High Emissions Retail Politics


"These are almost $9 a kilo, Joe, but they’ll be even more expensive under Julia Gillard’s carbon tax, won’t they?"

That was none other than Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, indulging his finely honed talents for media opportunities at a Canberra grocery.

They call it "retail politics" and few are better at it than Abbott. Five days into the debate over the introduction of a carbon price (mark two), Abbott appears to be relishing the chance to lay into the Government over the issue.

The carbon tax debate gives Tony Abbott the chance to show off his skills. When it comes to the relentless pursuit of attack politics, the Opposition Leader is the best since Paul Keating. Abbott’s ability to fashion blunt messages of brutal simplicity — and to stick to them — makes him an unusually effective political communicator. No-one on Labor’s side of the house comes even close.

As a result, the Government is not even a week into its latest effort to address carbon emissions and is already struggling. Potential allies in the business lobby have already jumped ship, the latest being Heather Ridout of the Australian Industry Group, long considered the corporate lobbyist closest to the Government. Ridout’s faint praise for the new push for carbon pricing must be especially galling to the Government, which has gone out of its way to include the silver-coiffed spokeswoman in many of its most important policy consultations. Other executives and CEOs have resumed their usual bleating about taxes, confidence and regulatory risk.

If Julia Gillard wanted a fight on carbon, then she’s certainly got one. Parliament has been unusually querulous this week, with the Opposition launching volleys of verbal assaults on the Prime Minister’s integrity. No confidence motions have flown thick and fast. It’s been wonderful theatre, but it has revealed little of substance about either major party.

But as galling as their attacks have been, the Coalition runs a huge risk by dent of the ferocity of the latest campaign. For the truth is: we are not in an election campaign. The next federal election is likely three years away.

There is no chance the Coalition can keep up the fight that long. Indeed, it is questionable whether the attack can be sustained for the rest of this year. Well before the writs are issued for the next general election, the heat and light of this week’s events will have been largely forgotten. The Australian public may not like taxes, but nor are they particularly politically engaged.

Political "reality" is a malleable thing, apt to turn weekly as the fickle winds of commentary change direction. In the run-up to the 2007 election, the Howard government went to voters with a proposal for a modest carbon trading scheme to be implemented by 2012. We may never know whether it would ever have implemented one. But it’s worth remembering that fact as we survey the confected fury of the Opposition’s recent attacks.

But public apathy is not the only risk Abbott runs in his current all-out assault. There is also a policy risk. That’s because there is another hard truth of the current impasse: the Opposition’s policies are rubbish.

The Coalition claims that it is committed to reducing Australia’s carbon emissions. Its policy relies on the efficacy of essentially untested technologies related to soil carbon. No-one can credibly argue that soil sequestration will solve Australia’s emissions problems. In fact, nothing less than a serious broad-based effort to reduce the carbon intensity of our economy will. This means hard choices, like retiring coal-fired electricity power plants, addressing the carbon-dependence of our clogged road networks and encouraging businesses and consumers to invest in new, low-carbon alternatives. Direct action cannot achieve this. Anyone who thinks about it carefully will see the Coalition’s policy for what it is: at best, window dressing; at worst, cynical delay.

And the Coalition’s climate policy is predicated on the very thing for which it has criticised Labor so savagely: more spending. The Coalition plans to achieve emissions reductions by paying taxpayers’ money to farmers and other industries in a policy of so-called "direct action." The money for this will, they say, be found from savings in the budget. This still makes it government spending, and probably wasteful spending at that, given the slim likelihood that direct action will produce meaningful reductions in an economy where carbon remains very cheap. After the debacle of the Coalition’s eleventh-hour election costings, which the Treasury found to be between $7 and $11 billion out of whack, the Coalition’s claims to be better fiscal managers than Labor are not credible.

Given the government’s devastating loss of courage last year in abandoning the emissions trading scheme, we can sympathise with those pointing to the hypocrisy of Julia Gillard’s newfound determination to push a carbon tax through.

But the hypocrisy on the Opposition benches is even greater. Tony Abbott’s own policy positions on climate have swung like a weathervane from disbelief through scepticism and on to support for a carbon tax, before settling on his current position of reflexive antagonism to anything the Government proposes. Others are experiencing just as much cognitive dissonance. Opposition Environment spokesman Greg Hunt actually wrote his honours thesis on carbon trading, and yet is now trying to argue, with a straight face, that carbon trading is a bad policy and that direct payments for carbon reductions are the way to go. As for the confirmed sceptics like Barnaby Joyce, one wonders what they think about spending taxpayers money on an issue they don’t even think is real. About the only person in either major party whose position has remained consistent is Malcolm Turnbull.

The Coalition’s position on climate is certainly effective politics, but the clarity of its attack cannot disguise a policy position which is bad for Australia’s economy and future prosperity. In 2011 it is untenable to argue that climate change is a minor issue, let alone to try and deny the threat it poses to one of the most carbon-intensive, unsustainable economies in the world. And yet more denial and delay is exactly what the Opposition is offering. The narrowness and expediency of the Coalition’s current position is truly depressing.

So is the support for the Coalition by the business lobby. If, eventually, Labor and the Greens manage to drag Australia into some sort of carbon-pricing system, it will be in the teeth of opposition from corporate lobbyists. Remember that the next time someone gets on television calling for "more consultation", what they are really asking for are more taxpayer hand-outs from you and I. And they are being encouraged to do so by the Liberal and National Parties, who would seek to mortgage Australia’s future sustainability for the simple, shameful goal of regaining government.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.