As far as I can understand the situation, the Labor Party in Opposition is not really sure about what to do with respect to the proposed repeal of the carbon tax. There are those who say that the election result shows that Labor should abandon the tax, and allow the repeal to go through.Their position is the classic ‘mandate’ one: the Coalition campaigned hard on repeal (undeniable), which was a central aspect of its election policy for a long time (undeniable), the Coalition won the election, so it has a mandate.
It is unusual to see members of an Opposition argue like this, and that some are doing so now points, at least to me, to their view that the carbon tax was a bad idea when it was created, and is an even worse one now. I think they’re right, for two obvious reason. The first is that any reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere brought about by the successful implementation of such a tax would not be discernible even in thirty years. The second is that the role of carbon dioxide in ‘global warming’ appears increasingly to have been over-emphasised, so that the need to tax the production of carbon dioxide seems much less evident.
A rival view is that Labor should stick to its policies, because not to do so would be to suggest that it had no backbone. What will Labor supporters think, so the cry goes, if the party backs away from what its former leader called ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge to humanity’ — or something like that? That one puzzles me for two reasons. The first is that parties in government can’t always be right about everything (something Nicola Roxon said in her celebrated speech), and there are times where one should back away from a past policy, transmuting it, if one can, into something more timely.
The second cause of puzzlement is that the carbon tax was never something central either to Labor’s past history or its present set of principles. It was a piece of supposed international do-goodery, in which Australia either showed the world what ought to happen, or showed that it was on the side of other international do-gooders. You couldn’t easily link it to the problems of the working class, or the need to reduce inequities in Australian society, or the needs of the disabled and their carers.
In fact, the carbon tax was, on the face of it, something likely to make the conditions of Labor’s poorer supporters worse, rather than better. The supposed trade-off, in handouts, was never going to compensate people for the increasing cost of everything, given that energy is a fundamental element in the price of everything we buy. Increase the price of energy, and there is a nasty multiplier there. Those interested in conserving Labor’s support within the poorest third of Australian society would surely be hostile to any such tax.
Repeal opponents inside the Opposition do include a few true believers, who believe that they know about the science and believe also that the science say that even if there has been a pause in the warming it is still hotter than it used to be, and one day it will get hotter still, and we’ll all fry.
Another element in all this is the likelihood that the Government will have the numbers to repeal the tax anyway, come June next year. So why spend energy in defending something that no one likes anyway, and will go down the legislative gurgler in a few months? Put all this together and you have a real dilemma, and Mr Shorten seems not to have worked out what best to do. He has some time to decide, because Parliament has yet to meet, and there won’t be a serious debate on the issue until next year.
But I thought it might be good to ask him, and others like him in the Opposition, to stop talking about ‘carbon pollution’. Yes, I know that it was in the title of the bills that were to usher in the Emissions Trading Scheme (the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bills of 2009 and 2010), but it was a use of language that George Orwell would have called ‘Newspeak’. I thought it offensive at the time, because it was nonsensical, and bills ought not to have nonsensical titles.
The Leader of the Opposition needs to know that carbon is a solid, not a gas. The relevant gas is carbon dioxide. It is not a pollutant, but the life support of all plants and animals. Yes, like any other good thing, it can be harmful in certain situations. Human beings will die if they have to breathe nothing but carbon dioxide, despite its importance to life. They will also die if they have nothing but nitrogen to breathe, and yet nitrates are an important fertiliser.
Defend the tax by all means, if you must, but for heaven’s sake find language to do so that is not so empty of meaning, and so plainly ignorant and deceptive. Language is not trivial.