It was as if Australian politics had regressed four years overnight. No sooner had Labor released its new climate change plan than the Coalition was resuscitating Tony Abbott's 'carbon tax' line.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt called it a 'massive electricity tax', Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said it would 'make people poorer' and even Prime Minster Turnbull repeated the mantra.
You could almost hear the collective groan in lounge rooms around the country. Not this again.
But the Coalition's attempt to revive the defining debate of the 2013 federal election won't work. As other commentators have noted, Labor's plan has been carefully crafted to avoid the carbon tax sledge. More importantly, external factors have changed to make a scare campaign less potent. Here are five reasons why.
1. It makes Turnbull look fake.
Turnbull was initially popular because people thought he was moderate. He could appeal to the political middle, not just the conservative base. But, as we've seen, his own party prevents him from adopting the more socially progressive policies the middle wants. The narrative of Malcolm the moderate has become Malcolm the compromised. Less turn, more bull.
This lack of authenticity is Turnbull's Achilles heel. When you came to power on a platform of not being Tony Abbott, sounding like Tony Abbott is a bit of a problem. Every Abbott-era slogan that leaves Turnbull's lips reinforces the view that he's just not being genuine.
And nowhere is that more obvious than over an emissions trading scheme, which Turnbull actually crossed the floor of parliament to support in 2010.
"Remember Barnaby Joyce's $100 lamb roasts? He claimed Gillard's 'big new tax on everything' would jack up the cost of a Sunday roast to triple figures. It didn't."
2. Business isn't so opposed.
Tony Abbott's anti-carbon tax campaign was fuelled by the united opposition of powerful business lobby groups. The Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Group, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Minerals Council issued joint statements condemning Labor's carbon price.
This time round the response has been less united. In fact, the Business Council of Australia is broadly supportive — Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott described Labor's climate plan as a 'platform for bipartisanship'.
What business wants now is certainty to attract investment, not more political tug-of-war. That leaves the Coalition with far less ammunition than before.
3. The sky didn't fall in.
Remember Barnaby Joyce's $100 lamb roasts? He claimed the Gillard government's 'big new tax on everything' would jack up the cost of a Sunday roast to triple figures. It never came to pass, of course, and neither did a whole host of other hysterical predictions.
By the time the Coalition repealed the carbon price, Treasury estimated its average impact on households at $550 in 2014–15. That's substantial, but not exactly economic Armageddon.
In the end, the carbon tax pushed up electricity and gas prices by about ten per cent. The rest of the increase was network costs — essentially the 'poles and wires'
Real-world data like this should reduce speculation about the effect of Labor's plan on cost of living. Concern will be capped at a more realistic level.
On top of that, the scheme actually worked to reduce pollution. Since it's been scrapped, Australia's carbon pollution has been rising rapidly. The Coalition doesn't have a good answer to this rebuttal.
4. Concern about climate change is up.
The Lowy Institute Poll has tracked Australians' opinions on climate change since 2006. The question most relevant to pricing carbon pollution is whether we should take steps on global warming now 'even if this involves significant costs'. Support for this view bottomed out in 2012 and 2013 during Tony Abbott's carbon tax scare campaign. But it's rebounded, and is at its highest since 2009.
"Rather than getting bogged down in whether an emissions trading scheme is or isn't a tax, or just how much extra it will add to the cost of toasting crumpets, Labor needs to focus on why it's introducing this climate change plan."
Two other recent events mean concern about climate change will probably rise this year too. First, the successful Paris Agreement counters the old, spurious argument that Australia's carbon price was 'going it alone'. It also relegates climate denialism to the political fringes.
And second, the massive bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is the most potent visual symbol of climate change Australians have ever seen. The reef is a beloved natural wonder and watching parts of it die will affect people at a deep level.
It shifts the debate from economic self-interest to stewardship and responsibility, which will play well for Labor's argument.
5. The energy transition message has gotten through.
Opinion polls from the last few years have shown a rise in support for clean energy — and greater acceptance that renewables can provide most of our power.
In an Essential Media poll from May 2015, respondents even thought renewable energy was better than fossil fuels for electricity costs, the economy and jobs. The Climate Institute's 2015 survey found the majority of Australians now believe closing coal power stations is inevitable and the government needs a plan to do it.
There are big economic forces at play too. The price of thermal coal, which is burned in power stations, has crashed. Some of the world's largest coal companies have gone bankrupt. And the mining boom has ended. Australians have started to realise that perhaps our future prosperity doesn't lie in just digging up our geological resources. The public is much more ready for energy transition than they were four years ago.
This isn't to say Labor can't stuff this up. Bill Shorten made an early blunder when he said 'There will be no carbon tax under Labor', echoing Julia Gillard's election promise and giving the Liberals great material for a political attack ad. It's a reminder of why Labor lost the last debate — poor communication, and accepting the opposing side's frame.
Rather than getting bogged down in whether an emissions trading scheme is or isn't a tax, or just how much extra it will add to the cost of toasting crumpets, Labor needs to focus on why it's introducing this climate change plan. Cutting pollution, boosting clean energy and saving the Reef — that's the territory that will work for them. The bigger picture.
We're in for a cringe-inducing couple of months, but this new carbon tax scare campaign will soon peter out. Australia has moved on.
Greg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.
Cartoon by Greg Foyster
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02 May 2016
Mr Turnbull once said he wouldn't lead a party of climate change sceptics and deniers. No wonder he now looks FAKE! Please visit the Climate Council website to see photos of our once pristine Great Barrier Reef now suffering from massive coral bleaching. Seeing those magnificent, colourful clown fish against a backdrop of bleached white coral makes me 'misty eyed'. To think that my great grandchildren have about as much chance of seeing a healthy vibrant Great Barrier Reef as I have of voting for a Government of climate change sceptics and deniers, which is NONE! My great grandchildren, and even my grandchildren, will be lucky to inherit anything more than a pile of rubble, where once the largest and most beautiful natural environment on Mother Earth once flourished. SHAME ON YOU MR TURNBULL!
SHAME ON YOUR GOVERNMENT OF CLIMATE CHANGE SCEPTICS AND DENIERS!
YOUR GROSS FAILURE TO ADEQUATELY REDUCE EMISSIONS IS CONTRIBUTING TO THE DEATH OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF - THE RIGHTFUL INHERITANCE OF FUTURE GENERATIONS!
03 May 2016
Look, Greg, I'd like to believe the Coalition's scare campaign on carbon emissions is doom. And I accept there are several reasons why it should. But politics in Australia have reached such a low level where rational debate is concerned that I think one would find it hard to persuade a majority of the electorate that federation is a good system of government for Australia. At the three levels of government (local, state and federal) there is so much blame-shifting that many voters are fed up with their elected representatives. And yet the two main political groupings Conservative (LNP) and Progressive (ALP) need to persuade, by fair means or foul, enough of the disaffected if not to vote for them at least to give them their preference. And so we have Three Word Slogans, obfuscation and pork barrelling. Rational debate is off to the side where the intellectually inclined can examine policies as if they were subjects in a school debate. There may be even more than five reasons why the LNP carbon scare campaign should fail but fear is a primal emotion and can blind the most rational of people.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
03 May 2016
A great comment, Greg. As you pointed out, when the carbon tax was introduced, not only did the sky not fall in, the cost of roasts did not soar to $100.
The comments by the leaders of the LNP show that they are still very reluctant to take climate change seriously. Yes, Malcolm Turnbull and Greg Hunt should know better, but they are concreted into Tony Abbott's policies and they are to represent the interests of super wealthy Australians and the big, polluting corporations. These groups do not want to take any responsibility for the increase in greenhouse gases and the toxic substances they release into the environment.
And this is the huge problem we have to deal with if we are going to effectively deal with greenhouse gases and the high levels of pollution that need to be controlled urgently to make the planet viable and sustainable for future generations of human beings and other species..
04 May 2016
The saddest aspect of the Turnbull era (apart from seeing how willing this intelligent man has been to embrace vacuous and insincere slogans) is his lack of political courage.
Yes, it is plain that about one-third of his party room don't want him (they're the faction who voted for Kevin Andrews as his deputy last year); but, if Turnbull actually chose to lead in his own way, what could those people do? Try to stage a coup? Certainly not then; and, even more emphatically, not now. Turnbull is,in fact, impregnable in his party and the recognition that he cannot or will not accept that reality and chooses, instead,in a pusillanimous way, to compromise himself, has caused people (many people, to judge from recent opinion polling) to question his sincerity and commitment to any principle.
He has, in short, chosen to alienate the electorate in the futile pursuit of "popularity" in his own party. Perhaps, in these times, they are simply two disparate masters which cannot be served simultaneously?.
09 May 2016
"In an Essential Media poll from May 2015, respondents even thought renewable energy was better than fossil fuels for electricity costs, the economy and jobs." Well how wrong they were, as the good citizens of Denmark and South Australia will testify.
09 May 2016
And about that "successful" Paris agreement:
From the Guardian May 6, 2016: "Experts have offered stark warnings that proposed power plants in India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia would blow Paris climate deal if they move ahead. Plans to build more coal-fired power plants in Asia would be a “disaster for the planet” and overwhelm the deal forged at Paris to fight climate change, the president of the World Bank said on Thursday."