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.

A salutary tale for the Australian Greens


There once was a political party that claimed it was not like the others.

The party was led by a wizened political warrior who spoke compellingly about the major parties being out of touch. His party advocated environmental protection, recognition for indigenous Australians, law reform for gays and equality for all Australians.

The party offered Australian voters a third force in politics and vowed to impose accountability upon the major parties.

Over time, the party grew in popularity and its candidates won enough votes to secure the balance of power in the Senate.

Do you know which party this story is about?

Well think again, because this party, the Australian Democrats, held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, the Democrats also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

How did this happen? And more importantly – could it happen again?

This is the question that should be occupying the minds of the Australian Greens right now, as they prepare to take up the Senate balance of power on 1 July 2011.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Both parties positioned themselves where there was a perceived absence of political representation. The Democrats were considered a centrist party, attracting the first preference votes of the disillusioned major-party faithful, who then returned to the fold with second preferences on a roughly 50-50 basis.

Despite campaigning on many of the same issues, the Greens have positioned themselves to the left of Labor, with around 80 percent of their second preferences heading back to the Labor Party.

Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two minor parties is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated.

It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing and this should be a salutary lesson for the Greens.

Many observers point to the Democrats’ decision in 1999 to support passage of the GST in the Senate as the beginning of the end. This is instructive in itself, for the Democrats took a pro-GST policy to the preceding election. Nevertheless, the decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles, reinforced by a number of Democrat Senators crossing the floor to vote against the tax. This undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time onwards, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 Federal Election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it is much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

This article first appeared at The King’s Tribune.

I am the greenhouse culprit! And so are you.

There’s a great video that does the rounds every now and then showing a young woman collecting signatures on a petition to ban a substance with an unfamiliar scientific name. When questioned by potential petitioners, she replies that the substance is “a chemical found in reservoirs and lakes”, that “pesticides, nuclear and styrofoam companies are using it”, that it “ends up in babies’ food” and that it “causes excess sweating and urination”.

The scenario is a set-up and the young woman is actually talking about water. She has no trouble getting signatures because she uses terms that have been proved by market research to provoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Such terms can generate feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and sometimes fear. These feelings motivate the listener to take defensive action, on this occasion by signing the petition.

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, tried to do the same thing earlier this week. He used a number of key words and phrases, honed by researchers in sympathetic think tanks such as the Climate Institute and the Australia Institute, to create the same sense of powerlessness about climate change, and hopefully to drive anxious Australians into the arms of Greens recruiters.

Brown talked about the coal industry’s “excess profits”, they were the “culprits” of natural disasters, the industry is “75% owned outside Australia”, and that the version of the mining tax agreed by Labor with the industry “would cost Australians $35 billion in foregone revenue.”

On this occasion, Brown misjudged the timing of his polemic. Australians were already feeling anxious and powerless in the face of natural forces and, when presented with Brown’s comments, were outraged by his attempt to exploit their vulnerability to score a cheap political point.

The additional irony is the factual inaccuracies in Brown’s ill-judged comments. Australia’s entire mining industry (coal and metals) directly generates 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gases. Our electricity, gas & water sectors account for 36.6%, agriculture 20.9%; manufacturing accounts for 12.6%; and services, construction & transport 10.5%.

Households generate 9.4%. But that isn’t the whole picture.

It has been estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that
Australian households are responsible, either directly or indirectly through the consumption of goods and services that require energy to produce, for the generation of most of our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (around 56%), mainly through household electricity use (about 17%) and motor vehicle use (about 12%).

That makes you and me the real greenhouse culprits.

So if Bob Brown was genuine about sharing the cost burden for greenhouse action, what would he be doing? He would be telling Australians that:

  • they should get rid of that second fridge or the freezer/bar fridge in the garage
  • each house should have only one small television and one computer
  • no electrical appliance should have a stand-by function and all would need to be switched on and off at the outlet
  • people who wish to use electricity at peak times should pay more for it
  • they should build smaller homes and increase the amount of people living in each house
  • petrol should be raised to $2 a litre and 6-8 cylinder cars should be banned from Australian roads
  • the use of aluminium and concrete in building and manufacturing should be banned due to the high amount of greenhouse gases generated during their production
  • Australia should stop growing food more food than it needs (currently Australia exports 60% of the food it grows).

But Brown will not advocate these actions because they will not win the Greens members or votes.

Tastings from the 2010 political buffet

At the end of this week, just before the official start of summer, the Australian Parliament will rise, politicians will head home to their electorates and voters will focus on how many meats to serve on Christmas Day or the quickest route to the beach. For many, the summer break is for relaxation; yet for others it evokes reflection about the year just passed. Given the political year we’ve just had, the reflective folk will have much food for thought.

From my perspective, the two leadership challenges, two state elections and the federal poll have challenged conventional wisdom and rewritten election playbooks, but also confirmed some political trusims. I don’t pretend to be a psephologist or political pundit, but I’m hopelessly attracted to the world of politics. I can’t help but look for patterns and cause-effect relationships and wonder how these might alter the path of political endeavour in the future.

With that caveat, I offer up for your degustation these observations from the political buffet of 2010.

Appetiser: Australian voters want their politicians to be genuine

At times during the federal election, it was hard to distinguish a 7.30 Report interview from the latest instalment of Kath and Kim, such was the broadness of Aussie accent on display. Both Gillard and Abbott went to great lengths to prove they were genuine and in touch with real Australians – particularly compared to their predecessors, the densely verbose Rudd and the tree-hugging patrician Turnbull.

However, Gillard’s authenticity was somewhat inconsistent during the early days of the campaign. At one point she morphed into a Stepford Prime Minister, nodding sagely to the cameras while using the calming tones of a pre-school teacher. This persona grated on voters’ sensibilities and she was quickly cast off in favour of the New! Real! Authentic! Julia. While undoubtedly relieved, voters were nevertheless left to wonder about the previous incarnations of Ms Gillard and their authenticity.

Tony Abbott’s misstep was equally unsettling, telling Kerry O’Brien that he couldn’t necessarily be held to account for words spoken in the heat of the moment, but that his written word was trustworthy. While operatives tried to spin this blunder as candour, it undoubtedly left a crack in Abbott’s everyman persona.

While there were many factors that contributed to the federal election outcome, I believe the genuineness of the party leaders was one of them. Faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity was in question, many voters chose neither. The perception that neither Gillard nor Abbott was genuine contributed to the shift of votes to the Greens.

Gillard and Abbott are now on probation – the media and voters are alert for any more cracks in their authenticity. So too will the country independents be scrutinised to see if they are as genuine as they currently seem.

Entrée: Unfulfilled expectations will come back to bite you

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. As I wrote back in June, Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

PM Gillard almost paid the ultimate price by making the same mistake soon after she replaced Rudd. Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme. Voters would have been forgiven for wondering why the PM who couldn’t fulfil commitments was brutally torn down for another with the same failings.

Gillard was damaged by that early mismanagement of expectations. It will be interesting to see whether the Labor Government, the Greens and the independents are wary of creating (or maintaining) expectations in 2011 that cannot be met.

Main: Re-enfranchised rural Australians are watching carefully

Rural Australians are a canny bunch: they may have grown up in the arms of the Country or National parties, but they are open to any other party or individual who can protect their chosen way of life. This is clear from the diminishing number of National Party members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the ALP and Liberals have developed “country” arms of their parties to capitalise on this opportunity.

Country independents are not new to our parliament. Up until now, most have languished on the cross-benches because their votes were not important. Now with deciding votes in the lower House, the current country independents are being watched very carefully by rural Australia. No doubt, National MPs are closely watching them too. Rogue WA National, Tony Crook, managed to do what the rest of his fraternity could only dream of by swiftly dissociating from the Nationals soon after the election and putting his vote up for auction.

If the independents and Crook can materially improve the lot of rural Australians with their pivotal votes, then National MPs could be faced with the unenviable choice at the next federal election of either becoming an independent themselves or being beaten by one.

Dessert: The Greens run the risk of dis-enfranchising their constituency

More than a decade ago the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate, just as the Greens will do on 1 July next year as a result of this year’s election. In order to extract certain concessions from the Howard Government, the Democrats agreed in 1999 to support the GST legislation in Senate. This decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles. It undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time on, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 federal election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July next year, they will discover as did the Democrats that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Cheese: The current model for election reporting is broken

Much has already been said and written about this final point. Political parties have so tightly orchestrated the involvement of mainstream media in election campaigns that the resulting coverage is so contrived that it’s meaningless. Senior journalists rarely travel with the Leaders’ teams any more, preferring to observe and opine from the comfort of their office. Journalists who do travel with the Leaders are told little, shepherded from venue to venue, and given little time to absorb policy announcements before being given access to the Leader who merely parrots the line of the day.

The current model is broken and probably cannot be repaired. I look forward instead to mainstream media outlets refusing to put anyone at all on campaign buses next election, the parties having to instead produce campaign footage for placement on YouTube, Leaders choosing to hold numerous town hall meetings around the country instead of pic-facs, and MP and candidates dealing directly with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Now that will be an election to reflect upon!