Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Feature: 'Fear and Carbon in Canberra' for The Isthmus

In my final semester of uni I worked on a collection of articles for a new intelligent pop culture journal called The Isthmus, a project headed by Stephen Harrington. I also acted as online editor, subbing and workshopping all articles before publication. It was a fantastic experience and the team was made up almost exclusively of fun, creative pop culture enthusiasts. 

I've held off posting them until now because there's been a few kinks with the site meaning it never properly launched. I'm like a kid holding up finger painting: 'look, mummy, look what I did!' I just can't wait. 

So, here's a research/opinion piece I wrote in late July on the heated carbon tax debate - before it was passed. You can read it online here

Fear and Loathing in Canberra: a savage journey into the heart of Australian politics

By Anna Angel

There is nothing to fear but fear itself, except the pricing of carbon, that is. The debate over the proposed carbon tax has divided the nation like nothing since the introduction of the GST. Tony Abbott advised his party members to keep the argument ‘civil’ only moments before they called on a national rally in Canberra to “maintain the rage”. “We don’t want our country reduced to two warring camps,” he said.  Sorry, Tony, but it might be a little late for that. Rhetoric and commentary from both sides of the war on carbon have been nothing less than hysterical since the pricing scheme was introduced in July.  In this all-out screaming match, fear mongering is the favoured tack.  We are presented with an apparently impossible choice: implement the tax and our families will go hungry,

fail to do so and eventually, our families will go hungry. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, heavy spin from politicians and media alike aims to ensure you’re not left sitting on it.

He said, she said
According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s official announcement of the ‘plan for a clean energy future’, it is “the most environmentally effective and cheapest way to cut pollution”. The tax is fixed at $23 per tonne for the first three years for the country’s 500 biggest polluters. Gillard assures that “because some business will put their prices up, there will be tax cuts, increased pensions and increased family payments”.  On the Government’s dedicated website you can calculate just how big your cut of that welfare pie will be. There’s also this video, explaining the process in painstaking detail, and treasury economic modelling showing a growth in national prosperity under carbon pricing. We’re told the average family, overall, will be 20 cents better off.
On the other side of the spectrum, alarmist anti-carbon groups call it a “green ideological tax for social engineering under the guise of dangerous climate change”. The supposed ‘Robin Hood’ tax is “unnecessary, ineffective, and hugely damaging to Australian families and our industry”. The main group spearheading the national campaign provide a handy explanation of the scheme,  including a list entitled Why the Carbon Tax is Wrong and Utterly Pointless (a kind of rebuttal to Say Yes Australia’s 7 Good Reasons to Say Yes to a Price on Carbon Pollution?). Less shrill, but just as gloomy, is Tony Abbott’s definition. “When Julia Gillard talks about a ‘clean energy future’ what she really means is higher electricity bills and fewer jobs with no environmental benefit,” he said. “The whole point of a carbon tax is to change the way everybody lives and works … in other words, if it doesn’t hurt you it doesn’t work.”
Dollars and no sense
Looking at the figures put forward by various interested parties, you’d be forgiven for thinking the details of two separate taxes were being discussed. Perhaps it is more a matter of spinning the facts to suit your cause. Gillard Government estimates suggest emissions will be cut by 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020 – that’s down 23 per cent on projected emissions if we chose not to act at all. By 2050 that figure will be 80 per cent. Unofficial Opposition ‘data’ proposes it will do absolutely“nothing for the environment”.
While the Australian public were busy worrying about worldwide economic instability, some terribly frightening figures were released suggesting at least 31,000 jobs in NSW would be lost as a result of industry closures by 2030, and 21,000 in QLD by 2020. The story is also bleak in WA with a state Treasury report predicting over half of households would be worse off under the tax. In contradiction, Treasury modelling boasts a national increase of 1.6 million jobs and an increase of 16 per cent to the average income by 2020.  Commentators have marked this as a fall from gracefor the “once fundamentally important Treasury department … formerly a bastion of reason and sober advice”. No matter where you look, you’re bound to see a different number, a different projected outcome or a different set of opinions parading as fact.
In some cases, it’s been a matter of deliberate distortion; what better way to hide the truth than in colourful graphs and seemingly transparent pie charts? Consider this graphic representation from, highlighting rising living costs and contrasting them with the 20 cents tax benefits will be ‘worth’ to the average family. There are too many issues to discuss here, too many examples of numbers thrown around based on assumptions or misinterpretations. There’s the question of whether Australia should be one of the first countries to act, or the last. For her part, Julia Gillard wants to be “on the right side of history”; unsurprisingly, Abbott disagrees. Then there’s the large number of carbon tax critics who still deny man-made climate change exists. It almost doesn’t matter what you believe; this legitimate argument gave way to petty name-calling and character assassination months ago.
 ‘Juliar’ and ‘The Minister for Scary Stories’
Gillard has been dubbed ‘Juliar’ for breaking her pre-election promise that there would be no carbon tax under her Government. Tanya Plibersek has been given the new portfolio of ‘Minister for Scary Stories’ after a stint on Q&A where she prophesised we are “looking at losing the Great Barrier Reef, losing Kakadu National Park, losing the ability to feed ourselves” if we don’t implement the tax. Panellist Brendan O’Neill was quick to call her out on her political fear mongering, just as Labor have on Tony Abbott’s prolonged campaign of negativity.  The Green’s view that the policy will help alleviate climate change that is “making our world more dangerous, increasing prices of food and water and jeopardising our way of life” are often blatantly dismissed as extremist, meanwhile their supporters are labelled as leftist-greenies, at worst, socialist conspirators. The angry mobs opposing the tax are made up of either freaks and flatearthers’ or tax-paying, hard-working everyday Australians depending on who you believe. Are their voices ‘of no consequence’ as Anthony Albanese suggests? No, but that doesn’t necessarily make them right.
Room for rational debate?
Peaceful assembly should be encouraged, and democratic debate is nothing if not healthy. But only time will tell what the true outcomes of the carbon tax will be, and if this debate is going to progress, we need to use inside voices to speak our minds. As Annabelle Crabbe points out, it’s become possible to blame almost anything negative on the carbon tax. “Brisbane traffic is terrible. Why, with your toxic tax, are you making a bad situation worse?” It’s possible we will see a widespread return to rational political debate once the pricing scheme is introduced in July next year. It’s also possible our already shaky political landscape will only sink further into hysteria. Some, myself included, hope for the best while envisioning an anti-climactic future, reminiscent of the new millennium’s Y2K-free turn. As Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor Ross Gittin muses, “psychology sheds as much light on these questions as does economics”. “The safest prediction is that the tax won’t be as bad as its critics fear,” he says, “nor as benign as its defenders claim”.
To get the facts to make up your own mind, I would recommend keeping tabs on ABC’s in-depth carbon pricing coverage, which includes number crunching, analysis, background into international climate action and consideration of Opposition policy. The SBS offers significant analysis of our place in the worldwide climate movement, The Drum offers a range of opinion pieces on the issue, as well as considering the ‘top 500 polluters’ that will actually pay the tax.

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