Misleading debate on carbon tax

In the lead-up to the introduction of the carbon tax legislation into federal parliament, the federal opposition and other opponents of the tax have intensified their campaign against it. Riding on the weak public support for the tax, a coalition of politicians, media personalities and corporate heavies have organised protests, cavalcades and public meetings to galvanise support to “kill the tax”.

A much publicised cavalcade of truckers, right-wing media shock jocks and politicians, including opposition leader Tony Abbot, turned out to be a fizzer when it gathered outside Parliament House in Canberra on August 22. It was much the same as a similar event held a week earlier, although the rally on August 15 attracted around 2000 people. Both gatherings called for new elections and highlighted other failings of the Gillard Labor government.

Miners

While they have been largely absent from these populist and reactionary events, mining magnates have been among those most outspoken against the tax, especially those heavily involved in coal mining and export. The head of BHP-Billiton, Marius Kloppers, told investors in London on August 25: “This, if you boil it down to its barest essentials, is a tax on coal exports from Australia ... It’s an economic dead-weight cost because it’s basically just an export tax, and those costs get discounted into investment decisions.” He added: “... on average if you increase the cost you will get less investment than you had before. Axiomatically, that is always the case over time.”

Kloppers’ comments were made just days after record high profits were announced for BHP-Billiton: a staggering $22.46 billion, unprecedented in Australian corporate history. The Minerals Council of Australia, the key body representing the mining sector, in its submission to parliament on the impact of the proposed carbon tax, argues that the tax will impact exports, reduce jobs growth and overall undermine economic growth.

While the nay-sayers and the climate change denialists — including most in the ranks of the Liberal-National Coalition — battle away with a primitive (and  partially successful) campaign of misinformation and fear, the government remains set to introduce a giant con with the backing of the federal Greens. Whatever carbon tax legislation is stitched up, it will have at best a marginal impact on reducing emissions.

False hopes

However, it will serve to relieve some pressure on the government and the big corporate polluters to make immediate far-reaching changes. In the government’s favour are the mass illusions strengthened by the Greens and sections of the organised environment movement (such as the Australian Conservation Foundation), that this measure is a step forward in dealing with climate change. It isn’t. The polluters will keep polluting, the coal mines will keep expanding, the toxic coal seam gas projects will move closer to large-scale commercial production, our roads will remain congested with CO2-producing vehicles, and the total of Australian CO2 emissions might drop by 1 or 2%.

Households across Australia in August received the government’s “What a carbon price means for you” 18-page pamphlet, which claims that the proposed “carbon price package” will result in a cut of 160 million tonnes of pollution by 2020. The promise of offsets and tax rebates for those who will foot most of the bill is the sweetener. Fundamentally, however, the real cost and burden of the tax will be borne by workers and the disenfranchised, those who can least afford it. At the same time, the impact of climate change will continue to hit working people, the poor and indigenous communities hardest — they bear the severest impacts of drought, flood and extreme weather events and rising costs of food, transport and other essentials.

What the Gillard government and the Abbot-led opposition fear the most, along with the big polluters and corporations, is an organised and concerted grassroots movement for action to deal with climate change and environmental degradation. They fear a movement that might strengthen and develop in a radical direction and propose more significant and far-reaching solutions to the climate change crisis. The embryo of such a movement can be found in the campaign groups, activists and communities now starting to organise in opposition to the coal seam gas industry and expansion of coal mining.