CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Why Abbott has won the carbon tax debate

It only takes some insight from Google to recognise that Tony Abbott's emotive rhetoric on the carbon price has won out.

Words are powerful things that can be loaded with emotion. The word ‘tax’ in particular is ingrained with negative feeling. That’s why Tony Abbott, ever since he took over the leadership of the Liberal Party, has wanted people to think of a carbon price as a ‘carbon tax’ and not a ‘carbon trading’ scheme. It looks as if he has succeeded.

Back in around 2001 I remember having an argument with then shadow Labor environment minister, Kelvin Thomson. At the time I said that if Labor really wanted to do something meaningful to reduce emissions they needed to introduce a carbon tax. Thomson said they would do nothing of the sort.

Instead, he said, they would look to introduce an emissions trading scheme. At which point I blurted out, "okay, sure… carbon tax, carbon trading, who cares, they’re effectively the same thing". Thomson then coolly explained that there was no way Labor would be opening itself up to the same kind of electoral damage that accompanied the introduction of the last new tax – the GST.

Tony Abbott, having been John Hewson’s media adviser when Hewson lost the unlosable election in 1993 over the GST, would have learnt this lesson well.

While Gillard did admit that the deal negotiated with the Greens to provide a fixed price period meant it was "effectively a tax”, on the whole the government studiously avoids describing it as a carbon tax. Instead, they prefer to describe it as a carbon pricing scheme or a carbon trading scheme with a short fixed price period.

Well if you check out Google Insights, it’ll show you that Tony Abbott has clearly won the battle over how people think about and describe the carbon pricing scheme.

The first chart illustrates the frequency with which people in Australia search in Google for the terms ‘carbon price’, ‘carbon trading’ and ‘emissions trading’ since 2005. Carbon trading has generally been dominant but with emissions trading not far behind, until 2011 when carbon price became more frequent.

Frequency that the terms ‘carbon price’, ‘carbon trading’ and ‘emissions trading’ are entered into Google – 2005 to today

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The next chart is exactly the same as the one above except it also assesses the frequency with which ‘carbon tax’ is searched for (the green line) relative to the other terms. Carbon tax, for the most part, was barely used for the last decade. Then in 2011 its frequency dwarfed that of the other terms and indeed dwarfs anything historically, showing that most people have become engaged in this debate during the period it has been considered as a carbon tax.

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The person who can frame a debate in language that is most favourable to them is more than halfway to winning the argument. Abbott has done this superbly, with some support from the Greens.

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