MELBOURNE, June 6 (UPI) -- With three election victories under his belt, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard has announced that Australia would not sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, dealing a serious blow to the hopes and aspirations of many of the public servants who dominate the federal capital of Canberra.
There is a great tension between the beliefs and attitudes of the people of Canberra and the rest of Australia. In particular, hardly anyone in Canberra has to worry about earning a living in a competitive world. In most departments of state, life is about status and power within the bureaucracy. Only the powerful Treasury Department has to pay attention to some bottom line -- hence it is more concerned with raising taxes and ensuring a balanced budget than with ideological passions such as global warming.
For most of Canberra's mandarins, then, the prospect of implementing the Kyoto Protocol, with its own vast new domestic bureaucracy and the opportunity for career paths in the international bureaucracy in Bonn, caused the saliva to flow freely. The public-service line in Canberra, with very few exceptions, has been that Kyoto is inevitable, that the science doesn't matter any more, that the momentum is unstoppable and that the sooner Australia ratifies and gets on with the job of de-carbonization, the better off we will be.
For the mandarins of the Department of Foreign Affairs in particular, the idea that Australia would choose to walk away from the tent and look on from outside whilst others negotiated the deals, was a nightmare.
After his crushing election victory of November 2001, however, Howard enjoyed more freedom of maneuver than most elected politicians. He appointed hard-headed David Kemp as minister for the Environment. The environmentalist Greens were hostile and nervous. They had captured the previous minister, Robert Hill, and were deeply suspicious of Kemp who, as federal minister for Education, had alienated the education bureaucracy in Canberra, and in other state capitals, with his support for parental choice in education and his policies of reducing the financial burdens for parents who sought private education for their children.
Their hostility was short-lived. Within a few months the reassuring word got around Canberra that Kemp had been won over in turn, and that the departmental head of the Environment Department, former Jesuit Roger Beale, regarded as the most skilful bureaucrat in the game, was firmly in control.
As late as Tuesday evening, Kemp's public position was that Australia would make a decision about ratification before the end of 2002. Whatever Kemp's intentions, the effect of such a promise would be to spur on the green-bureaucratic alliance into a relentless campaign of pressure on the government.
Howard decided to lance the boil. In answer to a question in the House the next day he said flatly: "It is not in Australia's interests to ratify the Kyoto Protocol ... the Protocol would cost us jobs and damage our economy. That is why the Australian government will continue to oppose ratification."
Simon Crean the leader of the Labor Party, which supports ratification, interjected, giving Howard the opportunity he had been waiting for. He turned on Crean: "It amazes me that a Labor Party that claims, from time to time, to represent the interests of the working men and women of this country would sign an arrangement that would hurt this country. ... The Australian national interest does not lie in ratifying Kyoto. That is why we are opposed to it."
Perhaps because he spends as much time as he can with his family in the prime minister's residence in Sydney, rather than at The Lodge in Canberra, Howard has a much better feel for the realities of economic life and of public opinion than the Canberra bureaucrats who advise the government.
That reality is that Australia is a major exporter of energy intensive products such as aluminum, base metals and agricultural products. These export industries are based on abundant, low-cost supplies of black and brown coal, which in turn generates very low-cost electricity. The imposition of carbon taxes, required by the Kyoto regime in order to reduce CO2 emissions, would turn that low-cost electricity into high-cost electricity. Econometric modeling undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics suggest that the increase would be at least of the order of 50 percent. The consequence of that would be huge economic dislocation, including major capital losses, rising unemployment, and a falling Australian dollar. These facts of life pointed firmly toward a refusal by Australia to sign Kyoto.
Once Howard is convinced that he does understand where Australia's interests lie, he is tenacious and obdurate in defending those interests. Now that the Australian prime minister has made Australia's position clear, Canada and Russia may well think more carefully about where their national interests lie.
As the Beatles might have put it (but didn't): All you need is guts.
(Ray Evans is secretary of the Lavoisier Group, an organization dedicated to promoting debate on greenhouse science and the Kyoto Protocol.)