The Gillard Government’s announcement of a tax on carbon emissions has unleashed a wave of American-style activism — but it is not the first outbreak of this trend in Australia.
Tony Abbott and the Opposition have launched a full-frontal assault on the tax. Their campaign turns on the impact on "the cost of living" — an issue completely blown out of proportion in recent years due to posturing by both parties claiming to show how much they feel your pain. In Abbott’s words, the tax would be so onerous and such a massive impost on people’s lives that its introduction would represent a "conspiracy of the Parliament against the people". Abbott has also predicted that a "people’s revolt" will emerge against the tax and indeed against the Government, which he has also slammed as illegitimate and lacking a mandate.
Abbott is using the time-honoured tradition of demanding an election to ascertain public approval for a policy. Without the numbers in Parliament (short of the unlikely event of the Independents switching sides), calling for an election is all that this Opposition can do to gain power. Abbott knows that Australia is a representative democracy — he was, after all, leader of the House of Representatives — and his call is nothing more than another attempt to whip up opposition to the Government’s plans.
Abbott’s tactic of calling for an early election on the issue has been adopted by Chris Johnson, president of the newly formed Consumers and Taxpayers Association. Johnson told the ABC’s Lateline that the carbon tax represented "the erosion of our democratic rights". This argument is absurd. Australia is not a direct democracy unlike, say, Switzerland, where the male population did not approve of women being given the right to vote until 1971. The government of the day is not required to take a vote on every decision that it makes, regardless of opinion polling or the desires of an angry and vocal minority. For example, the float of the Australian dollar was arguably the biggest economic reform undertaken in this country. No election was held on the issue, yet no one is in hysterics about this.
The results of the type of system that Johnson and Abbott are apparently demanding can be seen in the near-bankrupt state of California, where a messy system of citizen initiated referenda, various requirements for supermajorities in the legislature and even recall elections creates legislative gridlock. The argument that the carbon tax is somehow anti-democratic is nothing more than a political slogan being used by the Opposition to try and get into office.
But it’s getting a good run on talkback radio.
Chris Smith, who broadcasts on Sydney’s 2GB and Melbourne’s MTR, has been pushing hard on the issue and will be speaking at an anti-carbon tax rally in Canberra this Wednesday. Smith, who ran a competition for listeners to guess how many asylum seeker funerals were being held earlier this year, is not alone on this issue.
By now we have all heard about the Prime Minister’s testy interviews with Alan Jones (who chided her for being late and called her by her first name) and Neil Mitchell. Callers to such programs frequently vent their frustration about being denied a vote on the issue and about how much tax they pay, with the Jones’ childish nickname for the PM, "Ju-liar", popping up regularly. The influence of talkback should not be overstated. The shock jocks are largely preaching to the converted, even though they often claim to find people who always voted Labor until this latest talk of a carbon tax.
The groups involved in this burgeoning movement are not single-issue groups who merely oppose the carbon tax. The groups opposing the tax (and indeed any price on carbon) are an alliance of climate sceptics, Liberal Party affiliates, the infamous far-right League of Rights, the absurdly titled Australian Tea Party and others whose websites promote campaigns as diverse as opposition to the Fair Work Act, to the mining tax, to the United Nations. Like One Nation (who also support the campaign) in the 1990s, the anti-carbon tax campaign has united a number of far-right groups together under the one banner.
The links to the Liberal Party are particularly interesting. There are two obvious examples. The website CANdo (the Conservative Action Network) was started with funding from Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi as a "Facebook for conservatives". Senator Bernardi, an arch-conservative recently in the headlines for anti-Islamic statements, has called it "political activism for the 21st century". The other is Menzies House, who have started a separate website in opposition to the tax. Menzies House was launched with support from Senator Bernardi.
Menzies House also made the news in February after an attack on Shadow Treasurer and leading Liberal moderate Joe Hockey was published on the website, which highlighted internal divisions within the Liberal Party. While the party took an emissions trading scheme to the 2007 election, since the split at the end of 2009 the hardliners have been in the ascendancy and the moderates have fallen into line as Abbott prosecutes his anti-tax campaign. We now have not only Turnbull, well known for his support of a price on carbon, but also environment spokesman Greg Hunt who wrote a dissertation on the merits of carbon pricing, opposing the Government’s plan.
Obvious comparisons have been drawn between the Tea Party in the US and the anti-carbon tax movement here. There are a number of similarities between the two movements, notably the attempted mass mobilisation of people. Such a movement is unlikely to be as successful in Australia however, as the American political system, and notably its optional voting system, makes it easier for such movements to translate their groundswell of support into electoral gains.
Nevertheless, Tony Abbott looks like he is taking his cues from the United States, specifically the Republican Party. His "Action Contract" at the last election had a distinctly American feel to it. Early in the 2010 election campaign, Paul Howes dubbed this strategy a "Newt Gingrich Contract With America-style campaign," making reference to the Republican Party’s 1994 midterm election campaign, recycled last year for their congressional campaign.
The similarities between these campaigns and Abbott’s are striking: a focus on public debt, so-called illegal immigrants, and tax — combined with the general claim that the government is incompetent and out of touch with the people. Abbott’s recent rhetoric about a "people’s revolt" could have come directly from the American conservative playbook. Abbott’s early statements encouraging such a "revolt" indicate that he will embrace the anti-carbon tax movement comprehensively. This is, after all, the issue that delivered him the leadership and brought down the last prime minister.
There is nothing inherently wrong with opposition to a carbon tax, or to any other government policy. That’s what democracy is all about. However, what we have seen so far is not reasoned debate about whether this is the best way to tackle climate change. The only alternative that is being proposed isn’t even a serious one — the Liberal Party’s thoroughly discredited "Direct Action Plan".
The 2010 election, where both sides were roundly criticised for a lack of vision and imagination, may have just been the beginning. Indeed, it looks like we’re entering Act Two of an unfolding story in which Australia heads down the American path of hyper-partisanship, hysterical media coverage and over-the-top political rhetoric, which will only result in more legislative gridlock and inaction.
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