Last night’s sleep was quite peaceful. This morning, however, I woke up to discover the end of the world was at hand.
The cause of this imminent apocalypse? Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement yesterday that the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee had reached an agreement regarding a price on carbon.
The scheme would start in 2012, with a fixed price for the first three to five years. After that, the plan is to move to a flexible cap-and-trade system – although there is provision in the scheme for delaying that, should circumstances warrant it. Those circumstances could include Australia’s signing up to a new Kyoto-style treaty, price fluctuations due to new countries implementing similar schemes, and the extent to which industry moves to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Agricultural emissions would be exempt. (As one amused newsreader put it, ‘Farting cows are safe’.)
Built into the program is compensation for ‘those households and communities most needing help’. Further provision is made for encouraging investment in clean technologies and improving natural carbon capture (so-called ‘carbon sinks’ of plantations and waterways).
As yet, there are no figures. But the plan is out there – and the first years of its operation would be ‘very like a tax,’ according to Gillard.
Those words were blood in the water for the Coalition, and they moved in for the kill. ‘A broken promise!’ cried Tony Abbott. ‘She said there would not be a carbon tax while she was in government! An utter betrayal of the Australian people! A blatant denial of democracy! A conspiracy of the Parliament against the people! How can the Australian people trust this Prime Minister on anything anymore?’ His colleagues’ voices rose to join the increasingly hysterical attack, accompanied by the media.
Gillard’s defence against this accusation is weak. This morning she fell back on the excuse that she’d repeatedly said during the election campaign that Labor believes climate change is real and human-induced, and that the most efficient way of dealing with it is through a market-based mechanism. That’s true.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, what’s also true is that she did rule out a carbon tax. Her statement during the campaign was unequivocal; she left herself no wiggle room, and now her words are coming back to haunt her.
Is it a broken promise? Technically, yes – and it always makes people uneasy to think that their elected representatives might promise anything to get into government, then do what they like once installed. Certainly, this theme was used to great effect by Labor during the 2010 election campaign. They raised the spectre of the imminent return of WorkChoices to spook the electorate into shying away from the Coalition. In a way, then, this is just a case of Gillard’s chickens coming home to roost.
But it’s hardly the first time a Prime Minister has broken a campaign promise, nor is it confined to Labor. Possibly the most infamous broken promise in recent times is John Howard’s much-quoted ‘never ever’ statement – as in, ‘There’s no way a GST will ever be part of our policy … Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by voters at the last election‘.
That promise was broken 18 months after Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. When confronted, he at first tried to reframe the situation – he didn’t mean ‘never’, he only mean ‘never’ in his government’s first term. As time passed, though, Howard abandoned the whole idea of providing an excuse. Yes, he broke a promise. Yes, it was a shame – but it was the right thing to do. He fronted up to the accusations of betrayal and wore them like a badge of pride.
And he got away with it.
That’s what Gillard needs to do here. She’s made the whole question of action on climate change a matter of high principle, so important that it requires urgent action. Given that, any hint that she’s uneasy with breaking that promise just provides another avenue of attack.
And the attacks are getting more strident, and more personal. A few moments ago, in a media conference, Abbott advised Gillard to ‘make an honest woman of herself’. The clear implication is that Gillard is no more than a slut willing to whore herself out to get what she wants – and that it’s Bob Brown who’s taking advantage of that. It’s not an insult you’d ever hear directed at a male politician – and it’s outrageous that Abbott should take a disagreement about policy and turn it into an opportunity for sexual smear.
Of course, Gillard can’t come right out and state the obvious: that the increased Greens vote in the last election (delivering the balance of power and its first Lower House member) was a signal that a significant portion of Australia supports action on climate change. So she needs to stand up and say words to the effect of, ‘Yes, I promised that. Yes, I shouldn’t have let an interviewer push me into that position. This is what I believe is right, what will benefit Australia now and in the future. I am committed to building a cleaner, more energy-efficient country for all of us, and contributing to a global effort.’
As long as the Coalition are able to keep hammering her on this broken promise, Gillard’s attention is deflected from the real battle – countering the scare campaign they’ve already commenced.
And herein lies the ‘end of the world’ hysteria. This is a sample of some of the Coalition’s allegations.
Households will be slugged an extra $300 per year in electricity charges! Petrol will cost 6.5c more per litre! Food will go up! Soon no one will be able to afford to turn on the lights! Small business will be forced into bankruptcy! Virtually every price will go up! Industry will be unable to compete internationally! It’s an assault on Australia’s standard of living!
You could be forgiven for wondering when Chicken Little joined the Coalition.
The numbers, of course, are plucked out of thin air. Abbott’s based them on a figure bandied around by the Australian Industry Group after a few economists got together around a dart board and tried to guess what kind of price per tonne of carbon might be set. No one in the Coalition have any idea what price is being considered.
Why not? Because none of them are part of the MPCCC.
They chose not to be. In fact, Abbott made it a point of principle. The whole notion of a carbon price (or ‘carbon tax’, as he insists on calling it regardless of whether he’s talking about a tax, a cap-and-trade system or a hybrid model) is something that Abbott firmly excluded from Coalition policy. ‘There will be no carbon price on consumers under a Coalition government,’ he said last year. Curious, then, that he won’t commit to repealing anything Gillard wants to put into place.
Never ever, Mr Abbott?
But this is the point. Abbott doesn’t know anything about proposed prices. He doesn’t want to know. He’s set a policy position, and facts would only get in the way. Sabra Lane on ABC Radio National’s AM program this morning asked him to explain where he got his numbers. Abbott’s response? ‘Well, surely, it’s not going to be zero’.
It’s not about facts, for Abbott. It’s about his avowed intent to bring down the government. If he has to lie, or fudge the figures, or don a rubber mask and jump out from behind a melting iceberg shouting, ‘Booooo!’ to do it, he will.
And he seems to think he will ride into government on the back of a so-called ‘people’s revolt’.
That one took even the media – well-versed in weathering the hyperbole of politicians – back a few steps. One questioner commented, ‘That’s a fairly dramatic term’.
That’s an understatement. Given the turmoil we’ve seen in North Africa recently – most particularly, the horrific massacres of protesters in Libya – it’s inevitable that someone hearing the phrase ‘people’s revolt’ would think of people in the streets calling for a revolution against an oppressive government that is destroying the country.
This isn’t a ‘shit happens’ moment. This phrase – repeated several times since – is deliberately designed to cause unease. Abbott knows he can’t panic the Australian people into the kind of action we saw in Egypt; but he also knows that even suggesting a linkage is likely to have an unsettling effect. Add that to the fudged figures, the lies and the sexual smear on Gillard, and you have the beginnings of a concerted campaign.
What’s perhaps most repugnant is Abbott’s suggestion that this will be some kind of ‘grass roots’ movement, the celebrated ‘Aussie battlers’ and ‘working families’ rising up spontaneously to defend their way of life. That it won’t in any way be driven by big business, mining companies or the Opposition.
Sound familiar? It should. Over in the United States, they call it the Tea Party – the so-called ‘people’s movement’ that is funded, sponsored, backed and peopled by the Republicans.
The hardline stance on asylum seekers with its dogwhistles and outright bigotry, the determination to seize government at any cost, and the willingness to use tactics that from personal smear to blatant lying to prevent anything that looks like a vaguely ‘Leftist’ policy being implemented – more and more, it seems Abbott is not much lurching to the Right as running full-tilt into its embrace.
Now he has Labor’s carbon price mechanism to attack. Get ready for an ugly few months – because the balance of power in the Senate will change in July, and Abbott knows this is the best chance he’ll get to topple the government.