I want to devote the time to our battle to introduce a price on carbon, because I think this issue is the one that speaks most loudly about the challenges to change we confront. In the lead up to the 2007 election, which under Kevin Rudd’s leadership Labor won, ending conservative Prime Minister John Howard’s eleven year run in office, both sides of politics went to the election with a policy to put a price on carbon and create an emissions trading scheme. If you were a commentator on Australia politics at this time you would have been highly unlikely to author a piece predicting pricing carbon would be the flash point partisan issue for the decade starting in 2010.
But it is.
During the first term of the Labor Government, the politics of climate change and carbon pricing went from bipartisan to viciously contested, with the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister Tony Abbott, campaigning hard and effectively against what he referred to as “a great big new tax on everything.”
While I was Prime Minister leading a minority government, I secured through the Parliament legislation to put a price on carbon.
The carbon price started on the 1st July 2012. The design of the scheme is a fixed price for three years, with the starting price being $23 per tonne, moving to a full emissions trading scheme on the 1st July 2015.
The campaign against what was referred to ubiquitously in our domestic political debate as a “carbon tax” was white hot and successful in moving public opinion in the lead up to the start of the tax… If you talked to voters in Australia at this time you would have been hard pressed to find a supporter of the carbon price. People did fear astronomical increases in living costs and the widespread destruction of jobs.
But a funny thing happened once the carbon price was introduced. People moved on. It went from being an emotional, absolute front of mind issue to being one in the background. Australians did not morph in to supporters of the price on carbon but the issue receded because the apocalyptic claims about its impact did not come true. The economy continued to grow. Jobs continued to be created. The cost of living impact was as predicted, less than one percent, and overwhelmed households were compensated through tax cuts and increases in social payments. Carbon emissions were significantly cut.
Lived experience beat fear.
The current government, which continued to campaign against carbon pricing is endeavouring to repeal the legislation, but has not been able to do so yet.
Much of the debate about climate change and carbon pricing turned on Australia-specific matters, including political mishandling by me and by the Labor Government led by Kevin Rudd, electricity bills skyrocketing for other reasons which made people acutely sensitive to anything that could impact further on prices and the fact our bad drought broke, the impact of which had become equated to climate change in people’s minds.
But out of our experience, there are some broader lessons that can be drawn by progressives not only about pricing carbon but about the nature of modern campaigning.
First, we live in an age where the facts lose out badly.
And second, this is not happening by accident, but because a hard conservative constituency has adopted a protest culture and come to dominate it.
Around the world the debate about climate change is being distorted by popular doubts about the science.
This is truly incredible when the normal reaction of people to scientific conclusions is to accept them. To give an Australian example, much research and public campaigning has been done about our high rates of skin cancer. Scientists tell us that sun exposure causes cancer. People wear hats, use sunscreen. Even those who like to be brown do not justify their tanning by saying the science is wrong, they just accept the risk and play mental games with themselves to bolster their self belief cancer will never hit them.
But with climate science, sensible conduct has been overwhelmed by the campaigning of right wing eccentrics.
Issues like “Climategate,” the leaked release of 1,000 emails in the United Kingdom between climate scientists, have been distorted to buttress claims the science is wrong, even though nothing in them actually shows it.
A number of corrections made to the 2007 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change report have been used to attack the science as wrong. But, once again, the corrections do not debunk the science.
The campaigners against the science cannot even advance a credible theory about why scientists around the world and in huge numbers would all conspire together to try and persuade the world that climate change is real.
Why would they do that? To increase research funding? Can anyone really argue that? Particularly given the science of climate change has not somehow persuaded the governments of the world to create scientific nirvana where research funding is always in plentiful supply. Scientists continue to struggle for funding the way they always have.
How would they do that? Can anyone truly believe that across all the years, from the 1960s to now, a vast conspiracy has been knowingly faking data and falsifying results, and remained undetected for decades?
It is so ridiculous. Yet if one picks up the newspapers, listens to the radio, watches television, they find the views of nonscientists and conspiracy theorists arguing loudly against climate change. It is inconceivable that the same amount of space would be given to cranks who contend smoking is good for you or putting your child in direct sunlight for all the days of summer will help them grow. But on climate change, normal rules for the treatment and acceptance of science seem to have been thrown aside…
It used to be that a family would gather around the television for the six o’clock news and, while a spirited family argument might break out on the issues reported, everyone had been exposed to the same reporting and the facts contained within it. Now, in the new media environment there are so many sources of information that you can shop around for the version that gives you the “facts” you prefer. At the same time commercial media companies have responded to this by no longer pitching their product to the widest possible audience but seeking deep engagement with a loyal audience by serving up the news complete with the bias they want.
It is my contention that progressives have not done enough to respond to the new protest culture activism on the right and to dominate campaigning in the new media environment.
Or put more simply, letting the facts speak for themselves is so last century.
Every complex public policy endeavour will only break through to public acceptance, including action on climate change, if the facts are trumpeted loudly.
I have every confidence that we, alongside others who respect facts and reason, can better find our voice.
I also have every confidence that we, people of progressive ideals, can be better persuaders and campaigners.