Within weeks, the Australian government is expected to announce a package of measures including a carbon tax to stimulate renewable energy sources and abate carbon emissions. Officials, activists and journalists around the world will hail Australia as a courageous and forward-looking country, ready to take its responsibilities seriously. Some will rebuke their own governments for being less bold. Yet they will ignore an inconvenient detail. According to opinion surveys, at least 60 per cent of Australians strongly oppose the tax. Since it was flagged in February, support for the ruling Labor Party has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years. Only 27 per cent of Australians now nominate Labor as their first preference. Nor did they vote for it. In the lead up to last August’s federal election, both major parties ruled out a carbon tax. Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared, just hours before polling day, that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. Her job approval rating is 31 per cent.
So why is this happening? The current malaise can be traced to a combination of long and short term causes. Like other western countries, Australia was profoundly changed by the 1960s social movements. In the decades after World War II, as Britain lost its empire and turned to Europe for an economic future, Australia shifted its agricultural and mineral commodity trade to Asia, admitted growing numbers of immigrants from outside the British Isles, and came to rely on the United States for security. Elites in the professions, judiciary, churches, universities and bureaucracies conceiving Australia as an outpost of British civilisation, found the ground moving under them.
Radicalised by Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war, baby boomers poured out of an expanded university system to spearhead a range of movements, over time supplanting the old elites. By the 1980s, universities, schools, many professions, the media, and most of the public sector were dominated by left-progressives. Their “long march through the institutions” was perhaps more thorough-going than in the United States, since anti-leftists had yet to find a substitute for British imperialism.
One of the social movements was environmentalism. Australia is an isolated, sparsely populated continent with hauntingly beautiful landscapes and unique natural species. Late-coming westerners found a pristine wilderness, populated by aboriginals with close spiritual ties to the land. Since European settlement, these features have, in various forms, injected a romantic strain into the country’s transplanted British culture. That strain was mostly confined to the arts and radical fringe movements. In large part, the colonies, federated in 1901, evolved a practical outlook shaped by nineteenth-century liberalism and the blessings of trade, industry and commerce.
The 1960s saw a fusion of the romantic strain with ideologies shaped by streams of Marxism, left-wing anarchism and revivals of Counter-Enlightenment Romanticism. Sharing a preference for ecological protection over economic growth, inner-city-based activists, including many socialists, current or former communists, Trotskyites and others from counter-culture circles, like hippies, together with aboriginal peoples, campaigned to lock up remnant bushland, native forests, wetlands and traditional aboriginal sites in “green-belts” or national parks. They targeted urban expansion and industries like logging, cattle-grazing and mining, which boomed in a mineral-rich arc across northern Queensland and Western Australia. Conflicts over mining projects were routine in the 1970s and 1980s. Uranium was particularly contentious.
But it was in Tasmania that the new environmentalism came of age. State government plans for a hydro-electric dam on the Franklin River became a cause celebre, attracting strong opposition from environmentalists, and wide public interest. Many leading-lights of the movement, including the current Greens Party leader, made their name in that struggle. Ultimately, the activists came out on top, winning support from federal Labor just before the 1983 election, at which they returned to power.
The Franklin tussle cast a long shadow over Australian politics. Many analysts thought it contributed to Labor’s victory. Nature conservation crept onto the mainstream agenda. In 1984, various green lobby groups, including some of the more hard line activists, came together to form Greens parties in New South Wales and Queensland, modeled on the German Greens. Other states followed, and in 1992 a national Greens Party emerged. Over time, Greens gained a presence in state and federal parliaments. Some were ideological refugees from defunct communism. Before joining the Greens, for instance, one serving Greens senator was a member of the Socialist Party of Australia, a successor organisation to the Communist Party.
While open to compromise on environmental concerns, Labor never embraced green ideology. A moderate party in the British tradition, built on craft trade unionism rather than socialism, Australian Labor was essentially pragmatic. Its environment agenda was adapted to job security, rising living standards and the interests of mining, forestry and transportation workers. For most Australians, the environment was still a marginal issue.
Then came the climate panic. Australia is a land of climate extremes, where severe drought alternates with devastating floods. By 2006 the continent had been in the grip of drought for virtually a decade. Water restrictions even hit the major cities, as morale began to sag under fears of interminable dryness. That year also saw some unseasonably hot days. From their posts on the “commanding heights” of academia, politics and media, green ideologues sensed a chance to ramp up their rhetoric on global warming, claiming the drought would persist until carbon emissions were cut. Now they hoped to impose their anti-growth philosophy on the whole economy, not just individual projects.
This time their message fell on fertile ground. Surveys began to show majority support for strong action on climate change. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who was lukewarm on the issue, and had refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, was caught off guard. Looking to the election due in 2007, Labor succumbed to opportunism. They took to spouting green rhetoric, promising ratification of Kyoto, an emissions trading scheme (ETS) and a renewable energy target. Come 2007, the sense of exhaustion around Howard’s eleven year government was enough to tip Labor into office. But the party’s green chickens eventually came home to roost. Having hyped global warming as a great moral cause, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suffered the indignity of returning empty-handed from the failed Copenhagen Conference. By this time the drought had broken, and the Liberal-National opposition changed course, defeating Rudd’s ETS in the senate.
Public support for climate action began to slide. According to the authoritative Lowy Institute Poll, it is now down to 41 per cent, from 68 per cent in 2006. Workers grew nervous about the implications for trade-exposed or energy intensive industries like mining, steel production and power generation. They shifted back to former attitudes on the environment, leaving the government stranded. Following advice from his inner-circle, including then Deputy Prime Minister Gillard, Rudd deferred the ETS until after the election scheduled for late 2010, but he suffered a crushing loss of credibility. His colleagues dumped him for Gillard.
For city-based progressives, especially in the publicly-funded sector, climate action became a vehicle to burnish their moral authority and claim a larger share of the nation’s wealth, reversing two decades of market-oriented reform. Prompted by Labor’s turmoil, more of them defected to the Greens. At the election hastily called for 21 August 2010, neither major party won a majority in the House of Representatives. The balance of power was held by the Greens and four other independents. In the senate, the balance went exclusively to the Greens. Desperate to survive, Gillard signed up to a formal alliance with them. After weeks of negotiation, the Greens and enough independents sided with Labor to form a minority government. Their price was the carbon tax she ruled out just hours before election day.
When the dust settled, Australians found that, by pure chance, their country was in the hands of a climate junta, euphemistically called the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee, consisting of Gillard, the Treasurer, the Minister for Climate Change, the Greens leader and his deputy, and two independents. Posing as an open-minded enquiry into Australia’s climate options, the Committee is driven by an inescapable political logic. None of them can break ranks without bringing down the government, ending the most power any of them will ever have. This logic overrides everything, even rising public anger. The opposition’s line, that “Labor may be in government but the Greens are in power”, resonates widely. Few think Gillard really believes in the tax. Moreover, it comes at a time when consumer confidence is weak, and cost-of-living pressures dominate surveys of public concerns.
Never has such a gulf opened up between elite and popular opinion. Nothing has turned around opposition to the Committee’s tax, not Gillard’s promise of compensation for low to middle income earners, not favourable media coverage, not reports by scientific experts, not declarations signed by eminent citizens, not even an advertising campaign fronted by Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett. Urging Australians to “say yes”, the ad unleashed a wave of resentment towards the globe-trotting star, who owns a $10 million “eco-mansion” in one of Sydney’s exclusive suburbs. Tabloid newspapers dubbed her “Carbon Cate”.
Most opinion-leaders will applaud Gillard’s carbon tax package. They will ignore the real story: Australians are being made to walk the climate plank, with a cutlass at their back.
John Muscat is a co-editor of The New City.
Photo by MystifyMe Concert Photography