Natasha Cica

Everybody wants to be green in the new political environment
IF THERE is one immutable truth about Canberra, it is that power is always seething and shifting.

As politicos gear up for 2007, deaf Freddy can hear the sound of cards reshuffling. That’s about much more than rearranging key portfolio deckchairs, as Kevin Rudd has already done with some skill and John Howard is rumoured to be contemplating with more cunning.

It also goes beyond renewing inner-sanctum support staff, whose influence should never be underestimated although they rarely hit headlines in their own right; Rudd has advertised nationally for seven new team players, including chief of staff, director of policy and press secretary, while Howard’s long-standing top adviser Arthur Sinodinos has been lured to investment bank Goldman Sachs.

All these internal rejiggings are significant. But only in the effective service of the main game, which is shaping up to be strategic rebranding.

The most tantalising card both major parties are fingering on that front is coloured green. A few months back, the suave Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth broke open a wave of popular Australian concern about planetary degradation and sustainability that must have turned longer-term, harder-core environmental activists a tinge green with campaign envy.

Now that the feral cat is out of the bag, can it be tempted to sleep in either mainstream party’s political camp, at least for as long as it takes to win the electoral prize of 2007?

Read the tea leaves of dying December, swirling like firestorm ash or freaky flakes of summer snow. Kevin Rudd rolled Peter Garrett into what’s shaping up as the super-sexy climate change and environment portfolio, leaving Kim Beazley’s environment spokesman, Anthony Albanese, to face off with Malcolm Turnbull on water.

Albanese is no Gore and certainly no silvertail — but the Coalition shouldn’t get too smug. As the elected representative of one crucial green-leaning inner-Sydney seat, Albanese did way more in the job than warm Garrett’s waiting star seat in the aftermath of Howard checkmating Mark Latham on Tasmania’s forestry issues, including visiting and being visibly moved by the giant old-growth trees at the heart of the matter — to the chagrin of Tasmania’s pro-logging state Labor Premier Paul Lennon, union and forestry industry players, and their mates.

By contrast, Garrett was unavailable for a Tassie gig on Rudd’s recent “listening tour” — allegedly too busy with climate change, maybe leafing through snaps from his 1980s trip to the Lemonthyme with brother-in-arms Bob Brown, possibly pondering a plausible Labor union of no-nukes principle with pro-nukes pragmatism.

More likely, not wanting his profile plastered all over Rudd’s message that “listening” on Tasmanian trees means close consultation with the still pro-logging Lennon Government, unions and forest industries — but not conservation groups nor, presumably, the rest (that’s the majority) of the Tasmanian community.

It also means backing the standing deal between Howard and Lennon on forests, which as far as that goes, leaves no room to slide a cigarette paper between the federal policy positions of the major parties.

Clever counter-check politics, mate? Not necessarily. The next day phones rang hot in the electorate offices of Labor seats that Rudd can’t afford to take for granted, messaging “you had me back, now I’m gone again”.

Then the Federal Court threw its own feral cat among the policy pigeons, upholding Greens senator Bob Brown’s challenge to the lawfulness of logging operations in Tasmania’s Wielangta State Forest.

The full ramifications of that ruling remain to be seen, including for the forestry industry nationally, but at a minimum some new year deal looks likely between Howard’s feds and Lennon’s Labor.

Raising the obvious question: will Rudd keep stapling himself to Howard over Tassie trees, and end up doing a kind of Tampa?

Not necessarily. Rudd has three big things in his favour. First, Australian filmmaker George Miller, whose new animated blockbuster Happy Feet looks like keeping Gore’s enviro-ball bouncing, this time with real singalong pizzaz.

Second, Peter Garrett. It’s too easy, and early, to write him off as a player consumed and corrupted by his ambitions, and to draw analogies with Philip Ruddock’s shifting sticking points on human rights.

Garrett has nous, plus non-party networks to die for, including in every conceivable shade of green. Rudd can and should use both to maximum and genuine advantage, not just to craft a better way forward in Tasmania, but also to exploit federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell’s pre-Christmas about-face on Victoria’s Bald Hills wind farm, and beyond.

Third, that bulging pile of job applications sitting in the opposition leader’s in-tray. Great resources. Don’t waste them.

Natasha Cica is director of management and communications consultancy Periwinkle Projects. She has advised a range of federal MPs.

This article first ran in The Age on December 27.