CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Three delusions of the Gillard Government
, August 6, 2011
The Gillard Government is proceeding blithely with its Greens-inspired carbon tax plan based on a belief that there will eventually be a reconciliation with voters before the next election. Having welded the Labor Party onto a structural economic reform based around action on global warming, Prime Minister Gillard has declared there is no turning back.
Indeed, Ms Gillard has staked her career on convincing voters of the merits of a policy which goes much further than any comparable industrialised nation in attempting to switch energy away from coal, which is bountiful in Australia, towards less economically feasible energy sources.
Yet every poll indicates that the majority of voters are deeply antithetical to the tax despite promises of compensation to cover the expected inflationary impact. Business groups, which were originally warm to Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, are now opposed to Ms Gillard’s much more complicated tax-and-churn scheme.
It is hard to recall any recent Australian government which became so out-of-step with the electorate on so many different fronts, and there is a hint of the delusional in senior ministers promising their vulnerable backbenchers that everything will turn out all right in the end.
The Gillard Government’s strategy is based on political mythology which it will need to get rid of before Cabinet can even begin to think sensibly about how to get out of the hole the PM has made.
Three myths immediately come to mind.
Myth number one: Voters will accept reform once they see the long-term benefits of the carbon tax.
Reality: Voters hate “reform” and have done so for 30 years.
The Gillard Government constantly refers back to the glory days of the Hawke-Keating Government in the 1980s which, among other things, floated the dollar, wound back tariffs (and Australia’s manufacturing industry in the process), introduced competition policy and sold off various government-owned enterprises including the Commonwealth Bank.
Putting aside the long-term benefits or otherwise of these policies, the fact is that the far-reaching nature of these reforms affected many people’s working lives, and in the process burnt hundreds of thousands of working-class rusted-on Labor voters.
Many became John Howard’s battlers in 1996, while others were drawn to Pauline Hanson and became One Nation supporters. Many never voted Labor again.
Similarly, the Gillard Government cites the Howard-Costello introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) in the 1990s as an example of successful implementation of a major reform. In fact, this was a far from painless reform, and every small business still resents the fact that they have become unpaid bureaucrats doing the paperwork for the Australian Taxation Office. The GST, whether necessary or not, was never a popular tax and remains so.
As polls closed at the 1998 election, senior members of the Howard Government were told they were probably going to lose and to prepare themselves for the worst.
In the event, the Coalition lost 13 seats, Kim Beazley won the two-party preferred vote, but John Howard just scraped home. The next time Mr Howard attempted major reform was in the lead-up to the 2007 election with WorkChoices and he was thrown out of office for betraying the battlers he had won over at the previous election. Had the Tampa not arrived in the 2001 election, the Howard Government may very well have lost that election as well.
Myth number two: Voters are being deluded by the “lies” of Tony Abbott, the Murdoch press and the shock jocks.
Reality: Opposition to the carbon tax is being driven by all sorts of factors and motives, and it is the voters who are determining the polls, not the media. Most resentment about the tax is coming from people who are feeling cost-of-living pressures and already experiencing soaring electricity prices.
In the face of this, a new tax on electricity and gas and fuel has been introduced with all sorts of contradictions and mixed messages. There are people who are genuinely sceptical about the science of climate change, others who are sceptical about man-made solutions to the problem, and others still who are suspicious about a policy which is being driven by the United Nations.
Tony Abbott once supported his leader Malcolm Turnbull’s backing for a carbon-trading scheme, but was dragged into opposing it by Senator Nick Minchin and others.
As for the Murdoch Press (dubbed by Senator Bob Brown as the “hate media”) and the “shock jocks”, their views are more likely to reflect reader and listener opinion rather than lead it.
Myth number three: Australia has to act quickly to adjust to a low-carbon economy.
Reality: There is no reason why the government needs to rush into a quick-fix solution other than to appease the Greens. Ms Gillard has virtually admitted this by breaking her pre-election pledge that there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads.
The only thing which changed was that the Greens won control of the Senate and demanded a carbon tax as the basis for co-operating with the Labor Government.
If the proponents of the global warming thesis are correct and there is an anthropogenic heating of the planet occurring, then it is a millennial problem. As the Government’s own climate change spokesman Dr Tim Flannery puts it: “If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow, the average temperature of the planet’s not going to drop for several hundred years, perhaps over 1,000 years.”
Australia rushing into fixing a global problem will not fix it at a global level, and the only people who will be hurt will be Australians.