Why this carbon price will go but the next one won’t

a picture of the australian senate from inside parliament house
The entrance to the public gallery of Australia’s Senate.

The first sitting week of the new Senate has just ended and Australia’s carbon price barely made it through. With a second sitting week just days away, and Clive Palmer having met his quota for grandstanding, it seems likely the reprieve will be short-lived. Soon Australia will become the first country to retreat on climate action.

While this is unquestionably a bitter loss, it’s also a valuable lesson in how change happens or, in this case, doesn’t happen. While I’d rather keep our carbon price, given that it is on the way out, I at least hope we can learn from this rather abortive attempt at making polluters responsible for their pollution.

So what went wrong? Why did the carbon price fail?

The carbon price came into being because the 2010 Federal Election returned a hung parliament and the Australian Greens used their position in the balance of power to compel the ALP to put a price on pollution. I make this as an assertion that I haven’t seen elsewhere but it seems so obvious as to be almost redundant: the ALP went to the election promising flatly not to introduce a carbon tax, they then had to negotiate with the Greens and other MPs, and this saw the ALP promise to legislate a carbon price. [1]

The origin of the carbon price is important because it illustrates a rare (and dangerous) moment in politics – when politicians lead. While the Greens were acting consistently with the wishes of their electors, the ALP was doing what it had to do to get into Government, promising a reform that was already unpopular and resistance to which had already greatly benefited their opponent, Tony Abbott. What happened in 2010 is that an improbable election result briefly gave the Greens significant leverage over the ALP and the minor party used said leverage to instigate the introduction of a price on carbon. Unlike much other progressive change, this did not happen because of deep, broad, grassroots support.

Of course, the carbon price could still have proven popular. History will never know if the ALP could have had better communications, what difference was made by Craig Thomson or Peter Slipper, or what the Greens could have done differently. Perhaps slightly less negativity from the Coalition and slightly more outcry from supportive businesses, and we would have a different Australia today. But the fact of the matter is that the carbon price proved woefully unpopular, became a powerful weapon for the climate-denialist Coalition, and its demise was set by September 8, 2013.

outside victoria's parliament house are protestors and banners opposed to the carbon price
A Melbourne protest against the carbon price, June 19 2011. Photo by qian: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mugfaker/.

Movement theorists understand that you can’t ask politicians to do the right thing simply because it’s right, that, in fact, reform requires building grassroots power to compel politicians to act. As Sam Mclean, director of GetUp, said recently at the AYCC National Summit: politicians are sheep, and we have to be the shepherds. In Doing Democracy Bill Moyer expresses the same sentiment (although my hard copy is in Adelaide and there isn’t an ebook available). For political change to endure it must be predicated upon (or rapidly bring into being) a changed society that demands and will protect that change. This didn’t happen with the carbon price: thus the bell tolls.

The carbon price is dead, long live climate action!

Along with the carbon price, the ALP introduced the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the CEFC. Simply, the CEFC provides cheap debt to enable renewable energy projects (which, compared to fossil fuel projects, have higher capital costs but much lower running costs) to get off the ground. As of March 2014 the CEFC had invested $700 million, unlocking another $1.8 billion in private investment. It’s also cost-negative. That is, it’s making a profit. All the while, it’s supporting wind, solar baseload, and rooftop solar generation.

Also encouraging the development of renewable energy is Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, which puts a premium on electricity generated from renewable sources. Introduced by the Howard Government then increased under the ALP, the RET requires that in 2020 Australian electricity generators source 41,000 GWh of energy from clean, safe sources of electricity that never run out. It is also doing a bloody excellent job and is forecast to make electricity cheaper for households, in addition to reducing Australia’s pollution from dirty fossil fuel plants.

Despite the Coalition’s repeated vitriol, these projects are likely to survive Abbott’s Robespierre-esque reprisals. What makes them different from the carbon price?

Well, Australians love renewable energy. Millions of Australian households generate solar power on their own rooftop; over 70% of Australians support retaining or even increasing the RET. The different feeling towards renewable energy is partly inherent in that it’s easier to build support for impressive things that people can see than for abstract policy instruments. But it also reflects, I would argue, a difference in campaigning.

a picture of protestors and signs at the adelaide say yes australia rally for a carbon price
A “Say Yes Australia” rally in Adelaide.

Groups such as Friends of the Earth (Melbourne), Solar Citizens, and the 100% Renewable Campaign have, of course, sought to influence public policy. But they’ve striven to do this by influencing public opinion. 100% Renewable put significant emphasis on community organising, resulting in tens of thousands of personal conversations, all across Australia, working to build deep support for renewable energy. Solar Citizens, the offspring of 100% Renewable, aims to mobilise solar households into a powerful constituency. And Friends of the Earth recently completed a “RET Road Trip“, speaking with eight communities across Victoria about renewable energy and the RET. In contrast, campaigners for a carbon price formed “Say Yes Australia”. While this coalition made forays into community organising, its main efforts were in political advocacy, advertising, and (somewhat divisive) mass demonstrations.While it would be fallacious to say that this distinction fully explains the different fates of the carbon price and the CEFC/RET, it is cogent evidence of distinct outcomes associated with distinct approaches to campaigning. [2]

Thus, the reason we can wear party hats to the carbon price’s funeral, is that we’ve learnt how to treat the disease that killed ol’ Taxy. Taxy died because it was a change thrust unexpectedly and unwelcomely upon the Australian people. In contrast, the RET and CEFC came into being with public support and went on to win further support to see them strengthened and resistant to attack.

Out of the failed COP15 negotiations came a recognition that a solution to global warming would need national resolve to precede international resolve; perhaps the impending repeal of the carbon price illustrates that public leadership will have to precede political leadership. Groups within the climate movement have already applied these lessons to their campaigning around renewable energy, and we can look resolutely forward to a future parliament of Australia in which a carbon price is introduced and remains, not because of leverage obtained through a chance electoral outcome, but through the organised mobilisation of masses of voters.

[1] The ALP-Greens agreement was hashed out in a context in which the ALP would also require the support of various independents, several of whom eventually sat on the “Multi-party Climate Change Committee“. Naturally, these independents played a role in the negotiations, although my inference would be that they were happy to see a price put on pollution, even if not necessarily pushing for it themselves.

[2] For a more technical consideration of how different communication media and contexts affect attitude formation, see my piece on the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion.

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10 thoughts on “Why this carbon price will go but the next one won’t

  1. What makes you say there was no support for pricing carbon. Before Abbott began his mantra of “axe the tax” polls tell us people wanted climate action, part of which requires pricing carbon pollution or regulating it heavily (which economists argue is more expensive) or finding some —so far unproven scientifically way — to sequester massive amounts of carbon to offset and more the land clearing and fossil fuel burning. Campaigning in marginal seats like Frankston, Environment Victoria is finding that when it’s explained to people how a carbon tax works and how they are (over) compensated they remove their opposition.

    “History will never know if the ALP could have had better communications, what difference was made by Craig Thomson or Peter Slipper, or what the Greens could have done differently”

    History will easily show that while Gillard may have been a good backroom negotiator with the independents and Greens, she was once of the worst communicators the officec of PM has seen in a while. Of course the Murdoch press never gave her a chance, of course Abbott was doggedly not about the issues and happy to lying to give himself political advantage but the fact remains, Rudd, Howard, Keating and Hawke all made major efforts to blast the airwaves selling their policy decisions. Gillard seemed to consider it beneath her, and maybe given the way Alan Jones and others treated her with contempt and rudeness it was but try she did not. People will accept pricing carbon when they realise it is that or waste the planet for their grown children and many generations to come.

    1. I think you offer a fair view. My understanding is that people were generally supportive of climate action but generally quite resistant to having to pay a cost themselves for climate action. Many people say a carbon tax as being a tax on consumers and were resistant to this – even though they may have shown themselves supportive of an identical policy communicated in a different way.

      Regarding Gillard’s communications I would tend to agree with you although I think the point I’m more making is that – the past is in the past. Theoretically yes the ALP/Gillard could have communicated better but, lamentably, they didn’t.

      1. Yes it’s fair to say people support climate action until it costs them. But I’m balance it wasn’t really costing them. It was costing the profits of a few heavy users. Also it’s a shame the lie that CT was a consumption tax got hold thanks to Abbott and co. It’s not, it so marginal as to be insignificant to most domestic consumption patterns. It’s a supply side mechanism to advantage renewable energy against fossil energy. To give renewables an edge until they become cheaper and to try and discourage fire sale prices of coal from desperate miners with sunk costs. Although even if coal is free distributed solarPV kills it b/c of 50%+ network costs component of energy bills.

  2. I agree with your assessment of the “Say yes” campaign. Was naive (I guess that’s something we never want to loose though) and unsuccessful.

  3. Your analysis fails to recognise the overreach by the Greens to impose a high fixed rate for the first few years of a carbon (price) on top of an emissions trading scheme, not only gave the enemies of action to price out the fossil fuels the ammunition they needed, but technically was a stupidly expensive way to go. It was the greens that destroyed the Clean Energy Package. Greens need to learn from Lock The Gate with the widespread community opposition to onshore gas’fields, Based on facts and community organising. The other thing the Greens dont recognise is that psychologically, constantly harping on about catastrophe, has the opposite effect that you want, fear drives denial. In other words, the Greens made ópposition worse and gave the fossil fuel industry supporters the gift of a great big tax to create a fear campaign. Cheap electricity should be the main message to encourage renewable energy.rather than bullshit about Australia’s legislation really contributing to reduce climate change. Our role should be international leadership and trying to reduce coal exports – that would be a real impact.

    1. I do think I gloss over the potential responsibility of the Greens but I’m not sure if I agree with your assessment! The model was to have a carbon tax which shifted to an ETS after several years, which provided some price certainty in the first few years before opening to easier international trading in permits. I suppose $23 / tonne may seem high but I think there would have been attacks based upon cost regardless of the actual price of permits.

      I agree there might be an argument now for giving up on carbon pricing per se and aiming to get renewables past cost parity with fossil-fuels, while also reducing our coal exports. These seem to be the new fronts opening up, and I’m very happy to see great organising happening on these fronts.

  4. How do you propose reducing our coal exports under this government? In my opinion The Greens are only over the top because they are honest and focussed – and no, I am not a “member” because I do not agree with the policies of any party. I find myself becoming more anarchic every day as I see the hideously slow progress of climate action under this bipolar political regime.

    For an effective response to climate change, join forces with http://frontlineaction.org/ , 350.org, Lock the Gate Alliance, Greenpeace or many other ethical groups who use Non Violent Direct Action to further the cause. We want a future for our children and their children. I’m afraid that political wrangling is just too slow for us now. It will help, everything helps, but it is time for the population to lead the politicians for what we know is right.

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