Carbon tax talk about the cash, not the climate

Carbon tax talk about the cash, not the climate

Updated July 02, 2012 08:59:48

So – it’s happened. Australia has put a price on carbon emissions, and depending on who you are, you’ll be marking this first business day of costlier CO2 by doing anything from panic-stockpiling distilled water and beef jerky to ignoring the event completely.

Tony Abbott will be “crossing the length and breadth of Australia” – whether he will be doing this in the orthodox Abbott style, on a bike, or projecting a suitably carbon-defiant vibe by engaging a fleet of Hummers, none can yet say – to empathise loudly with widget-makers and fizzy-drink vendors, and speak sombrely of their imminent pauperisation.

Julia Gillard will be reminding constituents, especially the poorer ones, of what this is all about – extra cash, right now, in their bank accounts.

They couldn’t be further apart, as Mr Abbott sought to reassure Sunday newspaper readers yesterday with his cut-out-and-keep, signed voucher entitling the bearer – assuming a happy electoral event for the Opposition Leader sometime in the next year or so – to a full abolition of the carbon tax. Thus opens a new era of political push and shove.

But before we plough into it, it’s worth one last look at what’s gone before for these parties. Only by carbon-dating their attitudes can the true madness of this debate be appreciated.

Let’s start the tale in 1997, when the new Howard government’s environment minister Robert Hill went to the Kyoto summit, and was borne home triumphantly on the shoulders of colleagues when he negotiated for Australia a deal that allowed us actually to raise our emissions over time – one of just three countries so favoured under the agreement.

Said John Howard, in the Financial Review on December 12 that year, while delightedly ruffling the hair of the then-boyish Hill (okay, I made that up):

“It’s an outcome that will protect tens of thousands of Australian jobs, and it’s also an outcome that will put the world on a firmer path towards controlling greenhouse gas emissions.”

Elsewhere, he described the outcome as “an absolutely stunning diplomatic success”.

Labor, then led by Kim Beazley, griped that Australia had got off a bit too lightly under the Kyoto deal.

Four years later, Mr Howard had soured considerably on Kyoto, and he and his cabinet determined not to ratify the thing. His determination to repudiate the document in this way went undimmed to the end of his prime ministership, although he did undertake to stick to the Kyoto targets, and in 2007 promised to introduce an emissions trading scheme in order to price carbon appropriately.

This is what Kevin Rudd promised at the 2007 election too, although Mr Rudd – in a demonstration that the Labor Party had long outgrown its initial snippiness about the protocol itself – promised that he would enthusiastically sign and ratify it if elected, possibly attended by a youth orchestra and troupes of dancing penguins, and that this would definitively prove his modernity and in-touch-ness, as opposed to grouchy old John Howard.

And indeed, upon his election, Mr Rudd did sign the Kyoto Protocol. He also made immediate moves to develop the carbon emissions trading scheme he had promised, and spoke at length about the environmental urgency of such an enterprise.

There was no doubt that Mr Rudd’s motivation was environmental; long lectures were delivered about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef and other key Australian treasures; the spread of disease through northern Australia and the likely deaths of the very young and the very old thanks to the ravages of extreme temperatures, wildfire, flood and super-hurricanes were also mentioned in dispatches.

The Coalition, meanwhile, flopped about miserably in a puddle of indecision; should it support an emissions trading scheme, as it had promised to do at the 2007 election? Three different answers to this question were recommended by the three different leaders with whom the Liberal Party experimented over the course of just two years. Brendan “Maybe” Nelson was supplanted by Malcolm “Yes” Turnbull, who in turn was ousted by Tony “No” Abbott, who leads the party still and remains very firmly of the negative view.

His election – by one vote – to the Liberal leadership in November 2009 derailed the agreement his predecessor Mr Turnbull had forged with the Rudd government to support its emissions trading scheme.

Within months, Mr Rudd too had deferred the scheme, and a few months after that, his own party dismantled his prime ministership.

And thus, not even three years after the 2007 election – at which both parties had promised emissions trading schemes – we encountered the 2010 election, in which neither did.

The new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, promised a sensitive ear, no carbon tax, and a special convention of ordinary Australians to get together and discuss the whole thing like grownups. The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, offered Herculean tree-plantings and payments to select industries to clean themselves up.

And there we were, until some months after the election, at which time Ms Gillard, having been reconfirmed as prime minister by the breadth of a hummingbird’s proboscis, announced she would be introducing a temporary carbon tax followed by a full-fledged emissions trading scheme.

I will not here insult the reader’s intelligence by pointing out the political difficulties engendered by Ms Gillard’s change of heart. Obviously, they were profound, and continue to be so.

What is interesting is that the carbon pricing scheme that started yesterday – the haggard survivor of Australian politics’ dizzying, hallucinatory “yes-no-yes-no” routine on this issue for the best part of the last 15 years – no longer seems to have very much to do with the environment.

The ads don’t mention it, and neither – as a general rule – does the Prime Minister, who tends to pitch her “Clean Energy Future” package more as a bold, principled, possibly-towering economic reform, leavened with extra money for the cash-strapped.

Much mention was made of the cash payments in Question Time last week, as the Prime Minister and her colleagues staggered gratefully toward yesterday’s implementation date.

But not so much talk, any more, of the polar bears or the biodiversity of the reef, or the owners of beachside property whose sandy promontories face the relentless jaws of rising sea levels.

That sort of talk is so two governments ago. And talk changes pretty fast around here.

Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s chief online political writer. View her full profile here.

Topics:emissions-trading, environment, climate-change, pollution, air-pollution, government-and-politics, federal-government, tax

First posted July 02, 2012 08:14:17

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