An unflattering comparison to the Roman emperor Nero was the last thing John Howard, Australia’s prime minister, needed a week before the country’s federal election.

Mr Howard awoke on Friday to find that Bill McHarg, a founder of one of the country’s biggest real estate firms, had taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement that said: “For 11 years Howard has fiddled. Now Australia burns.”

The businessman’s dig reflected what has been a shift in the Australian political landscape. Fuelled by a seven-year drought that is regarded as the country’s worst in a century, the environment has for the first time in Australian history overtaken the economy in terms of political importance.

Three opinion polls this year found the environment rated higher than the economy, with the latest showing it was considered a “very important” issue by 69 per cent of respondents, versus the economy on 67 per cent.

The shift has caused Mr Howard and Kevin Rudd, the Labor opposition leader who heavily outguns the government in the polls, to deploy two of the country’s highest-profile politicians into the battle.

In one corner is Labor’s Peter Garrett, promoted last year to shadow environment spokesman. A law graduate and former lead singer with campaigning rock band ­Midnight Oil, which topped the Australian charts in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr Garrett is the former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Not to be outdone, Mr Howard responded by putting Malcolm Turnbull into the environment port­folio. The Rhodes scholar, journalist and former Goldman Sachs executive rose to prominence in the 1980s when, as a barrister, he beat Margaret Thatcher’s British government while defending former MI5 agent-turned-novelist Peter Wright in the Spy Catcher trial.

The attention is welcome but belated, environmentalists charge. Denise Boyd, the campaigns director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, says Australia has been a laggard on climate change when it should have been a leader, noting that on a per capita basis Australia is one of the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases. “We have a strong economy and can afford to invest in clean, safe and renewable energy for the future,” she says.

The ACF’s mid-campaign assessment of the main parties on the issues of climate, water and environmental policies rates Mr Howard’s centre-right ruling coalition at what Ms Boyd calls a “pretty shabby fail”, on just 21 per cent, well behind Labor’s “low pass”, on 56 per cent.

“The coalition’s climate score remains very low, with its weak ‘clean energy’ target, its refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol, no target to reduce greenhouse emissions and the promotion of nuclear reactors as a way to deal with climate change,” Ms Boyd said.

Labor, on the other hand, has said it will ratify Kyoto and has won plaudits for a mandatory renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, an urban water programme and a Barrier Reef protection proposal.

John Connor, the chief executive of the Climate Institute, a research group, believes the coalition have missed their opportunity to take a leadership role on the ­environment.

“They have left their run too late,” he said, adding that conservative leaders in others parts of the world, including David Cameron, the UK opposition leader, Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s governor, and ­Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, had refused to let left-leaning parties claim the environmental high ground.

Mr Turnbull, who is also tipped as a possible successor to Mr Howard as leader of the Liberal party, claims the government was not a late convert to the environmental cause. “We have a good reputation and John Howard has been prescient on water,” he said on Friday while on the campaign trail.

Mr Turnbull, like Mr Howard, is fighting for political survival in his own seat. He is neck-and-neck against Labor’s George Newhouse in the now marginal seat of Wentworth, which the Liberal party and its predecessors have held since Australia’s Federation in 1901.

Also like Mr Howard, he is coming under attack on his environmental record by a successful businessman. Geoff Cousins, a former high-profile advertising executive, has launched a campaign against him in Wentworth over his decision to back a controversial pulp mill in Tasmania. But Labor also supports the mill, a fact that could undermine Mr ­Garrett’s green credentials.

Mr McHarg this week elected to stand down from Colliers International, a real estate company, in order to wage his political campaign. Mr Howard and his team may have that choice made for them when Australia votes next Saturday.

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