The Australian election was a comprehensive thumping for the conservative parties. And one of the things that hurt them most was their (non) position on climate change – in particular the refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Former environment minister, and now frontrunner for the Liberal leadership, Malcolm Turnbull, was unequivocal the Monday after the election that not ratifying Kyoto had hurt the conservative Coalition. It was Turnbull who, about 6 weeks before the election, had tried to convince Federal Cabinet to ratify Kyoto, but was blocked by then Prime Minister John Howard. That won’t happen again. Whoever ends up leading the conservatives in the next few years, it seems clear that Australia’s holiday from history on climate change is over.

What does this mean for the rest of the world, and for the Bali talks? Firstly, the number of major developed countries refusing to ratify Kyoto has just dropped from 2 to 1. The only holdout is the US, where President George Bush has made non-ratification almost an article of faith – a position of blind recalcitrance which largely informed Howard’s. While the new situation down under will not lead to Bush ratifying Kyoto – stand by for hell to freeze over if it does – it increases pressure on the US, and the next President, to rejoin international efforts to deal with climate change.

And that leads us to Bali. Australia has always played a wrecker role on climate in the international sphere. Be it obstructing progress through non-ratification of Kyoto, or throwing up the reddest of red herrings like the AP6. Now, with a government in power who professes to take climate change seriously, that should end. What is not clear, though, is how progressive the new government will be. Australia is still the world’s largest coal exporter and our local industry is heavily dependent on coal-fired electricity. The Labor party is close to coal mining unions, and has made it clear that it sees coal as an essential part of Australia’s, and the world’s, energy future. A new government doesn’t change basic political economy.

On the other hand, Australia is a hot, dry country that is already suffering water shortages. All of which will get worse if climate change is not dealt with. And given that Australia is the “sunburnt country” which also has some of the world’s best wind resources, we’ve got what we need to make the switch from coal to clean energy.

So, we’ll be toasting Australia’s long-overdue ratification of Kyoto when it happens. But the celebrations will have to be short lived. After 11 years of denial and inaction, there’s a lot of work to do, and very little time in which to do it. Australia’s emissions needs to peak by 2010 and fall to at least 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to play our part in the global effort to avoid climate change. That will be a big job, but one that is achievable. And, ultimately, absolutely necessary if we are to avoid the catatrophic consequences of unchecked climate change.

Over to you Prime Minister Rudd…….