The Labor Party is fighting a battle over terminology. At stake are the decisions political journalists, editors, sub-editors and nightly news scriptwriters will make when they’re referring to the party’s climate change policy. As election day approaches, will it be called an “emissions trading scheme” or a “carbon tax”?
A draft Labor plan for an ETS has been passed to News Corp, and the Abbott government has leapt on it enthusiastically, warning of the return of the diabolical “carbon tax.”
Shadow environment minister Mark Butler insists, with a note of desperation, that it’s nothing like a carbon tax, it’s an emissions trading scheme – and these are very different things.
The opposition has already said it’s likely to take a carbon price plan to the next election. The aim of this week’s leak was presumably to force Bill Shorten to drop the idea. The ambush betrays such a simple-minded, reductionist view of political dynamics that we can reasonably conclude it involved people associated with the party’s NSW Right.
In Labor’s perfect world, the issue of climate change would just go away. Back in the here and now, if the party fronted the next poll promising not to take meaningful action, no one would believe them. As Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard discovered in 2010, having no policy is much worse than having one.
After years of Labor hyperbole about the importance of meeting this “moral challenge,” the Rudd government’s April 2010 decision to “postpone” its carbon pollution reduction scheme, or CPRS, not only revealed the prime minister as a flake, it also created a vacuum into which the opposition shovelled permutation after combination of horror stories about what Labor might actually do.
Yet just a few years earlier the Howard government had scrambled, not terribly convincingly, onto the climate change wagon, and then Kevin Rudd had swept into government promising action. How did we get from then to now? Back then, an ETS sounded nice but the devil was in the detail: the fine print of cost-of-living increases, although compensated for, provided scare campaign fodder. Still, even after Rudd dumped the policy, a Nielsen poll found 58 per cent support for “an emissions trading scheme for Australia.”
The CPRS was troublesome, but it is grotesque revisionism to portray it as unpopular in 2010. Rudd’s determination to cause political mischief for Malcolm Turnbull, and the need to deal with a Coalition–Family First veto in the Senate, eventually led to his undoing. It was also a case study of modern Labor political malfunction, of excessive influence enjoyed by people who know everything about polling and nothing about voters.
Fundamentally, though, the politics was driven by semantics. What is a tax and what is a scheme?
Rudd’s CPRS was an emissions trading scheme that would commence in July 2011. It would have a fixed price for one year and then a floating price. When new opposition leader Tony Abbott christened it a “great big new tax on everything” he was indulging in rhetoric, in metaphor. (The current opposition took a leaf out of his book by describing the Coalition’s now-abandoned Medicare co-payment a “GP tax.”)
A year earlier, Abbott had actually explained that he preferred a carbon tax to an ETS. In a Sky News interview (nine minutes and fifteen seconds in) he seemed to have in mind a consumption tax.
Gillard, upon assuming the leadership in June 2010, bizarrely declared that action on climate change would have to wait for “deep and lasting consensus.” But when it became evident that the government would need a policy for the election, “cash for clunkers” and the citizens’ assembly were born. The Coalition opposition warned that Labor would introduce a “carbon tax.” No, Gillard insisted, there would be no carbon tax under a government she led.
Yet, just a day before the 2010 election, the Australian’s Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan commenced an article with these words: “Julia Gillard says she is prepared to legislate a carbon price in the next term.” They reported that she had said, “I don't rule out the possibility of legislating a carbon pollution reduction scheme, a market-based mechanism – I rule out a carbon tax.”
What did Gillard mean? She probably didn’t know; the aim was to kill any possibility in voters’ minds that something called a “tax” was on the way. She knew very well that the “t” word is a powerful negative motivator to the unengaged voter; it takes money from their pockets and can damage the economy.
Then in February 2011, alongside Bob Brown, she announced the carbon-pricing scheme. Whereas Rudd’s had involved a fixed price for twelve months before moving to a floating price, this one would be fixed for three years. Fatefully, diabolically, the government made a decision to immediately wave a semantic white flag. Yes yes, Gillard conceded, you can call this a carbon tax if you want; let’s not quibble over words.