Where to now?

Why it’s not easy being Green (and pro the East-West Link and fuel excise levies)

A typical day at the Hoddle Street exit of Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway. AAP/Julian Smith

Another day, another paradox in Australian parliament. Yesterday, the greenest party in the federal parliament (ie the Greens) voted down a bill to increase the tax on petrol.

Why? Because the money it was going to raise was going to be spent on roads, and in the eyes of the Greens and their leader Christine Milne, roads are bad.

If you stop and think about it for a while, revenue from a fuel excise levy is exactly the same as revenue from a carbon tax, of which the Greens are so fond. If Tony Abbott had started to spend the carbon tax proceeds on roads would the Greens suddenly have wanted to repeal it? Nope.

Yesterday’s Greens vote is one that I, as a latte-sipping, tertiary-educated well-to-do Greens voter, is pretty pissed off about. If the Greens are going to vote down taxes on fossil fuels who am I going to vote for now? Alas, Nick Xenophon isn’t a Victorian. And not all roads are bad, but more about that later.

Under Bob Brown the Greens became a national political force seizing the balance of power from the Democrats and gaining senators in most states. Bob Brown built upon the success of the Tasmanian environment movement that saved the Franklin River in the 1980s and turned it into an Australia-wide success story.

The Greens appealed to young people concerned about the environment as well as the inner city well-educated middle class traditional Labor voters, and people searching for a party with a social conscience.

The Labor and Liberal parties like to paint a picture of the Greens as a bunch of people off with the fairies, hugging trees in national parks and wandering around in a drug-induced trance while the “real parties” build a solid economy and make the “hard decisions”. Some of the right wing media even like to point out the Green’s links to former communists, who are in truth about as rare as Tasmanian Tigers.

Many Green voters are like me, quite comfortable with spending on infrastructure and free market economics and financially secure, but we vote for the Greens because we want to be sure at least someone is going to look after the planet.

The real challenge for the Greens is deciding whether its biggest concern is the environment or social inequity – and if making this ambiguous will render them politically obsolete.

The environment vs the poor

Ironically, one of the greatest catch phrases of the environmental movement is “no environment, no jobs”. It’s a powerful statement. Unfortunately many pro-environment policies hit the poor the hardest, so the Greens are faced with eternal dilemmas. Do they want to save the planet or promote social equity?

People’s carbon footprint may increase as they become more wealthy, but not nearly as much as the marginal tax rate does. Someone earning A$200K per year pays more than ten times the amount of income tax that someone on A$40K does. But they use a similar amount of electricity and petrol, so taxing carbon is inherently regressive.

The original carbon tax sought to minimise the pain inflicted by the carbon tax by giving other tax relief to the poorest members of society to neutralise the effect of the tax, but because there are more low income earners than high ones, the incentive to lower carbon consumption was minimised for people doing the bulk of the damage.

For a carbon tax to be effective, it has to alter behaviour via economic pain.

If we were all millionaires it would have no effect whatsoever. Clive Palmer isn’t concerned that his mansion is paying 30c per kilowatt hour (kWh) for its electricity.

Duncan Rawlinson/Flickr, CC BY-ND

When solar first appeared, poorly conceived schemes sought to encourage their uptake. In 2009 I bought my solar panels and still receive a ridiculous 68c per kWh for energy fed back into the grid, even though electricity generators can burn coal for less than 10% of that price. Who did the government think was going to pay me my 68c/kWh? It has to either be the taxpayer or the electricity company. If the latter they will just pass on the cost to the consumer. Either way, it becomes a regressive tax.

The policy might have been good at lowering CO2 emissions but primarily benefited the wealthy. Ironically solar panels have come down in price so much that the 2009 consumers would have been better off foregoing the higher buy-back rate and purchasing them now. Fortunately the planet is better off for the early uptake.

The Greens vs the East-West Link

The Greens are also vehemently opposed to road spending. The most prominent example is the proposed East-West Link in Melbourne. For those unfamiliar with the city Melbourne’s east has two of Australia’s best freeways/tollways in the country. The Eastern Freeway runs from Hoddle St on the city’s eastern fringe all the way to Springvale Rd then onto Frankston via the new and quite excellent Eastlink toll road.

On the other side of the city the Tullamarine Freeway takes commuters to the airport and towards Bendigo. In between these roads is the city of Melbourne and 13 major intersections that form a gridlock at peak hour and well beyond. The East-West link is a plan to create a toll road that will remove this bottleneck by building a tunnel and widening the existing single-lane(!) connecting road.

The road is an incredibly logical connection between freeways that will stop vehicles wasting fuel by constantly accelerating and decelerating and sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. In many ways it is environmentally friendly and should help improve air quality in the region as cars go from emitting their extreme bumper-bumper fuel rates (>20l/100km) to their highway fuel cycles that are a small fraction of that.

If the new tollway ended abruptly (as the Eastern Freeway now does) it might have just moved the traffic jam further into the city, but the East-West link is different. It will allow traffic to avoid stopping in the city altogether. If you are going to have freeways at all, it is the kind of project you want to invest in.

Local residents protesting against to stop Melbourne’s East-West Link in 2013. AAP/Daniel Fogarty

The Greens think that the money for the East-West link should be spent on better public transport instead. I don’t disagree that an affordable and efficient public transport system is an essential part of a modern city, but this doesn’t mean we should stop work on roads that remove bottlenecks that help us decrease pollution and waste people’s time.

In the Green’s Utopian future, Australia will be a solar energy powerhouse.

If advances in autonomous vehicles reach their full potential, the future of efficient public transport may involve thousands of solar-recharged electric “taxis” piloting themselves along an efficient road network with highly-optimised route selection that responds to every individual’s needs, not 20th century solutions that use buses and trains on radial routes to try and herd the population into large groupings.

Our current public transport solutions often constrain us to working in the city or using our own vehicles to get to work. Hopefully the future of public transport will be a bit smarter.

At the moment the Greens want to protect the environment and stand up for the socially disadvantaged but will ultimately have to clearly articulate to voters what will take priority and act consistently in parliament. Many of their voters drive, can afford to pay carbon taxes and fuel excise levies, and are happy to do so.

The idea that Australia’s road network shouldn’t be improved to deliver more fuel- and time-efficient transport, greater safety and convenience belongs with the fairies in the forest.

I guess that it’s not easy being Green.