After years of opposition, last week the ‘Carbon Tax’ was repealed with the Palmer United & Australian Motorist Enthusiast Parties in the Senate voting with the Government for its repeal. While the evidence continues to pile up that countries around the world should be taking firm steps towards effective climate action, Australia has erred and taken a step back.
But first, let’s take a look at how we got to this point.
The Carbon Tax was a divisive issue at the 2010 election following the failure of the Rudd-Labor Government to bring an emissions trading scheme into law. This scheme, known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, would have required companies in certain industries to purchase a permit for every tonne of greenhouse gas emitted and would have allowed companies to trade permits amongst each other. Capping the number of permits available each year would create a market and force companies to consider the financial benefits of reducing emissions rather than competing for carbon permits.
Alas, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was not to be and in 2012 the Gillard-Labor Government brought in a carbon-pricing scheme that became known as the ‘Carbon Tax.’ This scheme would place a fixed price on carbon emissions which would raise by 5% annually until transitioning to an emissions trading scheme in 2015. It is this carbon-pricing scheme that has now been repealed and a question mark hovers over the future of climate action in Australia.
With the support of the Palmer United & Australian Motorist Enthusiast Parties to repeal the Carbon Tax, it seemed nigh-impossible for the Carbon Tax to live to fight another day.
While it is tempting to claim that such a step is at odds with public opinion on climate action, polling released by Essential Media on the 1st of July indicates that public support was against keeping the Carbon Tax. 64% of people supported replacing or removing the carbon tax, with just over half of those supporting removing it and not replacing it at all.
Yet there appears to be an apparent silver lining, as Clive Palmer has indicated that he desires to see an emissions trading scheme brought in to replace the Carbon Tax.
While this appears to be even more popular than replacing the Carbon Tax with the Liberal’s “Direct Action” plan (as only 9% of Australians support such a move compared to the 22% that support Palmer’s plan) questions still remain and this silver lining may yet be just a mirage on a long stretch of a desert highway.
Palmer & his Senate compadres face an Abbott government that has been repeatedly embarrassed by manoeuvres in the senate that have delayed the repeal. Ricky Muir of the Australian Motorist Enthusiast Party managed to defeat an attempt to prematurely end debate on the repeal bill in order to save the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, while both Muir & the Palmer United Party voted down the repeal bill when they were allegedly double-crossed.
Palmer alleges that the Government failed to circulate their redraft of Palmer’s amendments to the repeal bill on the morning of the vote, causing his Party to withdraw their amendments and vote against the repeal as they had been “double-crossed”. According to some reports, however, the Clerk of the Senate Dr. Rosemary Laing had advised the Palmer United Party that their amendment was unconstitutional as the penalty on electricity producers that that fail to pass along savings from the repeal could be viewed as a tax. Under section 53 of the Australian Constitution, such a tax must originate in the House of Representatives.
While the true reason for its rejection is unclear, the bill was voted down in the Senate, delaying its repeal until last week and clearly demonstrating the Abbott Government’s dependency on the Senate crossbenchers. While the Government may indeed support Palmer’s plans for an ETS, looking towards the next election, however, it may put the government at an electoral disadvantage.
While a mere 9% of people overall support replacing the carbon tax with Abbott’s “Direct Action” plan, 49% of people who indicated that they do not vote Labor, Liberal/National or Greens support not replacing the carbon tax at all. Elections can be won or lost on small swings in marginal electorates and capturing those undecided voters can be the difference between a swearing-in ceremony at Government House and a pride-swallowing concession speech on national television.
The question Abbott and his staff must now be asking is how the electorate would regard a failure to replace the Carbon Tax with an ETS or even the “Direct Action Plan.” Would climate change be a decisive issue for voters who would otherwise vote Liberal and would a failure to act lose more votes than it might gain?
The debate on climate action, both in Australia and globally, is nowhere near over. We are confronted with the depressing reality that man-made climate change is already affecting us and will continue to do so, even if we act now.
One can only wonder what future generations will see when they look back on the recent years. We can only hope that they don’t see it as a time when their parents and grandparents had a chance to help future generations but looked around, shrugged their shoulders, and sat back down on the couch as the coastal waters slowly approached.
Ross Caldwell works as a Campaign Assistant for the Australian Labor Party and is expecting at least one angry email in response to this article. This article is not an official reflection of Labor Party views or policy.