Labor's carbon comeback is a fantasy

Voters remain convinced a carbon price will have devastating economic effects, and are unlikely to change their minds before the next election – and certainly not while politicians behave just as irrationally.

Crikey

Amid the torrent of earnest declarations, comments and wisecracks to mark the start of the carbon price yesterday, there was a moment of bright, shining stupidity that captured the entirety of this 'debate'. Radio entertainer Neil Mitchell lashed out at Wayne Swan on Twitter for noting that Whylla, contra Tony Abbott’s apocalyptic claims, remained in existence.

"Is this stuff from Wayne Swan really the level of political debate we want?” he angrily demanded. "People in Whyalla and Yallourn and similar are actually concerned for their future. This reaction is offensive to them.”

It’s apt that we’ve reached the point where the mere assertion of a fact, and one as anodyne as the continued existence of a town, should be deemed by a media figure (albeit one whose job description is to be professionally offended on behalf of his audience) as "offensive”. The carbon price has always been a fact-allergic debate. I speak not so much of the senility of the anti-carbon tax protesters with their hilarious signs and deep anger at a world that won’t stop changing on them. Nor of the proud leadership of the assertion-based community by News Limited, with its decreasingly trusted newspapers.

It goes back further than that, to the original Kevin Rudd policy which was, let us not forget, a truly wretched concoction the development of which demonstrated all the faults that eventually killed that government.

To cover politics in that period was to hear, ad nauseum, the dulcet tones of Penny Wong averring "can I say, we think we’ve got the balance right” for a policy that in effect delayed any action on decarbonisation until the 2020s courtesy of a series of cave-ins to rentseekers, while Labor devoted itself to the twin, and incompatible, goals of trying to both win Coalition support for the package and split its opponents on the issue. When, finally, the policy was abandoned in the face of a crude but effective campaign by Tony Abbott, and Rudd’s fortunes slumped, it was no more than his government deserved for a deeply cynical approach to an issue it had portrayed as the greatest moral challenge of our time.

That his successor promptly ensnared herself in the same issue (LOL citizens’ assembly) and then smashed her credibility to CO2-molecule sized pieces with her post-election reversal was every bit as much just deserts for the women who’d lobbied Rudd hard to dump the issue and run.

As if taking his lead from his opponents, Abbott’s approach has been every bit as mendacious and more. Climate action is the issue par excellence on which Abbott has exemplified his political trademark, a tendency not so much (as Gillard is often accused) to believe in nothing as to believe in everything, occupying all possible positions on an issue, leading the Coalition’s primary advocate of a carbon tax to become its most dogged opponent. But that reversal was merely the platform for an extended campaign of wild overstatement. Abbott’s predictions of the end of Whyalla and other centres and various industries remain unwithdrawn, although some of the metaphors he has deployed have, rather in the manner of Maxwell Smart’s "would you believe” in the face of an incredulous villain, been replaced with softer versions as time has gone on.

With such examples from their political leaders, voters have followed suit. Voters are irrationally convinced that what is in effect a modest carbon price will have grotesque impacts on the economy, far beyond those occasioned by, say, the financial crisis. According to Essential Research, more than half of voters believe the carbon price will increase fuel prices "a lot” when it will have no effect at all. Around 40 per cent believe it will increase grocery prices "a lot”. Nearly a third think it will increase unemployment a lot; one in five think (contrarily) it will increase interest rates a lot.

We’re not talking about the idiot fringe here waving "Bob Brown’s Bitch” placards and likely to die decades before the most serious impacts of climate change are felt. These are real, normal voters, with apparently functioning brains.

The Labor plan – or, more correctly, the Gillard plan – is that in the face of evidence that the carbon price has lifted unemployment or interest rates or the price of bananas, such voters will abandon their prejudice and look anew and sympathetically at the government. In aid of such a magical transformation, the government is running a campaign at almost election-level intensity, with the prime minister’s press staff spending the last 48 hours churning out media alert after media alert. The government will also be aided by a likely further fall in inflationery pressures that will see CPI remain almost flat, while fuel prices may even fall further.

But voters won’t change their minds at all, and certainly not in the time between now and the next election. For one thing, this sort of change, if it occurs, takes a long time: despite the fact that the GST is now firmly embedded in the Australian economy, 30 per cent of voters still think it was a bad idea. That’s after more than a decade.

But, worse, the Labor fantasy is based – irrationally – on the idea of a rational voter. This is less than ever a plausible view of democratic Australia. We’re decreasingly willing to let facts influence our views of public policy. We regard the economy through a lens of our partisan beliefs, so that Liberal voters see only economic misery and financial hardship. We think we’re doing it tough financially even as we travel overseas. We’re convinced many multiples of asylum seekers are arriving than ever set foot here. We refuse to accept the copious evidence that our incomes have risen far more quickly than prices in recent years. We filter information out that doesn’t accord with our views. If that leaves us with no information at all, that’s no problem.

The cliché that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts thus appears decreasingly relevant. Indeed, not merely are you entitled to your own facts, it’s right to be offended, Neil Mitchell-style, at anyone offering contrary information. To be contradicted by someone is damn near an attack on your freedom of speech. The irrational anger that motivates some climate denialists to make threats of death and injury to scientists is only an extreme example of the fact that many of us now feel entitled to our own facts.

Perhaps it’s why everyone is so "offended” now. Offence is an entirely subjective state, one unable to be contradicted by any smart-aleck quoting evidence.

Labor’s plan to turn its fortunes around is a fantasy, a fact-based fantasy when the real world relies on make-believe. We’ll spend the next couple of months establishing that. Then it’ll be back to square one. Back to where Labor was in February.

This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on July 2. Republished with permission.