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Why Labor should fight the 2013 election on climate change

If climate change features prominently in the federal election campaign, it will almost certainly be driven by the Coalition. Under Tony Abbott, the Coalition has long smelled blood in the water on climate…

Both sides of politics need to take the carbon tax fight to the election. Flickr/Leonard John Matthews

If climate change features prominently in the federal election campaign, it will almost certainly be driven by the Coalition. Under Tony Abbott, the Coalition has long smelled blood in the water on climate change and in particular the carbon tax.

Abbott has stated repeatedly that the repeal of the carbon tax will be his first order of government business if elected, while Coalition climate spokesperson Greg Hunt has claimed that the 2013 election will be a referendum on the tax.

But this is a risky strategy, and this is precisely why the ALP can and should consider taking on the Coalition on this issue, and taking up the challenge of making the election a referendum on the carbon tax.

First, public attitudes to the carbon tax are softening. Polling has indicated a steady decline in opposition to the carbon tax since it was first mooted. By the end of 2012 opposition to the carbon tax was still at around 56% but was continuing to decline. Complaints to the ACCC about the carbon tax dropped off substantially after three months in operation. Six months in the majority of Australians polled believed that the carbon tax had made no economic difference to their lives.

There is every reason to believe these trends will continue as the tax becomes more institutionalised. Some began to draw parallels to the GST: an unpopular tax but one that was gradually absorbed into the economy and everyday practises, and which stopped short of the economic Armageddon predicted by opponents.

Second, it seems to be working.

Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation hit a 10 year low in early 2013, driven by increases in cost for wholesale electricity and an increase in the share of electricity provided through renewable sources. Both of these dynamics are attributable to the carbon tax.

If part of the reason for opposing or repealing the tax was that it didn’t work this is clearly undermined by the figures to hand so far. The carbon tax is also clearly helping Australia track towards its 20% renewable energy target, at present a bipartisan commitment. One recent industry analysis suggested that without the carbon tax and associated investment incentives in renewables, the Coalition couldn’t hope to achieve this target.

Third, industry wants it. Tony Abbott has long claimed that Australia’s economic competitiveness is being fatally undermined by the carbon tax. The trouble is, the leadership of many of Australia’s largest corporations support it.

In a paper forthcoming in Australian Journal of Politics and History, John Mikler and Neil Harrison present results from interviews with Australian industry representatives, so often portrayed as the immovable obstacles to climate action.

Most industry representatives they interviewed, all from fossil fuel intensive industries, indicated support for increased government intervention to set and maintain carbon pricing mechanisms to create business and investment stability. Tellingly, some representatives lamented that they felt these views couldn’t be articulated in the public arena because of the highly politically charged and short-term oriented nature of the Australian public debates on carbon pricing.

All this suggests that the ALP can and should consider running on a climate change platform, not least in defence of the carbon tax. The carbon tax represents about the only consequential federal response to the most significant global issue humanity has ever faced.

Sure there’s the issue of integrity about the manner in which the carbon tax was introduced. And sure, there’s the fact that Australian public opinion on climate change is divided and fickle.

What has always been missing on climate change action in Australia is genuine political leadership. Kevin Rudd declared climate change a “great moral challenge” and rode a wave of public support for action in 2006 and 2007, but proved himself unwilling to take the big steps necessary for a meaningful response by failing to negotiate with the Greens on his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He then proved himself unable to overturn declining public support for his emissions trading scheme.

Julia Gillard should embrace the role of being the (albeit reluctant) leader on this issue, and try to create and sustain public support for the carbon tax and further action on climate change beyond 2013.

Of course Australia needs to do more than reaffirm a commitment to the carbon tax. We also need genuine long-term investment in renewable energy. Most importantly we need to reconsider the long carbon shadow that Australia’s extraction and export of coal casts over any domestic effort we undertake.

Defending mainstream legislation aimed at recognising the costs of carbon emissions is the least we can do. And with polling predicting a solid Coalition victory in September, there’s little for the Labor Government to lose in taking on the Coalition on this issue.