Gillard’s half-baked carbon tax stink bomb
It is well known that in politics you don’t interrupt your enemy when he is busy making a mistake. Yet it is a rule routinely forgotten.
Coalition MPs were surprised when Julia Gillard suddenly bobbed up on February 24 to announce Australia would indeed have a carbon tax as a prelude to a full emissions trading scheme.
Much of the commentary since has been about the bizarre politics of the announcement rather than the substance of the policy. This is because there was no substance (beyond it being a blatant broken promise) and because the whole event raised serious questions as to who in the PM’s inner sanctum is in charge of strategy and who, beyond the PM’s office, is shaping policy. As to the latter, the Opposition’s claim that the Greens are the tail wagging the dog was hardly contradicted by their presence in the PM’s normally exclusive courtyard.
Seeing Bob Brown and Christine Milne delighted by their influence also delighted Tony Abbott even as it had Labor MPs mumbling darkly.
Then there was the timing.
Why had the Government chosen that particular moment to do it - especially given that it came before anything beyond the most rudimentary details had been agreed? Voters were told Australian businesses needed investment certainty yet increased uncertainty was the most immediate effect.
What voters were expressly not told was at what level the carbon price would be set, how long it would be in place before being replaced by an ETS, who would be liable to pay, which industries would be shielded due to their export-orientation, and myriad technical factors about the new scheme. Most glaring from a popular opinion viewpoint was the Government’s inability to say how the tax would affect ordinary people in terms of prices, particularly for electricity and fuel, and what compensation would be available to mitigate these effects.
The conspicuous absence of these crucial details was a gift for a rampaging Tony Abbott.
As he was entitled to do, he jumped on the broken promise aspect first, pointing out that Ms Gillard had said clearly just before the election that no carbon tax would gain favour in any government she led. This was rare political gold - a chance to permanently brand Ms Gillard as deceitful.
But that was just the beginning. Those close to the Liberal leader say he could barely believe his luck. Politics, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum. Mr Abbott wasted no time filling the void warning of a $300 annual hike in power bills and six and a half cents a litre hike on petrol.
``The whole point about this carbon tax is that it won’t clean up the environment, it will clean out your wallet, and it will wipe out jobs big-time,’’ he said this week in the latest iteration of the general critique.
Polls show Labor’s already low primary vote collapsed further in the wake of the announcement and the attendant furore over the PM’s backflip. It now languishes at a disastrously low 30 per cent according to Newspoll.
Nobody on either side seems certain why Ms Gillard made the carbon tax announcement when she did.
It came just as she was nailing down a hard-fought deal on the flood levy. Remember that? Mr Abbott had banked a lot of credibility branding it as just another tax and wholly unnecessary. Gillard too had plenty riding on it and behind the scenes, had worked furiously on independents in both houses to get their votes. Yet rather than take the win, and give voters time to digest it, she dropped her half-baked carbon tax stink bomb.
What’s more, and this goes to interrupting your enemy when he’s got his own problems, she let Tony Abbott off the hook in the process. He was wrestling with his own problems such as anti-Islam comments from his Parliamentary Secretary, Cory Bernardi, and some at best, indelicate comments from his immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison on asylum seekers. There were also reports that Mr Morrison had advocated capitalising on public disquiet over problems of Muslim integration.
It was a bad look for Mr Abbott amid suggestions that One Nation had pressured Coalition MPs into the hard-line rhetoric. But Gillard’s carbon tax announcement changed all that.
As one Liberal said: ``Why she didn’t take the win on the levy and then go on to Washington and bask in all the positive headlines from that, rather than start this carbon tax argument is a mystery?’’ Quite.
But then, Tony Abbott showed this week that two can play that game when, for no good reason, he re-ignited an old argument about CO2 and its role in global warming. Apologists can argue all they like about the nuances, as plenty did via The Punch this week. It is not however so easy to argue with the take-out for voters which was to remind them that many on the conservative side do not accept the climate change science.
Liberal MPs concede this point privately and Abbott himself knew he had strayed off-message. He was out the next day re-emphasising his belief in the science, no ifs or buts.
In a tragic week for the world, his misstep was lost in bigger things but it will definitely get an airing in Parliament next week.
The best you can say about Tony Abbott’s performance on climate policy over the last two years is that he has been a bit of a weather vane.
But his problems are small beer compared to the Government’s job in getting this carbon tax through - whether sweetened with tax cuts or not.
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