Gillard’s honeymoon with the Australian people seems to be swiftly souring. Her political pyrotechnics in handling the mining tax and the problem of asylum seekers have failed to dazzle the electorate. Now more than ever, Gillard cannot afford to be seen as sitting on her hands on the critical issue of climate change. Least of all with young Australians.
At the 2007 federal election, Rudd saw a vocal swell of support and enthusiasm among a group traditionally stereotyped as politically apathetic - young people. He won them over with a promise to breathe change into the stale air of Canberra, to act on the issues that mattered most to them. Climate change was one of those issues.
And when Rudd announced that the government had put the ETS into the too-hard basket until 2013, he felt the harshest backlash from young voters. No amount of tweeting, Facebooking or folksy colloquialisms could convince young Australians that Rudd still understood them. A Newspoll charting the knock-on effect of the decision showed that those aged 18-34 were the only group who thought that “someone else” would better handle climate change than either of the major parties.
Climate change is a hot-button issue for young people, who will make up one-fifth of voters at this year’s federal election. And it’s not hard to see why. While climate change concerns all Australians, young people have a particular stake in how it is dealt with. We want to be able to enjoy the same level of peace and prosperity that our parents have grown accustomed to, and the natural wonders of the Australia we know and love. We want to be able to live with the same global climate in which our parents, their parents and generations before them have been able to flourish, and be healthy and safe.
This is why the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s membership grew by a dramatic 1,000 per cent last year, from 5,000 to 50, 000, making us the largest youth-run organisation in Australia. This is also why Gillard’s recent statement on ABC’s Lateline program that she would shelve the ETS until 2012 threatens to alienate the crucial Gen Y vote.
The statement is a step in the wrong direction politically. But more importantly, it doesn’t meet the essential elements of good governance: fairness, good policy and good economics.
Australia is a country built on the idea of a fair go. In the context of climate change, what is fair is businesses taking responsibility for the pollution they create and the damage this pollution causes. What is unfair is to leave tax payers to foot the full bill for a more inefficient and expensive direct action alternative.
Good policy is built on the test of effectiveness. Effective climate policy must achieve reduced pollution levels and a switch to a low pollution economy. Professor Ross Garnaut concluded that an ETS, if designed and implemented well, is the best way of making this switch for Australia. What is good policy, therefore, is putting a price tag on pollution so that polluters pay instead of placing the burden on the community.
Good economics is built on buoying economic prosperity. Transforming Australia to a low pollution economy is a clearly no mean feat - it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment. A recent report from the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Commercial Trades Union concludes that Australia can create more than 770,000 extra jobs by 2030, including 100, 000 new farming and mining jobs, if it takes strong action now to reduce pollution. What is good economics, then, is putting a price tag on pollution now, thereby making clean energy cheaper.
Gillard’s insistence on the absence of community consensus on the need for putting a price on carbon is misguided and a flimsy excuse for inaction. Rudd had to learn this the hard way. The announcement of the delay for an ETS on April 27, 2010, saw the Labor Party’s popularity plummet from 43 per cent to 35 per cent between April 18 and May 2.
Gillard has a chance to win the hearts and minds of young voters with strong action on climate change. She has a chance to prove her leadership and vision to the Australian people, to distinguish the Government from the Opposition. And right now, she can’t afford to not take it.
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