Ahead of an election it looks increasingly unlikely to win, the Gillard government has a few good stories to tell.
It can outline progress with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it can push the benefits of the NBN, and it can point to a strong employment and economic growth record compared to that of the developed world (best avoid mentioning the budget, however). Labor MPs are selling these messages as best they can, but on carbon pricing they have so far missed a big opportunity.
Although the government was stung by Julia Gillard’s own goal in pledging not to introduce a carbon tax, climate policy remains a weakness for the Opposition thanks to diverse (and strong) viewpoints on climate change within the Coalition.
Its current ‘solution’, Direct Action, is at best short on detail and at worst, in Malcolm Turnbull’s words, “a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale.” Beyond this, Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce has previously labelled it a meaningless gesture, business and energy groups have been lining up to ask for more information while some Coalition MPs have started to speak out against it.
Of the two alternative climate policies, Labor has the better story to tell; it’s just a little gun-shy after taking an almighty hit upon the announcement of the carbon tax. Given speculation the ALP may agree to a repeal should it lose the election, perhaps the party now believes the rhetoric that carbon pricing is its WorkChoices.
Unlike WorkChoices however, the problem with the carbon tax is not the impact it has on voters, but rather that it was built on a mistruth that has haunted Labor through good opposition. The sting has gone out of it so much that the pollsters are rarely even bothering to ask the voting public their opinion on carbon pricing anymore. WorkChoices, on the other hand, was as despised post-election as it was when first mooted.
A buckling to Coalition pressure to repeal the legislation would be just as embarrassing a backflip as Abbott deciding not to try and repeal the carbon tax. It would be a major backward step after climate change minister Greg Combet labelled such a move "immoral". It would also do the public a disservice by not allowing Direct Action to be subjected to the scrutiny it deserves.
By bringing climate policy into the election limelight, Labor can also attack Abbott for his deception over the potential impact of carbon pricing. From economic wrecking balls to towns being wiped out, cobras striking and pythons squeezing, Abbott’s language was as strong as it was scary for the Australian public.
Joyce, meanwhile, added his two cents with the staggering claim it would lift the price of a family roast to over $100 – perhaps he’s used to big families. All of the grand statements were just hot air, flooding the airwaves and inciting anger in the public domain.
Through this climate change has increasingly become a pawn in the game of politics. It has all been about what the polls are telling the major parties rather than the right decisions for the future. How else do you explain how we have ended up with the left side of politics pursuing a market-based mechanism while the right advocates greater government intervention?
Indeed, there is no left or right, there’s just focus groups.
On the issue of climate change, however, we need leaders. We require policymakers to stand up and say this is the right thing to do for future generations rather than politicians moaning like petulant children: ‘if America and China won’t clean their rooms then why should we?’
If Labor wants to get on the front foot for the first time since the election campaign began it could do worse than put climate policy firmly on the agenda – and this time keep it there. If it chooses to go down the route of assisting a Coalition repeal, public trust in the party will take a further blow.