This year the federal government has been very quiet about climate change. Climate Change Minister Greg Combet’s most recent media release on climate was on 23 March. That his statement was devoted to the Coalition’s policy, not Labor’s, is indicative of the strategic failure that has beset Labor’s climate communications since 2008.
In 2011, the government did not construct a narrative about adverse global warming impacts on people’s lives as a reason for action and the carbon legislation. The ‘Clean Energy Future’ campaign – in which the word ‘climate’ barely rated a mention – did not go beyond selling an answer without ever elaborating the problem.
And in 2011, the Labor government was so desperate not to mention that tax word that it constructed the awkward – and poorly understood – term of "a price on pollution”. This left the discourse about taxes entirely to opposition leader Tony Abbott, with devastating consequences.
Now the language of ‘clean energy’ and ‘price on pollution’ are also disappearing from the public ear. It remains unclear as to what campaign will be run after July 1, but it is likely to focus narrowly on ‘compensation’ (tax cuts by any other name).
Labor is not talking about climate because its advisers believe this is the ‘least-worst’ option. I fear that the advice, probably emanating from polling in western Sydney, is no more soundly based than that from the NSW Right that suggested replacing Rudd with Gillard would be a masterstroke when Labor was 52 per cent in the polls (two-party preferred), compared to 41 per cent now.
The ALP knows it is dead in the water and is now trying to save the furniture. Claims that the climate legislation is toxic for the government led to suggestions from advisers either to weaken the legislation, or to abandon the issue in public discourse.
The first option is not viable. The Coalition will not vote for the package in any form, because it undermines its position of blanket opposition now, and repeal in government. And the Greens will not support a weakening of the package.
So option two it is. Labor has all but abandoned efforts to communicate the virtues of the legislation which was at the core of its deal with the independents and the Greens to retain power after August 2010.
Both Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan are serial offenders in this area. In early 2010 they leant on Rudd to abandon carbon pricing, a backflip which cost Labor support and provided the pretext for the Gillard coup. They led Labor to the August 2010 election without a climate policy, backflipped again to do a deal with the Greens and independents, and are now publicly abandoning the hallmark issue of this parliamentary term.
Through these twists and turns, Labor, since 2008, has been reluctant to act decisively, and at no stage has exhibited consistent leadership. It made no serious effort to drive public opinion on the issue with a story about the opportunity to build a safe and secure future for people and planet, as opposed to a world of increasing climate extremes and insecurity.
This personal climate narrative about people and their immediate concerns – self, family, where and how they live and work, home, food and water in/security – and the choice between climate harm and climate safety is one that Labor never told. This was the biggest mistake. Has Prime Minister Gillard ever displayed any emotion – or understanding beyond a policy brief – on climate?
So Labor’s present tack is not surprising, though the advice to abandon the climate story is deeply flawed:
– The only position now left to the government after July 1 is to say that tax compensation will make most families ‘no worse off’ with carbon pricing. But being ‘no worse off’ is not a compelling reason to introduce disruptive legislation, or to do anything;
– Not talking climate and legislation won’t take it off the agenda or persuade Abbott to do the same. His position is now woven into the story he tells every day and he will be emboldened by the weakness displayed by his enemy;
– There is no consideration as to whether or not climate is really the toxic issue, or whether the combination of Gillard climate (or Gillard anything) is the key problem;
– No thought was given to the option of displaying leadership and campaigning with heart and energy for the legislation, and telling a compelling story about the choice between increasing climate harm and climate safety. This would be very different from the Clean Energy Future campaign last year, which completely missed the mark.
Research studies find that media coverage of climate change directly affects public concern levels, and that the actions of political elites turn out to be the most powerful driver of public concern. By abandoning the field, Labor is likely to further weaken the level of public concern, in a spectacular own goal.
In the US, public understanding of climate is on the rebound despite the deniers’ assault, with people attributing their increased concern about global warming to their correct perception that the planet is warming and the weather is getting more extreme. It is astounding that no Labor leader can say in public what most US citizens already know: that global warming is making high-profile extreme weather events worse.
The failure to grasp such opportunities is consistent with a government that was always unsure about how to engage the public on climate. The confusion and dismay within the government is reflected in the new giving up.
David Spratt is the co-author of "Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action” and writes at climatecodered.org.