A Five Point Carbon PR Strategy


It’s a cliché of political commentary that this Labor Government struggles to explain its policies to voters. Whatever approach they take, the polls tell us that voters are increasingly sceptical of this government and of its efforts to impose a carbon tax, and of the Prime Minister herself. 

It doesn’t have to be this difficult. Yes, selling reform is tough. But trying to implement reform without explaining why is even tougher. Labor’s efforts to explain its position have been woeful. Indeed, on key issues like household compensation, they have barely even tried.

So here are a few ideas, Prime Minister. Take as many as you like. Just use them to defeat Tony Abbott on carbon.

1. Explain The Science
The Rudd government was on the right track when it commissioned Ross Garnaut as an independent inquirer into the best climate change policy. But in responding to his report, Rudd and Penny Wong made a classic error of new governments: they waited too long.

Now that we’re in 2011, Julia Gillard has the opportunity to return to Garnaut. The economist has been diligently updating his climate change reports to reflect the latest scientific observations. Sadly, the science is even firmer and more alarming than ever. The earth is heating up faster than we thought, and carbon dioxide is speeding the process up faster than we thought. By contrast, the world’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions have largely stalled. All in all, it’s a more dangerous scenario than even the most worried scientists imagined.

The debate on carbon and climate cannot be won unless the Government first establishes the need to act. It has been astonishingly negligent when it comes to fighting the lies of the sceptics and shock-jocks. Even if sceptics can’t be convinced by reason, swinging voters can.

Suggested slogan: "The climate emergency is real."

2. Explain Carbon Trading
An absorption in day-to-day tactics has helped Labor avoid explaining what it plans to do about climate change. I’m not the first to say so, but focus group polling has been particularly damaging to Labor’s long-term interests here. For instance, is Labor trying to implement an emissions-trading scheme or a carbon tax? In reality, Labor continues to back an ETS. But, confusingly, the first three years of the scheme will come with a fixed price for carbon, meaning it effectively acts as a tax.

Gillard does need to explain why her new policy will operate like a tax for the first three years and then move to an ETS. But the explanation is simple: certainty. A fixed price period means everyone knows exactly what a ton of carbon pollution will cost for that period. This allows the polluting companies to budget for their new carbon costs and to work out how much of these costs they will pass on to their customers. It also gives more time for carbon markets to get up and running smoothly. After three years, the open market in carbon permits can commence, allowing the price to float freely — just like the Australian dollar or other commodities.

In spite of this, Labor has effectively swallowed the Opposition’s narrative that is implementing a new tax. It didn’t have to be this way. Labor’s decision to concede that the ETS was a tax in the first place was an amazing unforced error. Remember the GST? John Howard’s government spent tens of millions telling us it wasn’t just a new tax, it was a new tax system. Labor has been completely clueless when it comes to re-writing the narrative on the ETS in a similar way.

So, how should Labor explain its policy? Start with the basics. Every single discussion should start with the scientific reality, and then proceed to the policy response. And the take-home point of the policy response should be obvious: we need to reduce carbon emissions.

The way an ETS does this is actually quite simple: it caps the amount of pollution allowed across the economy. It does this by issuing permits to pollute. The nation’s 1000 biggest polluters will all have to pay a permit in return for the government allowing them to spew dangerous toxic gases into the atmosphere. If they want, companies can then trade these pollution permits with each other. That’s why the system is called "cap and trade".

Have you ever heard a Labor politician trying to explain this? I just did it in four sentences. By allowing the scheme to be characterised as massive and complex, Labor has lost some crucial narrative territory. Cap-and-trade makes sense: you cap the amount of pollution, then let polluters buy as many permits on the open market as they need — up to the economy-wide cap. Over time, the cap reduces, so less carbon is emitted.

Moreover, cap-and-trade works elsewhere, in the United States with sulphur dioxide. It’s a market solution to pollution, while Tony Abbott’s scheme is in contrast a giant tax and spend program that gives taxpayer money to big polluters.

The strength of the anti-mining tax campaign proved that many Australians think of big mining companies in quite positive terms. That’s why the narrative must be about comparing carbon emissions to dirtier, more easily understandable pollution like toxic waste. Everyone can understand that you can’t dump toxic waste in the river. It should also be illegal to dump toxic gas in the air. Carbon emissions are air pollution. It’s as simple as that.

Suggested slogan: "We simply can’t allow toxic air pollution to continue."

3. Explain Compensation
What does the government do with the money it makes from selling carbon permits? It gives it back to citizens. This is what the stupid jargon "household compensation" actually means: free money to you and I in the form of compensation for higher prices for things like electricity bills. That’s right: this dreaded "great big new tax on everything" actually means we get more money from the government to help pay our power bills.

I don’t understand why the government hasn’t made more of this point. Some of Kevin Rudd’s highest ever opinion poll figures came when the stimulus cheques were being handed out. People may say they don’t agree with the government recklessly giving away money, but try asking them to give that money back. Oh, that’s right, they’re doing it tough right now.

We saw the Prime Minister finally grasp the power of the free money argument in Monday night’s Q and A, when she finally explained the way household compensation would work. It’s a powerful weapon for the Government — perhaps the only powerful weapon it has right now. Every backbencher should be instructed to go out into their electorate and find any school hall or soapbox available to spruik the coming household compensation.

And Abbott’s scare campaign on the effect a carbon tax will have on small and medium-sized businesses is exactly that. Yes, it is true that introducing a price on carbon will lead to price rises across the economy for certain goods and services. But they will be modest. In recent years the cost of petrol has fluctuated wildly. This has caused temporary pain to motorists, but no lasting damage to the economy, which has in fact grown strongly in that time.

The same will be true once a carbon price comes in: some things will cost more, but others will cost less, and the overall effect to businesses and the economy will be hard to notice. In fact, economic growth might even be stimulated, as companies rush to invest in renewable energy industries such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Suggested slogan: "We’re asking the polluters to pay their fair share, and we’re giving that money back to taxpayers."

4. Combat The Lies
If we combine the three points above, we have a simple three-point message about carbon policy. One: the climate emergency is real. Two: this toxic pollution can’t continue. Three: the polluters will pay to compensate householders.

It is only when this simple message is out there and being hammered home in every single Parliamentary doorstop and Sky News panel show that the Government should turn to the more difficult task of rebutting the lies of Tony Abbott and the carbon lobby.

The first priority must be winning the narrative frame. If Labor genuinely turned all its energy to this task — never easy while responding to regular crises in immigration policy — it might make headway rather more quickly than it thinks. The positive early weeks of February showed that the government can quickly unsettle the Opposition once it starts to get on the front foot.

Once this message is being effectively communicated, the Government can rebut the lies. There are so many: not just about the science itself, but about Australia "leading the world" in pricing carbon (err, anyone heard of the European Union?) and all the day-to-day fear campaigns about rising prices for electricity, petrol, housing — and whatever else Tony Abbott can think up this week. Labor needs to methodically and patiently rebut these lies, but it can only do so once it has regained the narrative high ground.

5. Attack Abbott
Finally, Labor has to get serious about destroying Abbott. This government needs to take the gloves off — for real — and assault Abbott on his home ground of populism and the cheap verbal sneer. Abbott’s policies are fundamentally anti-Australian in the most obvious sense of being against Australia’s long term security. It’s time the Government told voters honestly just how bad a Tony Abbott government would be for our grandchildren.

What the Government needs is a specialist anti-Abbott rapid-response team. This team should be modelled on the Hawke-Keating government’s notorious National Media Liaison Service (the so-called "aNiMLS") and have Tony Abbott as its sole responsibility. When Abbott goes on another of his hokey media stunts, like laying bricks or gutting a fish, this unit needs to be ready with a detailed response. A bit of anti-Abbott protest theatre wouldn’t go astray either. This is in fact the perfect role for the Greens and their supporters in the environment movement. If Labor could only get over its antipathy (some would say terror) of the Greens, it might realise that they can help attack Abbott.

Past events have shown that Abbott can quickly self-destruct under pressure. Labor needs to exert that pressure. It’s time Labor got serious about destroying Tony Abbott as opposition leader. After all, he’s deadly serous about destroying Julia Gillard.

Suggested slogan: "Tony Abbott wants to give your money to the biggest polluters."

Once more with feeling!
"The climate emergency is real. This toxic pollution can’t continue. We’re asking the polluters to pay their fair share, and we’re giving that money back to taxpayers. Tony Abbott wants to give your money to the biggest polluters."


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.