limited to electing a caretaker, someone who will be put to the sword the moment that polls dip below some secret threshold or they attempt to act meaningfully on climate change. How did we arrive here? Whatever happened to hope?

Before heading to the polls this Saturday, it’s worth reading Philip Chubb’s book Power Failure. It describes how Kevin Rudd squandered a nation’s desire to act on the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change. Though published in 2014, the book is valuable in 2019 because it answers how we became the country we are: politically jaded and still cranking out carbon into the atmosphere at our highest rate since records began.

Power Failure begins in an Australia barely recognisable today. After 12 years of political stagnation and fear-mongering under John Howard, the electorate was hungry for change. Even before the apology to Indigenous Australians, Rudd’s first act as prime minister was ratifying the Kyoto protocol.

Back then, the nation’s will for action on the climate was broadly strong, having not yet faced a decade of white-anting by climate scepticism. For the next 250 pages Chubb shows exactly how a hopeful, starry-eyed young nation became a cynical brown land.

For the author, the blame falls squarely at the feet of Rudd. Chubb is relentless in his criticism of the former prime minister, who is exposed as a domineering and arrogant micromanager, a poor communicator who preferred to advise other world leaders on how to design and pass climate reform while failing to guide it through at home.

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was Rudd’s baby. Learning how it failed is like having to read a bad essay in order to learn how to write a good one. Almost everything Rudd could get wrong he did. His biggest mistakes lay in the way he restricted the flow of information. The CPRS would profoundly affect business, the environment, employment, taxes and power prices. In general, most business leaders, environmental groups, minor parties, unions and independent MPs acknowledged that action on climate was needed or at least inevitable. Yet rather than consult these groups, Rudd excluded them from the process of designing the legislation. He insulated himself behind closed doors with only staff and Penny Wong. He even kept his own cabinet in the dark, so they appeared uninformed and bumbling before the media.

As a side note, by 2014 Rudd hadn’t learned to moderate his controlling instincts. Of the 107 interviews Philip Chubb conducted, only Kevin Rudd gave his on the condition that he not be directly quoted.

Chubb also describes how Rudd sacrificed bipartisan support. He scored points off Turnbull, making him look weak before his own party. This eventually saw Turnbull lose the leadership and unleashed a hard-right Abbott onto the politics of climate change, from which it has never truly recovered.

When things got tough at home Rudd staked the CPRS on success at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference to carry it through on a surge of international goodwill. When the three biggest polluters — China, the US and India — all failed to sign on to a deal, the conference became a disaster and Rudd’s fate was sealed.

He returned home a failure and began to act in increasingly bizarre ways, leaving Labor MPs and senators to manage as best as they could. Chubb evokes the chaos at the Lodge on Valentine’s Day 2010, in a closed meeting recounted by a witness who preferred to remain unnamed:

Rudd hyperventilated and froze so seriously that his chief of staff, Alister Jordan, helped him to his feet and took him for a walk. It seemed he had suffered a debilitating panic attack. Everyone was shocked and embarrassed for him. The only thing that broke the mood was the dog scratching at the door.

Gillard stood up and attended to the work on the whiteboard. That was her way. She reacted with no fuss, methodically worked through a plan and became the person Roxon and Swan would go to during the remainder of the health reform process, whenever Rudd was unable to bring order or sense to it.

With just as much immediacy Chubb renders the famous incident at Penrith’s Nepean Hospital, when Rudd, without any consultation with his staff, who had sacrificed two years of their lives to design the CPRS, publicly and indefinitely postponed it. And so the first chapter of Australia’s attempt to pass climate change reform ended – with a whimper.

Soon after that, Gillard replaced Rudd. The author’s admiration of the new prime minister is as unreserved as his condemnation of the previous one. He even includes a table in an appendix with a point by point comparison. Where Rudd was driven by ego, a sense of personal destiny, and an autocratic bent, Gillard worked with stakeholders to build consensus and promote a broad buy-in for legislation. When she got to the task of passing the CPRS’s next incarnation, the Clean Energy Future (CEF), she developed it with the Greens, the Independents and her MPs all in the room. The government promoted the fund to the public in an extensive media campaign.

Yet the wind had changed. When Gillard was elected, it was to a minority government with a hostile Opposition lead by foamy-mouthed Tony Abbott. Even before Abbott characterised the CEF as a super tax, the public’s goodwill and support for carbon action had begun to wane. Globally, with fallout from the GFC in full flight, the financial solvency of Australia’s mining sector was seen as more important than ever.

Regarding money, a fascinating thread that runs through Power Failure is the role of electricity generators, particularly those in the heavily polluting Latrobe Valley of Victoria, to which Chubb returns repeatedly. The constant debate within Labor is whether they should compensate the generators for putting a price on carbon, and if so, by how much. In response to carbon pricing, the generators threatened the government with collapse, causing a politically disastrous interruption to the flow of electricity. They deployed an aggressive media campaign and put intense pressure on their workers to become active against climate reform. It’s notable that the unions resisted this pressure.

On this point Treasurer Wayne Swan, definitely a politician of the old school Labor variety, is particularly candid:

They [the electricity generators] reckoned they were all going to go broke. So we were having meetings here every week to get the reports — you know, ‘Anyone gone broke yet?’ So we [the government] were taking it seriously… Not even one got close. Nowhere near.

In the end the generators achieved a $5.5 billion compensation package over five years. When Labor abandoned a floor for carbon pricing, the price dropped. Much of that ‘compensation’ flowed from Australian taxpayers to foreign investors.

Despite passing the CEF, in the end Gillard lost in a war of attrition. She faced off a ruthless and savagely effective Abbott, a broad and intense media campaign, and leaks from within her own party. Chubb infers heavily who he thinks was the source of the leaks and he invokes a tragic arc of Gillard’s prime ministership that is expert and unsentimental.

Our current political predicament is a legacy from this period. As at the end of 2018, we rank 55 out of 60 globally for our climate change performance. The politicisation of climate change under Rudd enabled the subsequent Liberal government, satisfied to brandish lumps of coal in parliament, to reverse any impact Gillard’s CEF would have had.

Another key difference between then and now is that our current media landscape is even more concentrated, barely capable of providing a counter-perspective to the pro-Liberal, pro-coal, anti-climate action Murdoch juggernaut. So it is even more of a tragedy that the author of Power Failure died in 2017, gone now when he is needed most. This is a book that lays bare how the political sausage is made in this country, a process too frequently opaque or rendered in beige as a means to mask corrupt motives or incompetence. One wonders what means we have to correct our path with an even more feeble media and one less voice willing to hold power to account.

Philip Chubb Power Failure: The inside story of climate politics under Rudd and Gillard Black Inc.  2014 PB 320pp $29.99

Kurt Johnson is a journalist and author of The Red WakeA hybrid of travel, history and journalism, Random House, 2016.

You can buy Power Failure from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

1 Comment

  1. It is good you remember how much good will and hope was squandered by Rudd and hiw the final blow came and Rudd announced that he would suspend ie abandon the CPRS. An going now to buy the book.