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Changing climates

Climate zombies: can Labor bring back a tabloid-proof climate policy?

AAP/Joe Castro

Believing that the divide between itself and the Coalition on climate change policy is wider than on any other issue, Labor will use its national conference this weekend to shore up support for an ambitious renewables target. Proposing a Renewable Energy Target (RET) of 50% by 2030 would at least put Australia onto a respectable path within the OECD group of nations.

Certainly, Labor would like to make it the big issue of difference – perhaps for the wrong reasons – because it considers it cannot afford to stand up to the Coalition on asylum seekers. This is becoming the dark side of Labor’s enthusiasm for a renewed and renewable climate policy.

If it supports a humanitarian policy on asylum, Labor will run the gauntlet of tabloid xenophobia. But if it doesn’t, the split within Labor will also be easy prey for tabloid and attack-dog journalism from News Corp, which is still editorialising very strongly against Labor at present.

The hyper-mediatised sado-politics of human misery for asylum seekers is likely to continue. Any progressive and deliberative politics on this issue is to be sacrificed to a politics of fear. And the fear I am talking about is the cowardice of either major political party to stand up to the psychotic tabloid offensive on banishing the boats.

On climate, Labor is gambling on the extensive polling conducted in recent years that shows such solid support for an effective climate change policy, particularly on renewables. Renewable energy ticks all the boxes for Labor. They can revive manufacturing and jobs; they are much harder for a climate-denialist hostile News Corp press to attack; they really are effective at reducing emissions; the electorate loves them.

But the most telling indication that renewables is a winner for Labor is that the Coalition is angry at it for putting out this policy. This is not because the Coalition officially opposes renewables, but rather that it is being outplayed on an issue that is supposedly bipartisan. Conversely, the Coalition has stepped up its attack on a Labor-devised emissions trading scheme (ETS), desperately trying to ensure that it will be defined as a carbon tax.

While such a move is intellectually specious, the Coalition is counting on News Corp to do all the heavy lifting here. The television images of Tony Abbott‘s interview with 2GB on the day of the Daily Telegraph’s “Carbon Zombies” story on July 16 had him looking very smug with a copy of the paper sitting in front of him.

Daily Telegraph front page, July 16.

But Greg Hunt, without a News Corp palisade, looked surprisingly uncomfortable on the ABC’s Insiders trying to spin this. He was one of the key designers of an ETS under John Howard, but has been commanded to stay on a message that is suited to the tabloid theatre of caricatures, two- and three-word slogans and knee-jerk reactions by those readers who only glance at the front page on their way to the sports pages.

“Kill Bill”, “Electricity Bill”, “Carbon Copy Bill”, “Axe the Tax”, “Toxic Tax” and “Carbon Zombies” – all have been used around the opposition’s policy on an ETS.

Under the cover of the tabloid shock doctrine of a bogey tax, Hunt finds the courage to insist that electricity prices will go up – and have gone up – with an ETS. But a report earlier this year showed that Victorians were not getting any relief in their electricity bills since the repeal of the carbon tax.

From the ground zero of former prime minister Julia Gillard’s fatal acquiescence to the Coalition/News Corp’s gattling-gun offensive to redefine ETS as a “carbon tax”, Labor has never quite been able to recover a language that could sell its carbon abatement policies.

The ETS was a great success in lowering emissions. It provided compensation to low-income electricity consumers. Most importantly, it directly levied the actual polluters. Conversely, Direct Action is actually a direct tax on consumers – money which is given directly to polluters as a reward for reducing their pollution.

I have only heard one Labor politician who has been able to fearlessly call this for what it is. Labor’s Clare O’Neil, the new member for Hotham, ran rings around Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Melbourne’s 774 Drive this week. It is worth quoting her analysis at length:

I just want to make it clear to the listeners out there. What the Coalition has done is instead of Labor’s plan, which is to make big polluters pay for polluting, is having gotten rid of that tax, it is using your tax dollars to give to big polluters to stop polluting. It’s absolutely outrageous.

Direct Action is unfair, but importantly it doesn’t work. What we saw with the first auction was the government splurge, I think it was, two and a half billion dollars. It spent 25% of the money in the fund yet it only got us 15% of the way we need to get to for our 2020 reduction targets.

It’s not going to make those targets Josh, and if we put higher targets in place going into Paris as we need to do, what you’re saying is we are going to need to tax more and more ordinary taxpayers and pay polluters even more.

It’s outrageous.

And the Frydenberg’s response was very telling:

We found the lowest cost of abatement by putting out an option and running a market based mechanism. But if you want to talk to the listeners out there, ask them what they thought of the carbon tax at the last election, they gave you the lowest primary vote on record since 1903.

So the difference here is that O’Neil is talking about what is actually economically fair, Frydenberg is only talking about how a heavily media-driven election campaign is able to spin fairness. This is the stark opposite to what is actually the case. But for Frydenberg, this is all that counts and the measure of politics itself.

Why the Labor Party was not able to bring out these contradictions some two years ago is another great failure of Labor. For a start, it could had fed the press with alternative memes, such as that the ETS would produce a dividend for Australians: a carbon dividend, a health dividend, a safer Australia for our children.

Right now, though, Labor could be seizing upon the latest contortion in tax politics.

There are reports that Abbott is determined to co-ordinate a 15% increase in the GST, which would amount to twice the impact on the economy that a price on carbon would have. This led Tristan Edis from Climate Spectator to ask:

So why does Abbott thank someone for proposing an increase of the GST yet believes the carbon price is going to end the economy?

Increasing the GST may be necessary for the economy and to take the heat off the budget, but it makes an absurdity of Liberal frontbenchers lining up for years to tell us that they are tireless defenders of consumers. Somehow, neither Direct Action nor a 50% rise in GST are scary zombies, while an ETS that had no net cost for compensated consumers is.

That Labor is gambling on climate, with very good public opinion odds in its favour, will ensure it will become one of the top three election issues, next to asylum seekers and Islamic State. This in itself is important in ensuring that climate imposes itself on Australia’s “attention economy”.

But the real challenge Labor faces is selling its message once the attention is created. If it is to succeed, Labor needs to be on the front foot, O’Neil-style, pointing out the nauseating contradictions in the tax rhetoric.

How the majority of the electorate can be fooled by such travesties is the real tragedy of Australian politics today.

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