How the ETS became the GST

Monday, 8 February 2010 

Coalition politicians talking about the price of ice cream in supermarkets and Ministers rote-learning the prices of household goods makes it all seem as though we are having a re-run of the GST debate. Michelle Grattan thinks the GST almost cost the 1998 election. If you listen to Howard, or his Chief of Staff talk about it, it will be clear the opposite was true. GST gave a government that was floundering around with no agenda, look as though it had one (why would Howard have introduced it otherwise? Principle?) What helped him, of course, was that Labor didn’t have much to say at the time either, so it leapt on the GST making out like it was the biggest upheaval since the industrial revolution. When it was finally introduced and was seen to be no big deal, the malaise in Howard’s government returned.

The climate change debate does play a similar role for the Rudd government, but the background is very different. As far as this blog recalls, there was hardly a passion in the electorate that the states should have a different revenue-sharing arrangement with Canberra that necessitated a GST. But there is still a strong desire that something should be done about climate change in the electorate. Bolt on Insiders thinks that Turnbull mis-read the political mood to think that a sceptic line would be political death. So why then did Abbott produce a climate change plan?

Abbott has the same problem as Turnbull, but even more acute, trying to balance a sceptic line to satisfy those in the party that want to stand for ‘something’ and those in the party who want it to remain electorally viable. The contradiction is becoming so acute that nearly every journalist who interviews Abbott can’t fail drawing it out, as Barrie Cassidy did so well yesterday, simply by asking, if you don’t believe in global warming, why are you spending billions preventing it? The answer, obviously, is to win votes. By persisting with the question, Cassidy managed to do what the government has so far failed to, reveal the ‘conviction’ politician as the two-faced hypocrite he has been all along.

That the government is struggling to do what practically every journalist seems to be able to, expose the contradiction at the heart of the Abbott leadership, suggests that it has problems of its own. As Abbott keeps reminding Rudd, after Copenhagen things have changed. While it reaffirmed that nearly all the world’s governments now feel the need to pay lip service to climate change action, coordinating to look as though they will do something about it is another matter. Especially under a weakened global leadership from the US, that is now turning inwards and resulting in the President losing control over the same issue at home.

Yet nearly two months after Copenhagen, the government has still not addressed it. It prefers instead to put climate change to one side and talk about other things like the economy. There are two problems with this. Firstly, without addressing the uncertainty over the direction of the global agenda, it is hollowing out the domestic debate. Everyone knows that any action here on its own is irrelevant unless there is a global plan. Without one, the government’s climate change plan loses its meaning. So the debate shifts on to the technicalities and costs of the plan, rather than the reasons for having it. In that way, the Coalition’s one-foot-in one-foot-out lower cost option seems reasonable against a government initiative that starts to resemble something as pointless as the GST.

Copenhagen has been a problem for the Liberals too, as it has given the sceptic side of the argument more weight internally and made it harder to prevent the Coalition’s drift to a marginal position. The result is a Coalition plan, that if it was taken seriously as climate change action, would mean taxpayers having to bribe polluters to stop polluting. The trouble for Rudd is, that until he is able to make a political link between what happened in Copenhagen and what is happening at home (as he did in November’s Sydney Institute speech), he can’t take advantage of it.

It is the international agenda that really upholds the climate change agenda’s ‘moral imperative’. Without the international angle, climate change action seems less urgent. Yet the government needs such a moral purpose as much as the last one. This is the problem with trying to shift the debate elsewhere to things like the economy. The traditional areas of policy debate like the economy have hollowed out and it is not really possible for Labor to distinguish itself on it. Indeed, the Coalition has implicitly acknowledged it with the appointment of Joyce and Hockey to the key economic portfolios. Joyce’s problems are obvious and while Hockey has political attributes, as we saw last night, being taken seriously is not one of them. But what is the economic issue these days to be serious about? Other than embarrassing a party that likes to think it still has economic competence, Joyce’s bloopers are unlikely to be as damaging as the press, and possibly the government, think. They only need to recall the last government, clutching on to its sizeable lead on economic management all the way to its defeat.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 8 February 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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11 responses to “How the ETS became the GST”

  1. john Willoughby on 8th February 2010 9:58 am

    how we managed to stop spewing pollution into our rivers
    is a mystery .The greens have managed global c02 like the homosexual lobby managed aids in the eighties and we still have HIV deniers out there thirty years later. The trouble for the Co2 naysayers is that it can’t be quarantined to the third world.

  2. James on 8th February 2010 10:20 am

    Labor needs to hammer the line that the Coalition’s climate change policy directly taxes consumers. I think the Government could be worried that Abbott’s “great big new tax” line is striking a chord in marginal seats in NSW and Queensland. However, Abbott’s climate change policy has only been out for a few days and already the media are unravelling it, so I think we need to wait a month or two to really see if Abbott is getting traction with teeth. The latest Age poll actually puts the Government one point up on a two party preferred basis compared to its 2007 election victory but I suspect that poll is not indicative of what is happening in most of its marginals in Queensland and NSW.

  3. Graeme on 8th February 2010 11:25 am

    Abbott cobbled up a policy, yes, because he doesn’t want to lack clothes, however threadbare, on what remains a key issue in voters’ minds and objectively.

    But he did so not to give any ground away from sceptics, but to muddy the waters as best he can and further spannerise the works of Australia actually enacting a policy.

    See, relatedly, Gary Johns’ mix of white flag, Bush style ‘adaptionism’ and ‘climate change is all politics’ in the Oz recently.

  4. James on 8th February 2010 2:10 pm

    I think ‘muddying the waters’ is a kind interpretation of Abbott’s approach. I see it as a redneck scare campaign that pleases the MPs who installed Abbott as Opposition Leader. The jury is still out regarding its impact on voters, though I suspect it will get traction in some electorates.

  5. RalphC on 8th February 2010 4:13 pm

    Very interesting indeed. The government has worked hard on building a reputation as the party to act on climate change, yet has crafted a policy that no one wants, it can’t sell and no longer wants to talk about.

    They’ve hitched themselves to the international climate change bandwagon. But now that that bandwagon has run out of steam, the government is looking lost and without a cause.

    It’s almost like the Australian people merely want Rudd to say that we’ll do something about climate change in due course and leave it at that. I reckon Abbott is going to take some serious bark off Rudd in the course of this.

  6. Riccardo on 9th February 2010 7:43 pm

    Why does Rudd let himself be painted by the big new tax line. “Compensation” sounds like the GST Mark II but at least GST was specifically about reweighting the tax mix – Rudd doesn’t come out and actually say what the money is for.

    I still think the MSM has it wrong and if Rudd went for Double Dishwasher election he’d romp in – one Abbott swallow does not a summer make.

  7. Cavitation on 10th February 2010 7:51 am

    Come on people, keep perspective. Both the government’s and the opposition climate change policies are for domestic consumption. Australia has too small a population and industrial capacity to have any real impact on the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The best policy is to go along with the consensus in the rest of the world; which currently is not to do much. The actions we are taking, such as encouraging solar hot water heating, insulating dwellings and so forth are practical and effective responses. Any form of ETS will be effective, since the result will not impact global warming in any material way – whether Australia has the world’s best or worst system will have an impact too small to measure, and in any case will be swamped by the emissions from just one of China’s biggest cities, and in a generation, by just one of China’s medium sized cities.

  8. Wood Duck on 10th February 2010 8:59 am

    In a sense, Cavitation is right. Why bother. After all, it is not really in the Australian character to be charitable and give up something for a very broad, and admittedly, hard to comprehend, common good.

    If I’m right with regard to this, I think we will find that certain sections of the population will start to respond to Abbott’s proposed policy, which, even more so than Rudd’s policy, is to look as though you are doing something, but not doing anything at all. A reasonable proportion of people I know tend to think that the problem is somebody else’s; not theirs.

    Anyway, if global temperatures rise by a catastophic four degrees by 2060, as is being predicted in some quarters, we can complain that it was all the Chinese’s fault. Although, as I am led to believe, the consequences of such a temperature will be so dire, that people will not be able to afford themselves the luxury of complaint.

  9. Ricc on 10th February 2010 9:52 am

    I think if any regrets or opinions are affordable in the distant future when the planet is cooked, it will be these:

    1. The nation-state system failed, and certain ethnic groups such as the Han Chinese found the attraction of the nation-state too late.

    2. “Retail” politics is nearly as bad as dictatorship

    3. Political ideology is fundamentally flawed – new circumstances are constantly arising and old mental models can only be of limited use.

  10. RalphC on 10th February 2010 10:07 am

    Well said, Wood Duck.
    Rudd has taken on more than he can chew and has been left a bit exposed by shifting international sentiments re climate change.

    At the end of it all, I think the ETS will look like it’s too complex, too hard to explain and all for minimum benefit.

    I would be surprised if Rudd even tries that hard to sell it. I can’t imagine that it will form any sizeable part of the election campaign – it’s just too difficult. I reckon he’s happy to get the ETS rejected for a third time in the senate – that way he can say he gave it a go but that the Libs are to blame. I can imagine Rudd going to the election trying to avoid climate change altogether. The irony of it all!

  11. Global Voices Online » Australia: Climate Change Election a Step Closer on 11th February 2010 2:27 pm

    […] … As Abbott keeps reminding Rudd, after Copenhagen things have changed. While it reaffirmed that nearly all the world’s governments now feel the need to pay lip service to climate change action, coordinating to look as though they will do something about it is another matter. How the ETS became the GST […]

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