Not that long ago I wrote that Julia Gillard could regain control of her carbon price campaign by adopting a four-part strategy. While I don’t think for a minute the PM actually read my advice, it seems someone within her camp independently came up with a similar strategy.
At least that’s how it first appeared on Monday night when the Prime Minister gave a confident, polished and personable performance on Q&A.
The first part of my strategy required the PM to be honest – to admit her broken promise and explain the constraints she had to work with in the minority government that Australian voters had imposed upon her.
That’s pretty much what she did:
“Now, I did say during the last election campaign – I promised that there would be no carbon tax. That’s true and I’ve walked away from that commitment and I’m not going to try and pretend anything else. I also said to the Australian people in the last election campaign that we needed to act on climate change. We needed to price carbon and I wanted to see an emissions trading scheme…. Now, if I’d been leading a majority government I would have been getting on with an emissions trading scheme. It’s what I promised the Australian people. As it is, in this minority parliament, the only way I can act on climate change by pricing carbon is to work with others and so I had a really stark choice. Do I act or not act? Well, I’ve chosen to act….”
It was an exciting moment; I thought the Prime Minister had taken a huge step in rebuilding her bond of trust with the community.
But then, two mistruths shattered the illusion.
Firstly, the PM claimed the carbon price would make renewable energy-based products cheaper, that consumers would react to this price signal, and this would drive innovation. She said:
“When you come to buy things, products that are made with relatively less carbon pollution will be cheaper than products that are made with more carbon pollution. So you’re standing there with your household assistance in your hand. You could still keep buying the high carbon pollution products if you want to or what you’re far more likely to do is to buy the cheaper, lower carbon pollution products. That means that the people who make those things will get the consumer signal, gee, we will sell more, we will make more money if we make lower pollution products. That drives the innovation. So I want you to have that household assistance in your hand but I also want you to see price effects which make cleaner, greener things cheaper than high pollution commodities. That’s why it works.”
This is patently untrue. Firstly, if the carbon price is set low (eg. $20/tonne as suggested), renewable energy-based products will still be more expensive than the coal energy-based products. As explained by renewable energy advocates Beyond Zero Emissions the carbon price would have to be set much higher to make the low emission products even price competitive with the high emission ones, let alone cheaper.
“Due to the nature of technology and the energy market, we would require in excess of $70/tonne even for wind power, the lowest cost renewable, to compete in the electricity market [without subsidies]. For baseload technologies such as concentrating solar thermal, the game changer we need to replace coal and gas, you would need in excess of $200/tonne for initial plants.”
If the low carbon price doesn’t make low emission products cheaper, then the Prime Minister is relying on the green consciousness of consumers to drive green purchasing. This won’t happen either; while people claim they buy green products their actual behaviour shows they don’t. In the absence of consumers changing their purchasing patterns, there will be little or no incentive for the “big polluters” to move to lower emission inputs.
This is also recognised by activist green groups such as Friends of the Earth (Australia):
“The demand for a carbon price is widespread in the climate movement. The Greens support a low carbon tax, leading to a fully fledged emissions trading scheme. But just as rising petrol prices have not lead to new investment in public transport, a carbon price will not in itself see renewable energy built. At best it is likely to make gas more competitive with coal.”
So, on the capacity for the carbon tax to change spending patterns and drive innovation, the Prime Minister could be said to be disingenuous, but I’d say she was deliberately misleading.
Similarly, the PM intentionally misled Q&A viewers with her comment about China. While scolding us for being climate recalcitrants, the Prime Minister misrepresented China’s climate actions to emphasise our tardiness:
“You know, China [is] closing down a dirty coal-fired power generation facility at the rate of one every one to two weeks.”
In reality, China is replacing its old coal-fired power stations with new ones. China is a long way from abandoning coal in the way suggested by the Prime Minister.
The International Energy Agency says China’s economic and social growth is so vast and so rapid that the nation will continue to use coal for electricity generation until at least 2035.
“The IEA estimates that China, which generates more than 70% of its electricity with coal, will build 600 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity in the next quarter-century – as much as is currently generated with coal in America, Japan and the European Union put together.”
Also according to the IEA, China overtook the US in 2009 as the world’s largest energy user. The organization says:
“…the country’s energy demand is foreseen to surge a stunning 75% between 2008 and 2035, when it will account for 22% of world demand. China will lead the surge in electricity generation growth, and power demand in the country is expected to triple between 2008 and 2035.”
China is doing what‘s best for its people while it grapples with global issues such as climate change. The Gillard government is attempting the same, but doing a poor job of it.
Sleights of hand and half-truths won’t engender the community respect that the Prime Minister needs for us to follow her lead. Without such trust and willingness, there will be no effective climate action.
As I’ve said before, if the Prime Minister wants to bring Australian voters along with her in pursuit of a low emission economy, she must treat us like adults and start telling us the truth.
The truth, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, is that global power generation is expected to grow by 75% between now and 2035. The truth is that fossil fuels will continue to dominate even though the proportion of renewable energy sources will grow.
The truth is that it’ll be tough to wean Australians from our country’s natural strengths, such as plentiful and affordable energy, and the comfortable lifestyle that comes with it.
And the greatest truth is that this process will require a transformation of the economy and of our lifestyles that we will have never seen before.
The full transcript of the PM’s appearance on Q&A is available here.
Let’s admit it. One time or another, most of us have taken the easy way out. We’ve criticised instead of giving constructive criticism; we’ve focused on what can’t be done instead of what can.
When it comes to the carbon tax, my hands aren’t clean. I’ve been critical of the climate change mantra that claims putting a price on carbon in Australia will reduce global emissions.
However, putting my misgivings aside, if I look at the carbon tax as a communicator I’ve no doubt that it could more effectively be pitched to the Australian community. So I challenged myself to craft a communications strategy that would successfully sell such a tax.
And here it is. This strategy is an all-or-nothing approach. Each of its four components relies upon the other. It also relies upon the sincerity of our Prime Minister to be successful.
Step 1: Say sorry
There’s only one way for Julia Gillard to defuse the ongoing and escalating accusations of deceit. She must apologise, unreservedly and genuinely, for breaking the commitment she made before the last federal election.
Such apologies can be done badly, so the PM must study key examples to avoid making similar mistakes. Ms Gillard would do well to note how her predecessor mishandled an apology exactly 12 months ago by mouthing the right words, but in such a sing-song manner that any perception of empathy was shattered in the process.
Like Rudd, Gillard also seems to have been standing behind the door when empathy was handed out, so she will need to keep this in mind when delivering her mea culpa on the carbon tax.
Step 2: Be honest
Secondly, the Prime Minister must dispense with the pretence that Labor holds government in its own right. When apologising for the broken pre-election commitment, Gillard must remind voters that she was obliged to do so in order to form a minority government.
Ms Gillard must remind voters that it was their decision to give the Greens and independents the power to form government with one of the major parties. And she must remind voters that negotiation and ultimately concession are the price that Labor must pay every day to deliver as many of its elections commitments as possible to the nation.
In being straight with voters about the constraints they’ve imposed upon her, the Prime Minister would achieve two things. She’d earn respect for acknowledging this democratic decision. She’d also be telling those who voted in protest for the Greens last time that they should consider this outcome and vote more carefully next time.
Being honest in this way doesn’t necessarily give credibility to the Opposition’s claim that Bob Brown is the real Prime Minister. If delivered by Julia Gillard with honesty and authority, this message will demonstrate that she has the leadership capability to accommodate Green voters’ interests while still pursuing a broader Labor agenda for the benefit of the whole community.
Step 3: Put Australia in a positive light
Thirdly, the Prime Minister must focus and build upon Australia’s greenhouse positives, not the negatives.
Australians want to be told they’re winners, not losers, and preferably on the international stage if at all possible. We don’t like being scolded for emitting the highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions per person in the whole world. We don’t like being made to feel guilty about our quality of life. And we feel anxious, resentful and even angry about government actions that may threaten that lifestyle in any way.
Rather than tell Australians they need to take their greenhouse medicine and cop a little pain for the public gain, the Prime Minister should spruik how Aussie greenhouse technologies, services and know-how are smarter and more successful than our international competitors.
In this context the carbon tax can be pitched as the way for all Australians to help fund our smarter greenhouse actions; the way to pay for the expensive research, development and demonstration projects that are needed for Australian clean energy technologies to get the edge on their overseas competitors and be winners on the international stage.
Step 4: Make it real
And finally, Australians must be helped to make connections between their own everyday actions and greenhouse mitigation.
State governments did this successfully with their water restriction campaigns. By drawing a link between climate change, the drought and dwindling water resources, state governments gave their constituents a way to see the tangible benefits of their water parsimony; whether they changed their water consumption behaviour, paid to install water tanks, or let their turf die.
The altruistic “payback” for these actions was the daily progress reports on roadside electronic billboards showing the results of the previous day’s efforts in terms of water used, targets reached and dam levels achieved.
Australians were happy enough to comply with water restrictions because they felt they were doing their bit for the collective good, and in reality the required change in behaviour was not overly costly or inconvenient.
Similar initiatives are needed to sell the carbon tax. Daily electricity use numbers, targets and perhaps even $$ saved or exceeded could be shown on the same electronic roadside billboards that have become a familiar sight to commuters on their daily trek home.
Real-time feedback of this kind will remind Australians that they are doing their own bit for the planet, and help them to feel good about it.
These are the success factors for selling the carbon tax. Make an apology to reset the tempo of the debate. Treat Australian voters like adults and tell them the truth about the constraints of minority government. Tell us we’re winners in the greenhouse action game. And help us feel not only connected to that action, but also proud to be doing our bit.
The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.
These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.
Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.
The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.
While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.
During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.
Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.
Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.
Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.
Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”
The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”
Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.
Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)
An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”
This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.
The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”
This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.
This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed
The unknown extent of altruism in the hearts and pockets of Australian voters must be playing heavily on the minds of major political players right now.
They will carefully be examining taxpayers’ response to the flood levy to assess whether individuals truly are willing to pay more for the collective good.
This willingness has implications much broader than flood reconstruction – it goes directly to public acceptance of the carbon price that is now at the heart of the government’s climate change response.
Australian governments have been watching taxpayers for quite some time to gauge their willingness to take a little monetary pain for a broader public gain.
Evidence so far suggests that Australians are generally prepared to be altruistic when they can see tangible benefits delivered within a relatively short space of time.
Australians were happy enough to pay a levy to buy back guns or assist East Timor* because the “results” were depicted often and compellingly on our television screens. The twinge in our hip pocket nerve was ameliorated by the images of guns being turned into scrap and Diggers playing footy with smiling East Timorese children. In fact, we took pleasure from bearing a small cost which contributed to the mitigation of a much bigger problem.
The challenge facing Julia Gillard is that there is no similar way to depict how climate action costs which affect individuals will deliver community benefits. There is no tangible way to show how paying more for carbon-based goods and services today will reduce the effects of climate change in the future.
The Prime Minister needs to find a compelling analogue to help Australians feel directly connected with climate change solutions in order to be prepared to pay for them.
State governments have over the past decade been exploring this concept with their water restriction regimes.
Despite households consuming only one sixth (11%) of the water used by agriculture, the introduction of domestic water restrictions created the impression that individual members of the public were directly responsible for the success of their state’s response to the nation’s seven-year drought.
By drawing a link between climate change, the drought and dwindling water resources, state governments gave their constituents a way to see the tangible benefits of their water parsimony; whether they changed their water consumption behaviour, paid to install water tanks, or let their turf die.
The altruistic “payback” for these actions was the daily progress reports on roadside electronic billboards showing the results of the previous day’s efforts in terms of water used, targets reached and dam levels achieved.
Australians were happy enough to comply with water restrictions because they felt they were doing their bit for the collective good, and in reality the required change in behavior was not overly costly or inconvenient.
Compare the relatively benign stance on sharing this burden with that taken by the very same Australians on the flood levy. The levy is much less of an impost than water restrictions, the community benefit that it will deliver is undoubtedly tangible and compelling, but still barely half the Australian community supports it.
How can this be? Is it because we resent being forced to pay more when so much has already been given voluntarily? Or is it because the levy is seen as another tax grab that will be subsumed into consolidated revenue and never seen again? A poll taken by The Drum suggests it is a combination of these two complaints.
Let’s shift focus then to the carbon price. Australia’s economy is built upon an electricity supply system that is around 80% coal-fuelled. As a consequence, households and businesses currently enjoy some of the cheapest electricity prices in the world. A carbon price will increase the price of electricity as well as those goods and services that require electricity to be produced.
Will Australians resent being forced to pay more when they have already invested time and money in taking voluntary greenhouse actions? Or will they see the carbon price as another tax grab that will be subsumed into consolidated revenue and never seen again? Perhaps, yet again, it will be a combination of the two.
This is the conundrum facing the Prime Minister and her government right now.
If they don’t get the sales pitch right for the carbon price, if they don’t counteract the “I’ve already given at the office” mentality and dispel concerns about fiscal prudence, then the carbon price will sound the death knell for Gillard just as the scrapping of the carbon tax did for her predecessor.
*The East Timor levy was never actually imposed, being scrapped just before it came into effect.
An updated version of this post was written for Crikey.com