New lies put Gillard’s sin in perspective

Many castigated Julia Gillard for her 'carbon tax lie' despite the policy's complex history, but it will be much harder to forgive the Coalition for its litany of broken promises.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the fate of the Gillard government was largely sealed in a single 2011 meeting. A gargantuan error was made when the handful of cabinet ministers and advisers present agreed not to defend themselves against opposition claims that their emissions trading system was a ‘tax’.

By agreeing to say that the Clean Energy Futures package “functions a bit like a tax”, they damned the policy and the government to the two years of media excoriation that followed.

Journalists went along for the ride. Gillard had promised “no carbon tax under a government I lead” and now said the ETS “functions a bit like a tax”. That, most journalists decided, was close enough to a lie.

This is despite that fact that the ETS John Howard had been working on, and the plan retained first by Brendan Nelson and then Malcolm Turnbull in opposition and presented to parliament twice by Prime Minister Rudd, had a one-year fixed price period. That is, for one year instead of the three under Gillard’s plan, it would have functioned a bit like a tax.

And so the ‘carbon tax lie’ became part of the political journalist’s lexicon. The grey areas -- that it was not a tax, and that Labor had promised to browbeat a citizens’ assembly into approving a trading system during the first year of a Gillard government (and I have reproduced my 2010 coverage of that asinine promise below) -- didn’t seem to matter.

But doesn’t reason matter? Doesn’t logic matter? Doesn’t consistency matter?

Journalists who embraced the phrase ‘carbon tax lie’ should, by rights, be adopting new phrases to blithely throw into their stories about the Abbott government.

The “health and education lie” is worth $80 billion. It is black and white, because the federal election was not fought on the issue of rejigging the federation to allow states more power raise that $80bn and hence to ensure that “no cuts to health and education” end up taking place.

Rejigging federation is a great idea. But it was not taken to an election,  not even as a citizens’ assembly plan. It was simply sprung upon the nation by the Commission of Audit.

The ‘ABC lie’ is just that, because not even Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull will back his leader’s assertion that it’s not a cut.

Changing the indexation rate for pension increases, the ‘pension lie’, is subtle but still a black-and-white reversal of the “no changes to pensions” promise.

Journalists and commentators who adopted the ‘carbon tax lie’ phrase, but who baulk at adopting these new phrases, are not ‘speaking truth to power’, which is the only way to keep voters’ interests prioritised above sectional interests, or above the power-lust of the politicians themselves.

The Australian public voted out carbon pricing and voted in Direct Action. Fair enough. That’s how democracy works.

But on the issues listed above, and others, the government lied its way to power.

Whatever the merits of its reforms, that fact should not be diluted,  just as Labor’s ‘carbon tax lie’ should not have been distilled (with the help of partisan commentators) into one of the most potent political poisons of our time.

July 23, 2010, 10.30am – Labor's hot-air solution

There was quite a scuffle at Julia Gillard’s climate change policy announcement this morning. While Greens and Liberal protest groups chanted on the University of Queensland lawns outside, Gillard continued speaking calmly as one student -- a lanky young man in a business shirt (don’t know yet whether he was Green or Liberal) -- got to within a few metres of the podium before being wrestled from the room by Federal Police.

But let’s not let that altercation distract from what would happen to the climate change debate under Labor. Julia Gillard has promised, in effect, to brow-beat the nation into aligning 'Australian common sense' with her government’s views.

The CPRS may have been put aside until 2012, but in the meantime Labor will take a sample of Australians "drawn from age groups, parts of the country and walks of life” and constitute a 'citizens' assembly' to consider "over 12 months the introduction of a market-based approach” to carbon pollution reduction.

"I will support a rigorous process to establish consensus,” Gillard said. Poll Position imagines the hapless citizens being herded into a giant greenhouse in which the temperature will be slowly increased until they reach a consensus on the many measures that Labor has already decided on their behalf.

The Liberal/Greens-rejected CPRS legislation WILL be the basis of the citizens’ discussions; all new coal power stations WILL be carbon-capture-and-storage-ready; businesses WILL be given carbon reduction baseline parameters to follow straight away to reward the companies that act early -- never mind that the citizens' assembly is still discussing who should act and how, because the Assembly WILL end up ratifying the Gillard government’s views. They won’t be released from the greenhouse until they do.

This is shrewd politicking on an important issue, but it is far from honest. By taking the high ground on consulting 'Australian common sense', a Gillard government will simply bombard the citizens with ‘facts’ until the CPRS can only be opposed by what Gillard referred to today as those with "extreme views that will never be changed”. We already have a citizens' assembly, of course; in a representative democracy it's called the parliament. 

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