Carbon tax: it won't hurt a bit

SO that was week one of the carbon price, and a pretty grim week it was.

Another Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan, more bombings in Iraq, more carnage in Syria, floods in Russia, a purge at Barclay's following the interest fixing scam, Glaxo Smith Kline fined $3 billion and, back home, the State of Origin tragedy.

But the only real disaster Tony Abbott could pin on Julia Gillard's grey pig newt axe, as he calls it, was Craig Emerson's karaoke performance at Whyalla, and even that had its bright side: if the long-suffering city can survive that, it can survive anything. So in general the week lived up to all the more rational predictions: nothing much changed, just as Gillard insisted would be the case. And paradoxically, that is the bad news for the government.

The trouble is that the public has become so used to hysterical screams about the end of the world from one side and bland reassurances that it will all be all right from the other that most punters seem to have forgotten what it's really all about: ameliorating the worst effects of climate change.

Occasionally Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, or Ross Garnaut (remember him? He was the one who got the whole thing rolling in the first place) make a valiant effort to remind them, but they have been pretty much drowned out in the clamour. If any message from the government has been heard, it is not that this is the far-reaching and enduring reform promised by Gillard or a response to the greatest economic, political and moral challenge of our times, as identified by Kevin Rudd; it is rather that actually you'll hardly notice it.

This is the uninspiring line pushed by Gillard, Wayne Swan and most spectacularly Craig Emerson for the last few months - certainly the one they have been emphasising since the legislation went through earlier this year. And it invites the obvious riposte: well, if we'll hardly notice it, why are you putting us through all the angst? If it's not even going to make a difference to our own lives, how can it be expected to save the planet?

And of course it feeds and reinforces the flat-earthers and rent-seekers on the other side of the argument, whose position has always been: (a) climate change probably isn't happening; (b) even if it is happening it's got nothing to do with us and we can't do anything about it anyway; (c) even if we could do something there's no point until the rest of the world does first; (d) and even if the rest of the world does, we're still too small to make any difference so let's not bother.

It is probably too late for Gillard and her troops to completely demolish this cynical and selfish counsel of inertia; to do so would require a lengthy and well-organised campaign presented by people with rather more political credit than her government has left. But it would surely be worthwhile to point out that there are actually more advantages to pricing carbon than simply the fact of compensation by way of tax cuts and cash handouts - which most people will probably simply pocket as a long-overdue entitlement anyway.

The big picture argument about cutting, or at least slowing, greenhouse gas emissions to keep the place reasonably liveable in the years ahead may be considered to be a bit airy-fairy for the readers of the tabloids and the listeners of the shock jocks - although even Tony Abbott claims to support the idea, as long as it doesn't actually involve doing anything. But it could at least be pointed out with some clarity that moving to a less carbon-dependent economy is not only essential but inevitable: even the most recalcitrant nations are at least starting to think about it, and the longer we leave it, the more it is going to cost - both in the difficulty and trauma involved, and in terms of cold, hard cash.

At present the government is avoiding this line, perhaps because it sounds too threatening; Gillard would rather make soothing noises about how it really isn't going to hurt at all and if it does mummy will kiss it better. But fortunately she has been getting support from other, perhaps unexpected quarters. Last week some 300 very large businesses came out in support of a carbon price. Abbott and his troops promptly dismissed them as of no account; why, only a few of them were going to have to pay it anyway, so obviously they had no right to an opinion. Of course, exactly the same argument could be applied to Abbott and his mates, but let's not go into that now.

But in any case at the weekend The Sydney Morning Herald knocked it down by going to 40 of the largest companies among the 294 who are liable for the impost, and it made interesting reading. Nine just wanted the tax repealed. Two said it was too early to judge and 16 just didn't want to comment - fair enough. But eight, including BHP Billiton, Shell and Caltex - big players by any measure - were unequivocally in favour and the other three said okay, but they'd like it tweaked a bit. So even among the ones carrying the can less than one in four is prepared to endorse Tony Abbott's line; the rest are, at worst, just getting on with it.

Among the voters, of course, the result is far less positive. But the fact that the top end of town seems to be moving at least slightly in her direction should give Gillard a shred of hope. Perhaps it's time to start a scare campaign of her own: if you don't start being sensible about the carbon price, you'll end up with Tony Abbott as prime minister! And then we'll really have something to panic about.

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