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Round one a price on carbon

By Sophie Trevitt - posted Tuesday, 15 March 2011


In a country where environmental considerations have never been at the forefront of mass concern, it is a little ironic that one logical, rational and economically viable response to climate change has been causing such controversy – and provoked thousands to hit the streets last Saturday.

The Gillard government's formal announcement that Australia will have a carbon price as of July 12 2012 was the impetus for last Saturday's anti-carbon tax rallies and counter pro-carbon price rallies. The latter proved vastly more successful.

Coming out of a summer of disasters, predictably, climate change is once again a political hot topic. But recent weeks have seen the sudden uprising of a movement, spearheaded by right wing media and the Opposition, to paint a price on carbon as a vendetta against ordinary households. Prior to Saturday's rallies, this movement seemed to be gaining dangerous traction.

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Tony Abbott has been called the "big polluter's pin up" by Greens leader Bob Brown; and sure enough has gone out of his way to ensure that public opinion turns against a price on carbon. He went so far as to promise to fight against it "every second of every minute of every day of every of very month". One way the Opposition intends to do so, along with others, is by organising public rallies against a carbon tax – like the one in Melbourne last Saturday.

Before we look at the outcome of Saturday, there are a few things that need to be addressed in light of the campaign Abbott is attempting to build. Firstly, his famous "a tax is a tax is a tax" – is it a carbon tax? A price on carbon? A price on pollution? And does it really matter? Secondly, if the Government can demonstrate mechanisms to avoid households suffering as a result a price on carbon what substance is there to the Oppositions vendetta? Thirdly, who is pushing Abbott's campaign? And why are they so committed to avoiding a price on carbon?

First, a tax or not a tax – that is the question. Wayne Swann has done everything within his power to convince us that the price on carbon is not infact a tax. That it is instead some other form of market mechanism that targets only big polluters. That's fine, but it seems that we are all getting distracted from what is really at stake by this scrutiny over semantics. The message promulgated from the Opposition, that of a "great big new tax" targets that age old anger that society has over Governments imposing taxes. It's a cheap trick.

Say the "price on carbon" is infact a "carbon tax"… it still will only target big polluters, families will still be given compensation and it will still only be a temporary measure before an emissions trading scheme is rolled out. Governments impose taxes. It's one of the many things they do as bodies of representatives we elect to govern our country. It's hardly reason to hit the streets. John Howard taxed almost every single thing by 10% and for the most part, we just ate that as something Governments do. By no means should the Australian public just sit back and accept what the Government dishes out, but the word "tax" shouldn't be enough to send thousands running to the streets.

Furthermore, even if the carbon price is a great big new tax – surely there are situations in which great big new taxes are needed for overall social gain. One of those situations could be climate change, and the need to rapidly transition our energy production from finite coal resources to renewables. Economically, it's not too hard to see how taxing big polluters for their carbon emissions will encourage them to emit less.

Second, it is true that the Government has not provided enough information about what complimentary measures it intends to implement, or how it intends to compensate households. It has made broad promises to provide "generous compensation", but has failed to give the Australian public more information. This justifiably could generate apprehension amongst the public, but surely it is reason to demand answers rather than to demand the abolition of the entire scheme? A scheme that has been implemented in 32 countries successfully, and a scheme that will give Australian businesses some sort of economic certainty.

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For Abbott to base his entire fear campaign around a lack of information seems a little extreme, especially when the parties are simply arguing over a mechanism to cut carbon emission. They don't disagree that carbon emissions need to be cut – in fact both parties agree on the end target, and agree that it will cost to cut carbon; they just disagree over how to get there. That is what happens when you have a democratic parliamentary system – they have different policies, and different agendas. Fact is, the Gillard minority government is in power and has made a decision to implement a price on carbon followed by a transition into an emissions trading scheme. If the government was doing nothing about climate change, that would be a reason for outcry. If the government does too little, which is likely, that is also reason for outcry. But if you merely disagree with one method of achieving a common goal? Surely that's not cause for riots.

The third and final thing to consider, is who has Abbott got on board to push his fear mongering campaign? Big business, who will one of the parties most affected by a price on carbon, are on board for a carbon tax – as it gives them room to plan and readjust to a new model with some certainty. Industries are more divided with Rio Tinto being particularly vocal about the potential disaster that will run all industries into ruin, whilst BHP has openly declared its support for a carbon tax to give the industry certainty.

So who is rabble rousing with Abbott? Chris Smith was an obvious pick – notorious radio shock jock using the monopoly of power that radio outlets like 2GB wield to mobilise on mass. Chris's actions of late don't do much to present him as a man of integrity and fairness. His "Smithy's Mystery" challenged listeners to guess the number of victims in the Christmas Island tragedy to be buried in Sydney. It's from this same crowd of people that Abbott did, and continues to, seek his rallying opponents to a price on carbon.

Liberal Party's Senator Cory Bernardi is another player in this scare charade. Determined to be the "most conservative politician in Australia's Conservative party", Bernardi founded the Conservative Action Network and is attempting to mobilise its some 6000 members to attend the anti-carbon tax rally. The Consumers And Taxpayers Association is another conservative group on board. Its spokesperson Jacques Laxale appears to be bitter over the former Green Loans Program and so formed the Consumers and Taxpayers Association with two others. It is this adhoc handful of individuals who are trying to convince the Australian public to hit the streets using cheap fear mongering tactics.

Unfortunately for the fear-mongering few, Saturday's rallies demonstrated that the number of Australians prepared to rally for a price on carbon far outweighs those who are willing to rally against it. However there are more rallies to come, and if Abbotts commitment to fight a price on carbon "every second of every minute of every day of every week of every month" is anything to go by, then there is a long fight ahead.

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About the Author

Sophie is studying Arts/Law at Sydney University and is a scholarship recipient. Sophie is currently NSW Director for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and project manager for their latest campaign Climate Reality Week. Sophie has been a part of the AYCC for almost a year, working on Australia's first ever 3 day conference on climate change Powershift, as well as the first ever youth vote on climate change - YOUth Decide. Sophie has recently returned from working with the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation in Vietnam attempting to stop child trafficking and support street kids. Sophie is heavily involved in a wide range of Indigenous and youth issues.

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