CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Prime Minister's stubbornness is her undoing
, July 7, 2012
July 1, 2012 marks a watershed moment in Australian politics — the introduction of the world’s most expensive impost on man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
This is the central policy of the Gillard Government and the one by which Julia Gillard will be remembered once she departs office.
In fact, the success or failure of this policy will define her prime ministership.
So far, the omens for its long-term survival are not good.
Ms Gillard promised her Caucus colleagues that July 1 would mark the turnaround in Labor’s fortunes.
The “generous” compensation to families, pensioners and students would show people that the Government was not punishing them, and rather that they would be grateful for the extra cash in their pockets once the tax came in.
Furthermore, the anti-carbon tax campaign run by Tony Abbott would be shown for what it was — a scare campaign without substance.
The sky would not fall in; business would tick over as usual; and Mr Abbott would be shown to be a hollow man.
The reality is somewhat different.
There are three reasons why the Government is unlikely to reap any electoral benefits from the tax.
First, there was the promise never to introduce one — subsequently broken in a deal to win over the Greens in the Parliament.
Second, the ostensible reason for the carbon tax was to cut Australia’s greenhouse gases as part of supposedly playing a leadership role in international efforts to reduce the planet’s temperature. But this doesn’t wash with voters.
If we slashed our greenhouse gases here, the industries penalised would simply shift overseas to China and India.
No one bought this argument, so the Government was forced to switch to a straight income redistribution policy — taking cash from the “polluters” and handing it over to the majority of households to pay for their rising gas and electricity costs.
Hence an advertising campaign running on the cash handouts makes no mention whatsoever of the supposed environmental benefits of the tax.
But if people are being “over-compensated” with cash because of their rising energy costs, where is the incentive to use a smaller volume of greenhouse gases?
In fact, ordinary peoples’ power costs are soaring in large part because wealthy people who installed solar panels — made inexpensive by state and federal government subsidies — are now getting cheaper electricity courtesy of poor people who can’t afford solar panels.
To make matters worse, the Government has been rushing to the aid of any large failing manufacturer that uses a lot of electricity but which threatens to close because of the tax.
So the “big polluters” (such as aluminium plants), which theoretically should be being shut down as a result of the carbon tax, are being propped up because the Government fears any accompanying job losses.
The policy is inherently contradictory, and voters have never taken to it.
As with every person the flipside of the Prime Minister’s strengths are her weaknesses.
Ms Gillard’s supporters see her as resilient and strong and unflinching in the heat of political battle, and few could deny this.
On the other side of the ledger, Ms Gillard has a singular capacity to be stubborn to the point of being delusional, and, in her handling of the carbon tax and asylum-seekers, she tends toward the latter.
Anyone wishing to understand Ms Gillard’s political psyche needs to recall the “Medicare Gold” policy she brought to the 2004 election.
Long after the peoples’ rejection of the policy, long after the policy was shown by the Opposition to be deeply flawed, long after the people’s verdict, and long after the then Labor leader Kim Beazley dumped it, Ms Gillard acted as if it was still Labor’s policy. She simply refused to admit that it had failed.
Ms Gillard’s justification for moving on Kevin Rudd was based on three policy conundrums that were eating into his popularity — the mining tax, the carbon price policy, and the asylum-seeker policy.
None of the three has actually been resolved, yet Ms Gillard blithely ignores the reality.
Her worst failure is on asylum-seekers.
Ms Gillard’s initial personal solution was a deal with East Timor. But she offended the East Timorese Government by not treating them with respect, and they rejected her proposal.
Her second proposal was the Malaysian Solution of swapping 800 refugees. It barely made sense to the public, but was rejected by the High Court.
The policy has been in limbo ever since, but Ms Gillard has refused point blank to adopt the Opposition’s ideas or to go to the Greens and demand they side with her.
Ms Gillard’s stance appears to be nothing more than a stubborn refusal to admit her own policy failures on asylum-seekers.
So, two years after the demise of Mr Rudd, Ms Gillard’s government is in a worse spot.
Labor MPs are back in their electorates for the long winter break and will spend that time deciding one simple question: is it worth going back to Kevin Rudd to save the furniture?