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Abbott draws his 'Battlelines'

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 2 December 2009


According to some people, Tony Abbott’s opposition to an emissions trading scheme (ETS) will destine the Coalition to opposition for several elections.

Maybe such a prediction will prove true, although just one year in politics is a long time (just ask Mark Latham). With many polls showing that more Australians than not support policies to lower greenhouse gas emissions, it remains to be seen whether Abbott can use his considerable intellect, passion and political skills to convince Australia to reject the ETS.

Certainly, the ETS has already been the subject of considerable debate, but making it the key issue for the next federal election will educate many more Australians about its strengths and weaknesses. Such a prospect would mirror the extensive public debate that occurred before the introduction of the GST at the 1998 federal election.

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As Abbott has indicated, the Coalition will offer a progressive stance towards the environment, but one without an ETS. Such a position has already been indicated by Abbott in his 2009 book Battlelines in which he quotes the Swedish climate dissident, Bjorn Lomborg:

Natural science has undeniably shown us that global warming is man-made and real. But just as undeniable is the economic science, which makes it clear that a narrow focus on reducing carbon emissions could leave future generations lumbered with major costs, without major cuts in temperatures.

Even if Abbott gets a chance to make the ETS the key issue at the next federal election, given that it has been reported that as many as eight Liberal MPs are threatening to cross the floor and vote with Labor to pass the legislation (Steve Lewis, Ben Packham, Herald Sun, December 1, 2009), the Coalition starts its campaign with a considerable disadvantage for reasons beyond its poor polling in the past two years. Unless the Coalition can convincingly differentiate itself from Labor with a progressive environmental policy, then it will struggle to resist Labor’s ongoing attacks on Abbott regarding his views on abortion, industrial relations and other matters. This is despite Abbott recently indicating that would never let his religion interfere with policy decisions, and expressing support for an even more generous paid maternity leave system than proposed by the government (Glenn Milne, “I am not God’s gift: Tony Abbott”, Sunday Herald Sun, November 29, 2009).

Central to the debate will be the environmental options that Abbott and the Coalition put forward. He suggests nuclear power as an alternative.

If nuclear energy is again quashed by a lack of public support - although opposition to its introduction has waned in recent times - then the Coalition under Abbott’s leadership will struggle with the environmental debate. Without the nuclear energy option, which may or may not also become an important federal election issue, the Coalition will have few options.

The Coalition could highlight the expected rise in prices resulting from an ETS in a bid to scare the public about the unknown, much in the same way that Keating and Labor did when ridiculing the Coalition’s bid to introduce a GST if it won the 1993 federal election.

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Just recently, the Independent Price and Regulatory Tribunal suggested that prices in New South Wales may rise by up to 60 per cent with as much as half of this rise due to carbon prices, thus adding $400 to the average household’s annual power bill in that state in the next three years. This is much higher than the government’s assumption that electricity prices for households will rise by about 12 per cent with an ETS (Brian Robins, “Power bills may rise 60 per cent after ETS starts”, Sydney Morning Herald, December 1, 2009). It also complicates the government’s promise to fully compensate low-income households and provide 50 per cent compensation for middle-income households.

This adds to other concerns that shoppers will face higher grocery prices from an ETS, another issue that provides considerable political opportunity for the Liberals, given that food and groceries consume about 20 per cent of the average weekly household budget. While the Food and Grocery Council predicted an increase in grocery prices of about 5 per cent, the Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman noted how the ETS would have impact costs on every stage of the production and distribution process (Blair Speedy and Glenn Milne, “Food prices to surge under emissions trading scheme”, The Australian, August 17, 2009).

As the October 2009 Lowy Institute poll data reveals, public support for any policy proposal shifts, as indicated by the proportion of respondents who regard global warming as a pressing problem that should be addressed (even at significant cost), declined from 68 to 48 per cent since 2006.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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