Peter GarrettThe Australian opposition Labor Party has selected a new, green leadership team to challenge the long-serving conservative Prime Minister John Howard in national parliamentary elections at the end of 2007. Kevin Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, and his deputy, Julia Gillard, decisively defeated incumbent leaders Kim Beazley and Jenny Macklin.

But much of the attention is focused on Rudd’s Sunday appointment of Peter Garrett, a Greenpeace board member and former lead singer of the Australian rock band Midnight Oil, to take charge of crafting Labor’s new policies on climate change.

“Climate change represents one of the most significant and important issues that Australians must confront now and into the future,” Garrett said. “I want to work for leader Rudd to make sure that we roll up our sleeves and do the very best that we can, and I want to put the Howard Government on notice that it’s fiddling while Australia burns.”

(See the International Herald Tribune and the Australia Broadcasting Corp for more.)

Like the U.S., Australia has never ratified the Kyoto Treaty, and Howard has long been an ally of the Bush White House on climate change. But the Australian public’s concern about climate change has intensified after four years of intense drought, and Howard’s government has starting making noises about carbon-trading and renewable energy. In November, a panel commissioned by Howard proposed lifting Australia’s restrictions on nuclear energy and uranium mining. The commission advocated developing nuclear power and easing curbs on uranium mining, which it claimed could reduce carbon emissions from coal and lift revenues from uranium exports by $1.4 billion a year. It also advocated constructing 25 nuclear reactors to supply a third of Australia’s electricity by 2050. (See the Gristmill discussion of the report.)

The labor party, traditionally opposed to uranium exports and adopting nuclear power as a means of reducing carbon emissions, is increasingly split on the issue, like much of the Australian public.

One critic of Labor’s new willingness to think nuclear is the head of the Green Party, Bob Brown. “Our question to Peter is going to be, ‘Will you stand for what you sang for and is the Labor Party going to be able to accommodate the extraordinary changes in policy that are required if this planet is to get out of the current dive in its environmental fortune?'” Brown reportedly said.

Garrett formerly headed the Australian Conservation Foundation, which holds vociferously negative positions on uranium mining and nuclear power. (See the ACF website.)