Some words for Julia – how to sell a carbon tax

13/07/2011 § 1 Comment

Persuasion

Last Sunday Australia’s Prime Minister gave a speech outlining the government’s new carbon tax. Her government is getting pounded in the polls and is widely thought to be incapable of selling even popular and successful policies, let alone something as unloved and untried as a carbon tax. (Why, oh why, she had to call it a ‘tax’ – with all the voodoo that that word brings – when there’s a perfectly legitimate argument that it’s not actually a tax. But that’s a frustration for another day and another post.)

So for people like me this was a big moment. Like any good latte-sipping elite (actually, I prefer macchiatos), the answer to whether we should price carbon seems to me face-palmingly obvious: you put a price on carbon. Better to lose a few jobs than break the only planet we’ve got.

Now I don’t intend here to get into arguments about the science: I’ve got more fruitful things to do with my time than defend the vast majority of climate scientists against the shambolic ramblings of lunatic lords or knee-jerk contrarians. For me this crucial question is can Julia sell this vital reform? To put it bluntly, this is too important for her to choke. Like millions of Australians I was quietly thinking ‘please don’t screw this up’.

Did she screw it up? You can read or watch the speech and make up you own mind.

Personally, I think it was mediocre, rather than magnificent. In an effort to achieve simplicity and clarity (vitally important, yes) she forgot the colour. Ok there were a few metaphors, some not bad (‘avalanche of science’), and some ineptly mixed (her first paragraph had us ‘seizing’ our clean energy future before we’d even ‘built’ it). But there was no cadence or rhythm. And little inspiration or direction.

All of which is troubling. Because this policy is such a big change, and so scary for many in the electorate, that an average speech will not do the trick. To meet this challenge and to make this sacrifice we need something more than monotonous simplicity.

So I thought I’d attempt to write the speech she should have given.

Note that I haven’t written the speech that would convince me or people like me – elites don’t need convincing. (I did wince when I wrote the Gallipoli metaphor, but your average Australian is still such a sucker for the ANZAC myth that I thought it wise to include it.)

Note also that my attempts to write something more elegant and lively haven’t come at the cost of simplicity – and for this claim I have empirical proof! Despite philosphical doubts about the possibility of accurately measuring a concept like ‘readability’, I’ve found the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests quite a useful tool. My attempt has a Flesch Readability Ease of 77.3, better than Gillard’s 64.3 (and far better than the woeful 40.7 of Climate Change Minister Greg Combet’s subsequent speech).

Anyway, enough introduction. Here’s the speech. Let me know what you think:

Thank you.

My fellow Australians, I want to take a few minutes of your time today. A few minutes to give you my answer to the most troubling question of our time: how can we heal our planet? A few minutes to make five simple points on why we need this carbon tax.

First, those who know the science agree: pumping carbon into the air is sucking the life out of our planet.

Now, the long debate over climate change has been necessary. But it has also been bitter. In a democracy everyone has a right to their opinions. The misguided and the selfish have a right to say whatever they want: to talk and to chatter. But the fact that they talk doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. We may have to listen, but we don’t have to agree.

It’s sad that many scientists – smart people just trying to use their knowledge to explain the world as it is – have sometimes been drowned out. They are drowned out, not by those who know the most, but by those who shout the loudest and by those who stamp their feet the hardest. Climate scientists – genuine climate scientists – have spent years mastering a complex and difficult topic. They have spoken. They have warned us. I think we should listen.

Second, the answer to this problem is not complex: make polluters pay and they will stop polluting.

The carbon tax is really simple. Take the 500 businesses that make the most carbon. Bill them $23 for every tonne of carbon that they release. Smart businesses will always try to cut costs, and pollution now costs them. So they will cut their pollution. If they can’t cut their pollution, their goods will be more expensive and less people will pay for them. People will buy other stuff. They will spend their money on things that don’t cost the earth. And our emissions will go down.

Because our emissions must to go down, the price of carbon must go up. And it must keep going up. Over the first three years the price of a tonne of pollution will steadily rise from $23 to $29. It’s a sensible and gradual start that gives Australian business time to adjust and prosper in the new system.

At the end of the first three years, the system changes and we start to trade. The government, instead of controlling the price of pollution, will control the amount of pollution. We will cap and then slowly reduce the amount of carbon that Australian companies can emit. Firms will be able to buy and sell the right to emit carbon. This rewards firms that find ways to cut their carbon: they will be able to sell their leftovers to make a profit. That’s the beauty of the market, if you use it carefully. Dangle a profit in front of business. Make it pay to do the right thing.

Third, Australians are a creative people: we’re smart and we will find ways to cut carbon without cutting jobs.

There is no limit to the faith I have in each and every Australian to overcome a problem, to find a better way. This ingenious spark shines through Australia’s history. When the diggers at Gallipoli needed to buy time for their retreat they didn’t throw their hands in the air. They used rainwater, string and cans to rig their rifles to keep firing while they retreated: their ingenuity bought them precious hours and saved many lives. This ingenious spark glows brightly in Australian business. From the practical to the technological, our solutions are endless. The Hills Hoist. The Victa lawnmower. Howard Florey treating disease with penicillin. CSIRO inventing Wi-Fi. We always find a better way.

We will find a better way to power our lights. We will find a better way to power our cars. And we can find a better way to power our economy. Those who think we can’t price pollution and survive are giving up. They say we aren’t good enough, that we don’t have the brains to figure out how to grow cleanly. I think they’re wrong. I think that we’re bright enough to innovate and invent ourselves a clean energy future.

Fourth, cutting pollution doesn’t come without a cost: we will protect the vulnerable, but we will have to sacrifice some small luxuries.

As I said, Australians will innovate and find cleaner ways of doing the things. But let there be no mistake, there will be some cost. Treasury predicts prices will rise by less than 1% per year. Some prices will go up. Some goods will be more expensive. If something can’t be done cleanly, then its price will go up. It’s how you cut carbon.

But we will protect the most vulnerable from these costs. Those who are struggling pollute less. They are not the problem. If you catch public transport because you can’t afford a car, you emit less carbon. If you don’t have enough money for the big-screen plasma TV, you emit less carbon. If you don’t fly overseas for holidays because you’re struggling to meet the rent, you emit less carbon. The battlers need not be at the frontline of this fight.

Low-income houses will be compensated. There will be a cheque in the mail, or a deposit in the bank account before the carbon price kicks in. You will pay less tax. Six million households, all but the wealthiest third of the country, will get enough payments and tax breaks to cover the price rises. The poorest 4 million households will get enough to cover the price rises and then some – an extra 20% to make sure they’re secure. And, as the price of carbon rises, so will the compensation and the tax breaks. We will not sacrifice the battlers. You will be protected.

Fifth, the carbon tax is not only an opportunity to cut carbon. It is an opportunity to cut the tax that penalises people for getting a job. It is an opportunity to cut the red tape that binds every taxpayer.

Now there will be plenty of jobs in our clean energy future, and I want to give the unemployed every chance to grab one of them. This package triples the tax-free threshold, from $6000 a year to over $18 000 a year. It’s silly to tax someone as they move from welfare to work. They should be rewarded. And they will be, as they will keep much more of their pay. They will also be rewarded with the other benefits that work brings: dignity, challenge, and a sense of purpose.

Many people worry that this scheme will make their life more complex. Not so. It will make life simpler for many Australians. Raising the tax-free threshold means that an extra 1 million Australians will not have to bother lodging a tax return. The kid working shifts after school at Macca’s will not have to do a tax return for homework. The mother trying to juggle parenting with a day or two’s work each week will have one less thing to juggle. That’s the beauty: we can cut our carbon as we cut our red tape.

I thank you for your time today. The debate over climate change has been long and painful, but necessary. However, debate alone is not enough. Words alone are not enough. We must meet our words with deeds. We must act. And we will act. It’s time.

Thank you.

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