Changing climates

Changing climates

How a budget backlash could have been avoided by retaining carbon pricing

AAP/Alan Porritt

With Melbourne and Sydney now breaking records for the most number of days above 20°C and 22°C respectively in May, and the news that the West Antarctic ice shelf is at a tipping point melt rate double the rate of only four years ago, the government’s decision last week to lay down nearly all the class-interested cards that explain its war on climate action has seemingly backfired.

Commentators on the left and right agree that the budget was a crazy-brave act, and the backlash really has begun to heat up on almost every conceivable front. But will it make any difference to the next election in 30 months?

The prime minister, treasurer, and a bevvy of key ministers should be given full credit for facing up to the mainstream media as they enter a prolonged period of damage control. Their appearances on the ABC, commercial radio and in press interviews demonstrates a certain toughness, and a willingness to be scrutinised that is a hallmark of Australian democracy.

What these interviews reveal is that Abbott government ministers really do believe in their ultra-radical agenda. They really are obsessed with a budget surplus, even if this is damaging consumer confidence, alienating swinging voters, and ignoring the obvious means of achieving it: an emissions trading scheme and a mining tax.

But at least some of their courage – to attack the most vulnerable now, and those who will be made vulnerable by dangerous climate change in the future – is drawn from the support they are receiving from News Corp media outlets.

In a re-run of the assistance that News Corp gave the Abbott campaign during last year’s election, and as a week-long analysis of the major capital city dailies reveals, News Corp has been acting like the budget pressure sales team leader for the government.

A huge gap has opened up between the News Corp treatment of the budget and “the rest”, including commercial television, online news outlets, the ABC and Fairfax. These latter outlets are actually listening to the concerns of those impacted by the budget and feeding it back to the news cycle. Australians are being asked to “share the economic pain”, but News Corp has largely neglected to cover any of the reaction to the budget to ease the political pain for Tony Abbott. The only exception is a willingness to cover the state premiers’ reaction to the A$80 billion cut to health and education funding.

The day after the budget, both Melbourne’s Herald Sun and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran front pages that sought to explain the new taxes as necessary fixes. “Tough love to slay budget monster” was the Herald Sun’s headline, while the Daily Telegraph splashed with “Dr Joe’s debt cure”. The latter ran next to a piece highlighting the medical research fund sweetener, downplaying the pain that even the government is fessing up to.

Daily Telegraph front page, May 19.

While the budget was still creating angst in other mainstream media, on Monday, the Daily Telegraph decided to run an image of the weekend Sydney protest against the budget with the banner caption “The Ferals are revolting”, which was nevertheless trumped by a lead story dressed up as an “expose” declaring “secret rich housing commission tenants” who are hailed in the headline as “Living on Easy Street”.

Daily Telegraph front page, May 21.

Finally, yesterday, the Daily Telegraph demonised opposition leader Bill Shorten as a blocker of $40 billion in savings with the headline “He’s Shorten on answers” as more protests took over central Sydney and Melbourne over university fee changes.

The budget coverage of the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph, which have the largest print readerships in Australia, were consistent with the views of Col Allan, a trusted US-based News Corp executive who was responsible for co-ordinating News Corp’s election coverage last year. The editorial in Allan’s paper, the New York Post, on Australia’s federal budget last week is quite revealing. The editorial reads:

We’re glad to see a government willing to speak so honestly to its citizens about what it can and cannot afford.

Here, Allan and the New York Post somehow feel strangely entitled to join the government in speaking for others when the whole point of a government is to listen and represent the polity. Honouring election promises is one form of listening, which is of course where most of the anger is coming from.

But the evidence is now in that the government seems to be in an echo chamber comprising its own party status group, who at times are behaving like a privileged private school club, together with mining interests (who comprise the major political donors to the Coalition), and News Corp. Together, they make up a kind of media-political-industrial complex – a power elite, which is confused about who “the public” are.

To illustrate this last point, when Abbott caved in to pressure from within his partyroom to lower the paid parental leave threshold (a policy stunt poorly designed to win women’s votes in the maelstrom of Labor’s attack on Abbott’s perceived misogyny), the face-saving way this was managed was for federal Nationals MP Darren Chester to declare the importance of “listening to public opinion”.

On this occasion, “listening” was code for appeasing one’s own party.

If listening to public opinion really was important, then last week’s budget would not have been delivered in the form that it was. But more importantly, the government would not be zealously tearing down every possible agency and policy to tackle climate change.

All of the spot polls on climate change are consistent, even those of conservative thinktanks like the Institute of Public Affairs and the Lowy Institute. Australians accept the reality of climate change and want something done about it.

The most recent ReachTel poll on May 12 found that a majority of Australians would prefer to keep a carbon price rather than a debt levy.

There is no doubt the budget is going to hurt many Australians. Even government ministers admit this. But this short-term pain, and the media attention it is getting, is actually microscopic compared to the long-term pain that the dismantling of climate change action is going to cause.

The greatest irony of this upside-down budget is the observation by economist Ross Garnaut that if carbon pricing was retained – which means taxing the wealthiest occupants of the echo-chamber – it would annul any success the Greens and Labor might have in opposing planned budget savings.

We could add to this the revelation that if the repeal of the mining tax is also blocked, the budget may well find its way back to surplus, sooner than it would take to establish a flourishing cigar import business.