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Opinion Piece

How to stop the repeal of the carbon tax

This article was originally published on SBS Opinion, 17th October 2013

Proponents of the carbon tax have long struggled to articulate its purpose clearly to the public. It’s not too late to change all that, writes Simon Copland.

The battle lines have been drawn. Tony Abbott has now released the draft legislation to repeal the carbon price. With The ALP and Greens standing firm with a strong ‘no’ to the bill, the next year will be dominated with the question, will the Clean Energy Package survive?

Whilst we may all want to speculate, I don’t think we will know until July next year. It will come down to a bunch of minor party players in the Senate (unless Abbott goes for a double dissolution). At the moment it seems like those players will fall in line with a repeal, but that is not certain. Questions still remain on who will be in the Senate (in WA) and over the reliability of alliances made (particularly in the Palmer Party). And that doesn’t take into account the different elements of the package – the new legislation does not include a repeal of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – a very different vote that could see very different results.

However, there is one thing we can be certain of. At the moment, there is virtually no reason those who currently lean towards voting against the carbon price have for changing their position.

Ever since its inception, the carbon price been quite unpopular, with a recent poll even showing that people thought direct action was a better policy to tackle climate change. More importantly, concern and willingness to take action on climate change has been steadily dropping (with a little uptick last year). The political pressure against repealing the carbon package, or for any real action on climate change, is simply not there.

It paints a sobering picture. After the failure of Copenhagen and the steady campaign against the ‘great lie’, our community and politicians are less willing than they have been for a long time to take action to halt a climate catastrophe. In this scenario, it should be pretty easy for Tony Abbott to get his way.

But in the midst of the doom there is a clear lesson for climate campaigners – a lesson that if we take up, could save the clean energy package – or at least parts of it.

The message is simple – we need to make climate change an issue again. It sounds like a dumb statement. Climate change has been a major issue for decades, and dominated the last six years of political debate. It is clearly a major issue in our politics. But take a closer look and you will see what I mean. Virtually all campaigning around the carbon price since it was introduced ignored the issue at heart; the warming of our planet.

For example, the Say Yes Australia campaign, and its infamous ad featuring Cate Blanchett, hardly mention climate change at all. It talked in broad terms about putting a price on pollution, and helping those in need, whilst not providing any real life reasons for why we should do so. This was part of a greater trend within many in the climate movement, who are turning their attention away from climate change, and instead focusing on issues such as the Great Barrier Reef, land and water, or on the general idea of ‘pricing pollution’. The belief is that ‘climate change is not a winner’.

Early Government campaigns did the same thing. The Government focused almost wholly on the assistance given to families to compensate them for the price. In doing so the carbon price was framed as a burden from day one, and there was no explanation as to why this burden had to be imposed.In other words, whilst climate change was the core reason for a price on carbon, we sort of forgot to talk about it when campaigning on the policy. We’ve landed in a place where we say ‘take action on climate change’ or ‘put a price on pollution’, without going any deeper – without explaining why we should do these things. And in doing so climate change has stopped being an issue that the community is concerned about (there are a range of reasons for this) – it has just become an abstract concept that requires what seems like burdensome and extremely complex legislation.

And you can see therefore why people may rebel against action on. With evidence showing that people struggle to connect with climate change, if it isn’t seen as currently relevant in people’s minds, action on it isn’t going to get support (particularly as we buy into the jobs versus the environment framework).

And that means that if we want to win the debate on the carbon price, we need to change our focus. I have spoken about how to do this in length in an essay in Inside Story. Basically we need to make climate the issue again, and in doing so we need to make it a values-based and moral issue. Instead of talking about which mechanism is better (a carbon price or direct action), we need to focus on a simple story about the moral catastrophe that is climate change. Climate change is real, happening and hurting us now, fossil fuel companies and Tony Abbott are fueling it, and good policy such as stopping new fossil fuel developments and investing in renewable energy can stop it. It’s not about arguing which solution is better, but instead making it impossible for Senators to vote against action on climate change and survive to tell the tale.

It is a broad approach, but you can see that it is one that resonates. Even the Daily Telegraph, a long time climate skeptic, recognised the real and potential impacts of global warming earlier this week in a front page story. The story connected people to real-life impacts, presenting it as a moral dilemma we need to deal with. And in doing so a campaign can create the demand for action once again, turning that demand into pressure to stop people voting against the Clean Energy Package (as well as taking other action on the issue).

I have no idea whether we will be able to stop the carbon price being repealed. If you were to ask me today I would say it would probably be repealed after the new Senate comes in next year. However, I know that a campaign to convince us all that a price on carbon is best way to stop climate change, is the perfect way to see it repealed next year. To win we need to make climate the issue again.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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