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.