The Ads Are About To Get Worse

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To get meaningful action on climate change in the current mess it would help if we had a genius innovator who could unite the key players and communicate effectively to the electorate. Well, the good news is that Neil Lawrence, the innovative ad man who gave us the "Kevin07" campaign, has got himself involved in the climate change debate. The bad news is that he’s working for the bad guys.

This week an ad campaign designed by Lawrence and paid for by the Australian Coal Association (ACA) will go live in Australian homes, attempting to convince voters in key marginal and mining seats that Labor’s emission trading scheme threatens the economy in general and their jobs and communities in particular. This from the same man who helped voters believe that by installing Rudd and getting Kyoto ratified they might actually have the power to drag Australia into the 21st century and do something useful on climate change.

Lawrence, of course, is a professional. He is paid to look for the points of vulnerability in the hearts and minds of people in a particular situation, craft the appropriate message, then take aim on behalf of whoever’s paying. But the question his latest campaign raises is: Could there be a message so far-fetched it can’t be spun, even for a master of the trade?

We can assume that in creating the campaign he’s about to unveil, Lawrence has had to ask himself a few questions. Among them are: Can I convince coal miners and their communities that the ETS is a malignant force coming to sweep away their livelihood? Or, even more challenging: Can I persuasively present coal industry companies as standing ready to defend the long-term job security of their employees?

According to ACA executive director Ralph Hillman, the advertising campaign will highlight job threats posed by the ETS. These are hard times. And we all know what a tough time the coal industry has had since the mining boom started.

But figures published in the Newcastle Herald show that coal production in the Hunter Valley rose by 53 per cent between 1991 and 2000. During the same period, jobs declined by 29 per cent. The Department of Primary Industries tells us how "productivity based on saleable tonnes per employee has increased from 6920 tonnes per annum in 1996-97 to 10,120 tonnes per annum in 2006-07". Which basically means that the real threat to coal jobs is automation.

With that underlying reality, it’s hard to understand how even the brilliant Lawrence will convince miners that an Australian ETS is their enemy. Especially when their union, the CFMEU, overwhelmingly supports the Government’s scheme. "The single biggest threat to the future of our multi-billion dollar coal industry is inaction on climate change," warned CFMEU Mining and Energy division president, Tony Maher, recently.

Lawrence doesn’t come cheap, even for an expanding industry raking in record profits. Obviously the Australian Coal Association thinks it’s worth investing in an attempt to turn the tide of coalminer opinion. Perhaps locals will buy it. Rudd and the rest of the ALP will certainly be keeping an eye on the anti-ETS campaign, after all, nobody knows better than they do what a fine persuasive chap Lawrence can be. Although most seats in coal-mining regions are comfortably held by the ALP, a couple are marginal, and their members will be wary of anything that might tip their constituency in the wrong direction.

But even if you think Lawrence can sell this message to enough people to make some kind of difference, the casual observer might still find it remarkable that the coal industry would even bother with this campaign, considering the massive free ride that they’ve already won from Labor as it developed an ETS that many see as worse than useless. The Government, on top of huge exclusions and endless pollution permits, has now even said it will look into increasing the $3.5 billion of compensation for coal-fired generators that is currently built into its ETS. This followed claims from the coal industry based on fears that their assets — coal-fired generators — will depreciate by more than the Government is offering in compensation.

It’s an extraordinary argument, and one that only makes sense in the context of the pitiful rent-seeking that has become commonplace in the modern Australian policy process. By the same logic, governments would have to bail out people like James Packer if it brought out policies to reduce gambling. Brad Page of the Energy Association of Australia thinks the ETS status quo is unacceptable because it might scare off investors. Surely the real message to investors should be that pouring money into unsustainable investments doesn’t grant rights to ongoing profits.

But we can safely assume that Lawrence’s campaign won’t have much to say on that subject. Nor will he or the coal industry reps be fronting up to the town halls of Muswellbrook for open, informed debate. No, this debate will be fought out in lounge rooms in the half-time breaks of grand finals screened on regional TV. The only detail we can expect will be in the form of clever close-ups on the work of overpaid stylists who will have helped to match the coal lobby’s message to the thoroughly researched tastes of coalminers and their families.

That’s what Lawrence has been busy doing. Rather than build a campaign based on scientific research, Lawrence will be drawing on market research. The team at Lawrence Creative Strategy will not have spent a single very expensive minute thinking about how to reduce the massive carbon emissions belched out by one of the dirtiest industries on earth, because they and their clients are much too busy coming up with ways to convince people to do the exact opposite. And they’ll do that by dressing up their campaign for more freedom to pollute as an effort to "protect workers".

So, miners and punters beware: some of our most brilliant advertising minds will shortly be working their magic near you. And if it does work, if Neil Lawrence and the ACA’s Ralph Hillman have their way, the ETS will never solidify as policy.

Perhaps we need to set a price on spin and tax it before we can put a price on carbon.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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