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The myth of green Australia

By John Muscat - posted Friday, 10 May 2013

"Leadership of Prime Minister Gillard and the courage of legislators"

After the second rejection of his ETS, Rudd shelved the policy indefinitely, to the dismay of the world's environmentalists. The inner circle which advised him to take this course, according to later revelations, included Julia Gillard. On becoming prime minister she showed little enthusiasm for the climate cause, ruling out a price on carbon unless there was "a deep and abiding community consensus". Her tokenistic policy at the 2010 election was "citizen's assembly" to canvass options. The opposition also ruled out a price on carbon. Twice in the lead up to polling day, Gillard explicitly denied rumours of a hidden agenda, uttering the now infamous words "there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead".

Gillard entered the post-election negotiations desperately hoping to save her prime ministership. The radical Greens would never have backed the conservative opposition. But when they demanded a carbon tax as the price of their support, she caved in a fit of panic, displaying little of the courage praised by Gore. The independents signed on to keep the minority government in business.

Labor's Clean Energy Future package includes a carbon tax, but also billions of dollars of compensation and credits to cushion the blow. In a massive money churn, around $5 billion of the revenue is disbursed to households in higher benefits and tax breaks, and $9.2 billion goes to industry assistance, including free permits for high emitting industries, $300 million to the steel industry, $1.26 billion to the coal sector, and $1.2 billion to manufacturing. Unhappy about these handouts, the Greens were bought off with a $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Australians are left wondering how all of this encourages shifts to "cleaner" energy sources. The handouts muffle some damaging impacts of the tax, but they are hardly "courageous" from the perspective of Al Gore.


"The voice of the people of Australia has rung loud and clear"

Gillard made her plans for a carbon tax public on 25th February 2011. Her residual popularity sank like a stone. The Newspoll of 18-20 February 2011 recorded 50 per cent satisfied and 39 per cent dissatisfied with her performance. In the next survey of 4-6 March 2011, those figures were reversed: 39 per cent satisfied, 51 per cent dissatisfied. Labor's support (first preference) plunged to 30 per cent in the March survey, from 38 per cent at the election. These results were consistent with a general fall in support for climate action. From a high of 68 per cent in 2006, reported the Lowy Institute Poll, it dropped to 41 per cent in 2011. Only 32 per cent of Australians supported the carbon tax when Gore wrote his rapturous blog post.

Gillard's frantic attempts to recover have come to nothing, and calling an election for 14th September hasn't helped. The latest Newspoll of 5-7 April 2013 had her satisfaction rating at a dismal 28 per cent, with 62 per cent dissatisfied. Labor's support is still in the basement at 32 per cent, with the Liberal-Nationals at 48 per cent. Likely, the government faces a devastating loss of around 20 seats.

The opposition's implacable campaign against the carbon tax has rocked Gillard's time in office. They promise to repeal it, dismantle much of the Clean Energy Future package and even abolish the Department of Climate Change. Since the 2010 election Labor has suffered a succession of defeats at the state level, losing power in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory, while the Liberal-National Coalition improved their majority in Western Australia. These elections were fought on state issues, but in every case the conservatives echoed Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's anti-carbon tax message. Closer to home, Gillard was forced to stare down moves against her by colleagues to restore Kevin Rudd, once in February 2012 and again in March this year. Four senior cabinet ministers were sacked or resigned after the second episode. Labor limps forward in the worst possible shape.

A Liberal-National victory would probably mean the end of climate change as a major political priority in Australian politics. Al Gore was mistaken. He didn't hear "the voice of the people of Australia" on 8th November 2011; but if he's listening he'll hear it "loud and clear" on 14th September 2013.

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This article was first published in New Geography and featured on RealClearWorld.

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About the Author

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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