How to sell a carbon tax

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.

Faux environmentalism

Will Australians’ faux environmentalism derail our greenhouse effort?

It seems the Government’s proposed flood levy has tested the limits of Australians’ willingness to help others. While many thousands voluntarily gave money, supplies and physical support to those affected by the floods, opinion polls show around half the population has balked at a modest Government levy to share restoration costs.

Why aren’t we prepared to pay a bit more for the greater good? Is it because we resent being forced to pay when so much has already been given voluntarily? Or is it because the levy is seen simply as another tax grab? Again, the opinion polls suggest it’s a combination of the two.

Perhaps even more troubling is the extension of our philanthropic inconsistency beyond charitable acts into the environmental domain. Many Australians are only pseudo green, speaking green words rather than doing green deeds and this faux environmentalism has implications for the carbon price now at the centre of the Gillard Government’s greenhouse efforts.

Essentially, the carbon price will increase the cost of greenhouse gas-based goods and services to a level similar with those produced using renewable-based technologies. The aim of the carbon price is to encourage consumers, when faced with similarly high priced goods and services, to choose the renewable-based option and thereby bring down its cost over time through economies of scale.

Therefore, the carbon price relies on our willingness as individuals to pay more for the collective good. Does our reluctance to pay the flood levy foreshadow a similar resistance to pay the carbon price? The disparity between our green words and deeds suggests this is indeed the case. Just look at our purchasing behaviour.

Australia enjoys some of the cheapest electricity in the world and as a result we’ve furnished our homes with air-conditioning, multiple fridges, big screen televisions and numerous computing devices. This cheap, coal-based electricity comes at an environmental price with around 17% of Australia’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions coming from household electricity use.

Even though we know this and despite the establishment of the first green energy schemes way back in 1997, Australians’ voluntary participation in such schemes continues to languish in the single-digit percentages. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that household awareness of renewable-based GreenPower schemes increased to 52% in 2008. While 33% of Australians expressed a willingness to pay extra for GreenPower, in fact only 5% of households actually do so.

The same pattern emerges with green shopping. Independent research recently conducted with the support of the food and grocery industry and EPA Victoria found that while 80% of shoppers said they consider sustainability issues when doing the groceries, their actual shopping trolley contents showed only 13% bought environmentally-sustainable food and groceries. When asked about packaging, 27% of those surveyed said they’d be prepared to compromise on food and grocery packaging to protect the environment; but only 6% said they would give up the convenience that came with packaging. On the thorny question of price, 85% of the shoppers surveyed said they were worried about the impact of food and groceries on the environment. At the same time, 78% said they would not pay extra for sustainable products if this made the products more expensive.

The emptiness of our green rhetoric is obvious even in car sales. 2010 was a record year for the sale of greenhouse-friendly hybrid cars, with Toyota selling 6833 hybrid Camrys and 1611 Priuses. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that Aussies are abandoning their V8s for climate friendly cars; only 20% of the hybrids were purchased by private buyers with the rest being bought by celebrities, governments or businesses. In a similar vein, all of the 112 electric cars bought last year were for commercial fleets.

So here’s the rub. Australians are generally reluctant to be more environmentally responsible, particularly if it costs more. Combine this with our resistance to the flood levy and it seems likely that we will resent being required to pay more for everything that involves carbon in its production, transport or use.

The Prime Minister cannot be complacent about the sincerity of the community’s commitment to greenhouse action. It’s quite clear that while we often say the right thing, we do something else.

Unless this is acknowledged, nothing will be done to understand or transform our faux environmentalism into the real thing. If nothing is done, our greenhouse efforts are doomed to be derailed by public self-interest and outrage.

Right now, public support for a carbon price is little more than uninformed rhetoric. The Gillard Government needs to prepare for when the Australian people start to focus on the personal cost that will arise from the carbon price. Saying it is for the common good will just not be enough.

This article originally appeared at The King’s Tribune.

Voters don’t care about political lies

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

Has the flood levy damaged the carbon price?

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