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Language Changes as Fluid as the Changes to the Tax Itself, If Not More

The carbon tax, price on carbon, carbon price, fixed price carbon reduction scheme, call it what you want has by far been the most talked about public policy decision made, with the prodding of the Greens in order for minority government support. It has been the subject of political debate ever since Prime Minister Gillard uttered those words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead” just a short time out from the August 2010 election. The political to-and-fro over the carbon price has been ferocious with the Opposition making their disdain for such a policy, one they once supported, a central feature of the discourse of the last two years.

Over recent months there has been much discussion and debate over specific elements of the carbon price. We’ve seen the floor price dropped so that our framework, once transitioned to an Emissions Trading Scheme, could be linked to the European Union ETS in a common carbon market.

There had been much talk and pleading from different quarters, calling for the floor price to be dropped ahead of the floating price which begins in 2015. However, we were repeatedly assured by the Gillard Government that the floor price would remain while simultaneously it seems, the government were in discussion with the Greens, convincing them that abandoning the floor price would be okay.

Then there’s also the other not so small matter of the ALP deciding to abandon plans to buy back and secure the closure of the five dirtiest coal-fired power stations.

Both these decisions bring an amount of uncertainty to the usefulness of the scheme, with these facets of carbon pricing seen to make it easier and more certain that the carbon reduction benefits of such a policy would be realised. Now, that task of reducing emissions and the hopes of raking in sufficient revenue to pay for the compensation and other benefits of the Clean Energy Future appears to be on very shaky ground. If the aims are to be achieved, they will now be done the hard way.

These moves imply that the Labor Party were worried about the policy, particularly the public perceptions of the price on carbon, which has since improved markedly. They make a government already low in confidence and in the polls publicly appear uncertain of their prospects, scared of the electoral defeat which is still highly likely, some time after July next year.

This slippery and slidey approach to the carbon tax policy has also been mirrored in the use of language by the Coalition. The same messages and implications have broken through from the altered usage of words to describe the pollution reduction scheme, as were received through the dumping of the floor price and the decision to not close down the dirtiest power stations.

In fact, the language to negatively describe the carbon tax has changed more than the policy itself.

First we had the Opposition describing the carbon price as a “cobra strike”. This characterisation said to people that the impacts of the carbon price would be immediate and deadly for certain sectors and the economy and the population more broadly, the venom spreading fast across the economy and gradually breaking down bodily (economic) organs.

Next up was the description of the carbon mechanism as being a “python squeeze” on the economy. This screams slower suffocation of the organs of the economy, but still ultimately says that the patient will die but the death might well be slower. It also gives an air of avoidability, that suffocation can be more easily overcome than a deadly poison coursing through the veins of the economy.

The latest expression to be used by the Opposition Leader is that the price will be like an “octopus’ embrace”, its tentacles grabbing hold of various parts of the Australian economy, far and wide, as well as the people. Presumably though, it’s not a Blue-Ringed Octopus as they’re poisonous.

Curiously, if a Blue-Ringed Octopus wasn’t in mind with this example, it’s the only one that doesn’t imply that death is a near certainty.

Either way, both the language to deride the climate change policy of the Labor Government and the policy itself have undergone changes, with the shifts in both sides ostensibly implying the same thing, uncertainty over their relative positions.

A Carbon Price Policy That Continues With Twists and Turns

Carbon pricing has been front and centre in the political debate in Australia, particularly since the August 2010 election, but also in the lead-up to Kevin Rudd becoming Prime Minister, right through until he was deposed. At that stage it had disappeared from the agenda after talks failed at the Copenhagen summit after which then Prime Minister Rudd swiftly dumped his governments’ plans for an emissions trading scheme. We then had nothing in the form of emissions trading or carbon pricing when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, until after the election where Ms Gillard had promised there would not be a carbon tax under her government.It was then, that under negotiations for a minority government, the PM, in seeking support to remain Prime Minister agreed to put forward plans for a price on carbon emissions.

From that moment on the problems started for the Gillard Government. First it was a problem of credibility, our nation’s leader had lied and her administration has never recovered from that. Then the negotiations, particularly with the Australian Greens, who wanted a lot more from the new carbon price than the ETS Kevin Rudd proposed, proved a delicate process where there was clearly a lot more giving in then taking concessions from the Greens.

Then it was time for the hard selling of the policy to the public, already let down by the lie and finding it extra hard to believe that the compensation would be enough to allay the extra cost burden under a carbon pricing regime. In recent weeks it has become clear that a significant number of people are probably less concerned about the extra costs of the carbon tax and the government would be hoping that the numbers continue to head in the right direction.

Since the fixed price carbon reduction scheme began on July the 1st though, elements of it have either been dropped or temporarily sat aside. First, just last week, in linking our carbon price with the European Union from 2015, the ALP agreed to drop the floor price. This would have meant that the cost of carbon credits did not drop below $15 dollars per tonne.

Today there was another backdown. The Labor Government gave up on talks to secure the shutdown of five of the biggest coal-fired power stations. The sticking point being that the compensation put on the table by the government was not enough. Now, this could be returned to at a later date, but the outcome of future talks would probably be more of the same without more latitude being given.

If the scheme hadn’t already been thrown into confusion over revenue with the removal of the floor price, now any thoughts of the mid to long-term reduction of domestic emissions appear dashed- not that domestic emissions would have been reduced under early years of the policy anyway.

So now, not only is future revenue with the emissions trading scheme beginning in three years time in doubt, now even the emissions reduction targets are in jeopardy if talks cannot be resumed and a mutually agreeable outcome reached.

What’s next on the rollercoaster that is carbon pricing? The story won’t end here.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The life of this tense, predictable and too unpredictable 43rd parliament enters another week as it screams even closer to the long winter recess with this week and then another two week sitting period left in June before over a months break. But for now there is still another 3 weeks of sitting before the parliamentarians and viewers of it get some respite from the rowdiness and almost formulaic approach to Question Time that has emerged over a period of time. Our parliamentarians might be having a winter break from parliament, but they won’t be going into political hibernation, the thirst for power and political momentum precludes that.

As always there is a small combination of areas which the Coalition will use in their pursuit of the Gillard Government during Question Time. It is quite likely to be full-on attack strategy today in the hour and a bit of Question Time, though shock and awe it will not be because the subjects of focus have been discussed and debated for some time in the broader political debate.

As has been said previously, the carbon price is nearing commencement, due to come into effect on the 1st of July, pretty much just a month away and will likely be the major focus during Question Time, perhaps, though this is the slightly unpredictable factor, being the matter of the focus of most Opposition questions.

Events surrounding Craig Thomson, the MP for Dobell are also likely to bear some focus during Question Time from the Coalition despite the fact that the subject and avenues of action around it have been exhausted and this goes to the very nature of this minority government with power being the main game in the halls of Canberra.

Leadership and confidence is also quite likely to enter the Question Time debate with whispers flaring up over the weekend, thanks to a policy announcement by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Friday which has brought divisions in the caucus out into the sunshine again.

There were also reports over the weekend in relationship to the leadership issue that Joel Fitzgibbon, the Chief Government Whip, a Gillard supporter had openly been counting numbers for a Rudd return to the Prime Ministership, a post he lost so unceremoniously.

Further to these areas of debate, a question or two, perhaps more to mix things up and keep them slightly different may well be on the believability of the predicted budget surplus and the spending contained within the budget.

A question or questions from the Abbott-led Opposition in relation the operation of the Fair Work Act, as well as Fair Work Australia, not in relation to the Craig Thomson/HSU matter will also be a distinct possibility.

The ALP Government, for its part will almost certainly continue its effectively sole focus since the budget and that is, selling the budget. The government will use the Dorothy Dixer to attempt selling aspects of the budget that will provide low and middle income earners with extra money for educating their kids and for their families.

The Government may choose to talk about the Clean Energy Future (read, carbon tax, carbon price) but this is likely to have much less of a focus given the controversial nature of the policy and is likely to focus on the compensation package provided in an attempt to blunt the inevitable costs of such a policy.

Events will be borne out from 2pm today and they are not for the faint-hearted.  Indeed only the masochistic political wonks around this fair rock of ours should delve into the frustrating wonder that is Question Time. But seriously, politics is really cool.

Those Two Words We Dare Not Speaketh Will Not Appear in Our Ads

The carbon tax, carbon price, whatever you wish to call it is now just a matter of weeks from fruition, coming into effect on July 1 at a starting price of $23 per tonne. This policy backflip has been the cause of so much poll pain for the Australian Labor Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and sees the ALP trailing the Tony Abbott led Coalition by double digits.

With every major policy, especially the ones that cause controversy and are much harder to sell (think WorkChoices as a recent example) generally comes a substantial advertising campaign trying to bring the public around to what the government of the day thinks are the benefits of such a package and how these benefits will outweigh the much argued about costs.

That is no different than with the so-called “Clean Energy Future” policy package which has been legislated by the Commonwealth parliament and set to take effect in roughly a month and a half.

The Gillard Government has announced a $36 million advertising budget to attempt to sell the package to a wary and largely switched off public that didn’t particularly enjoy the change of mind brought on by the minority government situation.

In just the next 6 weeks, the government will spend $14 million of that total budget allocation in a likely wasted attempt to ameliorate concerns over the package. This amounts to a total spend per day of appromimately $270,000 over that month-and-a-half long period.

The media blitz focuses on the compensation packaged related to the carbon pricing legislation which totals $4.2 billion and makes the total spend on advertising the Clean Energy Future package $70 million dollars.

This in itself is a very high amount for a Labor Government that took office, under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, promising to reign in unnecessary government spending on advertising and public relations, particularly in the wake of the Howard Government spending an enormous $121 million dollars promoting the controversial WorkChoices legislation which played a significant part in the downfall of the Howard Government after over a decade in office.

Compared to the spending on WorkChoices advertising, $70 million dollars does seem small, but only in comparison. Advertising to attempt to change public perceptions on legislation seems a dubious idea and could be better spent on other policies.

What is most horrific about the current advertising package is not the cost, but the way that it attempts to sell the household assistance that will be received by millions in the very near future.

The latest advertisement, which has just started airing makes absolutely no mention of the fact that the assistance package is part of the response to the inevitable price rises which will be caused by the instigation of the carbon price. It is just referred to as the “household assistance package” and this gives the impression that the government are trying to sell the package to the unaware as effectively money for nothing.

There is no reference anywhere in the entire 30 seconds of any of the related ads, be it the ad targetted at seniors, singles or families of those two words that have become so dangerous for the government, ‘carbon’ and ‘tax’, that when put together, even as the “carbon price” iteration, spells disaster for the on the nose government.

So when you see those ads and think of the extra money you will be receiving from the government, remind yourself that you are not receiving money for nothing.

NOTE: Not referring to the Dire Straits song when I use the phrase “money for nothing”. Just to clear that up 🙂

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