Whitlam’s boldness killed by tabloid politics

The Victorian election campaign is being drowned in mediocrity, as bold policies - including climate measures - fall foul of cost-of-living fundamentalists.

As people remember Gough Whitlam’s enthusiasm and championing of big ideas, this Victorian election campaign has been a horrible illustration of the dumbing down of the electorate to tabloid politics.

It seems to be a battle for small and simple rather than big and bold.

It’s politics driven by fear that you’ll be torn down by media completely uninterested in exploring and explaining the real world complexity of how we improve people’s lives and those of future generations.

Labor, ahead in the polls for months, seems almost desperate to promise nothing for fear of upsetting someone and making a mistake (with the notable exception of their stance on the East-West toll road – which is actually a promise to not to do something). They instead seem intent on moaning a lot about jobs, while offering nothing particularly concrete that would make a difference to employment.

The Liberal Party seems to have one thing it wants to offer – an underground road. While the East-West Link will certainly add to employment in the short term, the consensus seems to be that the economic analysis supporting the project is flimsy, and it’s likely the benefits barely outweigh its costs. It was a rushed commitment made in desperation to correct a perception this was a ‘do nothing’ government.

Of course ,the Liberal Government could have achieved the same outcome by firmly locking in construction of the Metro train tunnel this term, which has a very compelling cost-benefit analysis to support it. But our self-titled 'Infrastructure Prime Minister', Tony Abbott, doesn’t think public transport qualifies as infrastructure; meanwhile he’s prepared to fall over himself to fund new roads. So in some respects the state Liberals had little choice, and a road it was that was locked-in. Meanwhile, the Metro rail remains a commitment in the never-never.

At the same time it seems both sides of politics dare not utter its name – climate change.

In 2006, then Victorian Premier Steve Bracks credited his party’s progressive stance on climate change policy as one of the top three reasons for the party’s overwhelming election victory. Now it doesn’t even rate in either parties’ election pitch.

Indeed the Napthine Government thinks it so unimportant they instructed their public servants to place zero value on the avoidance of carbon emissions in their review of the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target. This is a scheme whose very currency, an energy efficiency certificate, is denominated in avoided CO2. That single decision pretty much said that killing the scheme was a predetermined outcome, and they’d make sure the results of the review fitted the desired end-result.

In looking at the language the Victorian Government has used to describe why it decided to kill its last remaining meaningful measure to reduce carbon emissions, it seems pretty clear it’s designed for consumption by the tabloid media. According to the government, axing the scheme will assist with cost of living pressures by saving households a $50 charge on their energy bills (not the actual direct compliance cost – which is $12 per annum according to the AEMC – but a number engineered by an economic model with very odd assumptions) and help low income households doing it tough. Sounds like something taken direct from the front-page of one of Australia’s main tabloids.

Yes, the scheme is funded by an extra charge on people’s electricity bills. But ask yourself this: why is it that groups representing consumers and disadvantaged groups actually want the measure to stay in place?

It’s because they believe the measure, by supporting the rollout of energy saving products, will end up saving consumers more money than it will cost. Plus it will save carbon emissions to boot.

But that’s too complex, sounds like the nanny state and the power companies don’t like it. So let’s kill it.

Meanwhile, the government boasts of increasing subsidises for energy consumption via its concessions program – with funding increased from $1.3 billion in 2009-10, to $1.6 billion in 2014-15. This is a total cost of nearly $1900 over four years for each of the 850,000 households entitled to this subsidy. A spokesperson from Energy Minister Russell Northe informed me that the government had to close VEET because it forced some people to pay for a program that would be benefiting others. Well, $1900 per household over four years or $4750 over 10 years could finance energy efficiency and solar equipment that could permanently solve these people’s energy bill problems.

But no, let’s just give them a discount on their energy bill which just gets swallowed up by energy companies because it’s simple for people to understand and that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Now, Labor have said they’d like to retain the VEET scheme but so far they’ve been completely silent on what that actually means in practice. No doubt they’re cowering in fear that they’ll be attacked in the press for slugging battlers with a carbon tax by stealth.

Instead they’re talking about reinvigorating the auto industry and dying LPG fuel-engine conversion sector by establishing a centre of excellence in LPG fueled engines. Talk about throwing good money after bad on backward and sub-economic scale technology. While the whole globe is throwing their weight behind electrifying motor vehicles, Australia will try to fight the tide to progress the use of a finite, expensive and polluting fuel which is not much better for carbon emissions than petrol.

Gough Whitlam has died, but his bold approach to policy died long ago.