A week after Julian Gillard announced details of Labor proposals for carbon pricing, the 'carbon campaign' began. The government is spending millions of Aussie dollars ($25 million, allegedly) on promoting their policy – from TV advertising to leafleting. The Australian Trade and Industry Alliance, backed by the coal industry and the Minerals Council, is also forking out a lot of money ($10 million) on anti-carbon tax ads. And many politicians are hitting the 'hustings', just as if a federal election were in the offing.
On day one of the campaign, Tony Abbott, leader of the Federal Opposition, was at Melbourne fish market at 5 am, complete with wife and a pair of daughters. He gutted a fish and lobbed in a few caustic comments about the government's proposals for carbon pricing before moving on to the next photo opportunity.
Ms Gillard went to Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria where they use particularly dirty 'brown' coal to generate electricity and will supposedly be hit hard by a carbon 'tax'. ABC television crews had been here, too, talking to father-and-son power workers worried about their jobs. The prime minister was reassuring.
Then, the following week, Malcolm Turnbull stepped up to deliver the Virginia Chadwick Memorial Lecture in Sydney. Turnbull was Minister for the Environment in the Howard government. Then, in 2009, as leader of the Opposition, he encouraged his party to support Kevin Rudd's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS): he subsequently lost a leadership contest to Tony Abbott (who later famously described climate change as 'crap'). Speaking in honour of a former Liberal minister in the New South Wales government who was responsible for a significant increase in protected areas on the Great Barrier Reef, Turnbull pleaded with Australians not to lose sight of the science behind the great climate debate. No one can discuss future protection of the Reef, in fact, without considering the impact of rising sea temperatures and increased acidity.
To polite applause from his largely Liberal audience, Turnbull declared that
'The question of whether, or to what extent, human activities are causing global warming is not a matter of ideology, let alone of belief. The issue is simply one of risk management.'
He spoke in favour of increased spending on carbon capture and storage technology: after all, Australia has a vested interest in clean coal production. He likened coal-exporters who attempt to discredit climate scientists to tobacco companies decades ago who denied the link between smoking and cancer; and he disparaged those who suggest that Australia should defer action on emissions until India and China take steps to reduce their carbon footprints.
Unfortunately Turnbull stopped short of criticising the man who replaced him as Liberal leader. But his wiser words highlighted the ineptitude of carbon campaigning based on soundbite sniping by Abbott and, to a lesser extent, Gillard. Cross-party cooperation and initiative is the only way forward, and the sooner Australian pollies appreciate that, the better-equipped for climate change their descendants will be.