Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: A carbon tax Down Under

This week, I found a couple pleasant suprises coming out of Australia, so the post is a primer on what I know of the climate fight there. 

First and most important was the announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Labor party, the centre-left big-tent party of Australia) that her government was going to pass a law implementing a national carbon tax:
Announcing details of the scheme today, Ms Gillard said the price on carbon would be fixed for a period of three to five years before moving to a cap-and-trade system.
"I'm determined to price carbon," Ms Gillard told a joint press conference with Greens leader Bob Brown and Senator Christine Milne well as independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.
Now I don't know what kind of details go into this, but on the whole it can only be considered good news.   Gillard leads a razor thin parliamentary minority government which required the support of the Green and a couple independent MPs in order to form the government after Labor's near loss in the 2010 federal election.  The previous Labor PM, Kevin Rudd led a healthy lower house majority and even passed a carbon trading plan through, but saw it defeated in the Senate (sound familiar?).  In fact it came quite close as the Liberal (the right wing big tent party) leader at the time indicated he would support the plan, and a caucus revolt saw him replaced with a proper conservative who would oppose the climate plan.  That person is the current opposition leader, Tony Abbott. 

A Word On Australia

Australia is worth watching for a few reasons.  It has a great deal in common with the United States and Canada.  It's part of the "rich" world, mostly English speaking, a former British colony and a federal system.  It's also a very big coal producer, which makes for a very wealthy and concerned interest that is predisposed to oppose action on (or acceptance of) climate change.  If Australia can enact a price on carbon, that may show us how it can be done in Canada and the US before it is too late to do any good.    This isn't Sweden, where the linguistic and cultural differences make their politics quite often incomprehensible or at least difficult to apply.  Australia has an economy very dependent on fossil fuels, lots of wingnuts who know it, and runs under an analogous political system.

Rudd's failed promise

Rudd actually could have pulled a special move that the Australian system allows and call a "double dissolution" election, where all members of both houses of parliament would face elections.  As polling still favoured Labor at time, this was likely to at least increase the number of Labor and Green senators for another run at the bill.  If that didn't enough friendly Senators to pass the bill, he would have been able to call a special joint session of parliament, and pass the bill through that (which effectively waters down the Senate by counting their votes equally with House members - it's a neat way to provide democracy a way to override the House of Lords). 

This is in fact how Australia got its system of universal health care over the unwavering opposition of the right wing opposition in the Senate back in the 70s.  Sadly, for whatever reason, Rudd backed off and the emissions trading plan fell by the wayside.

After this failure of one of his signature promises, Rudd's government floundered and his moment passed.  He was forced to resign by his own party and replaced by Gillard in 2010.  This was an amazing downfall for someone who arrived in Canberra on such a wave, after a very long drought out of power for Labor too.  It also means that both Gillard and Abbott got their jobs in similar ways largely attributable to the climate fight. 

Given all that, I find it remarkable that Gillard is taking another kick at this can.  Yes, the plan she's pursuing is different - a carbon tax that morphs into a cap and trade system over time, but as anyone who has followed the climate debate knows, the right opposes any and all attempts to price or limit carbon emissions through any mechanism you can name.

So unsurprisingly, Gillard's move has provoked the right wing "Coalition" opposition (called such because they are a coalition of Liberal and National party MPs) to declare war on Labor and the plan:
Mr Abbott had a simple message for the Coalition party room.

"This is a fight the Coalition can win and must win. We will oppose it in opposition and rescind it in government. We will have an overwhelming mandate to repeal the carbon tax."

This fight has heated up to the point of death threats being made against a particular independent MP, Tony Windsor.  Windsor's support was crucial to allowing Gillard to form the government, giving her a 76 to 74 vote majority in the House.  Windsor is a remarkable character as he is personally and historically conservative, and was even part of the further right National party early in his career.  He represents a rural district.  In America or Canada, he would almost certainly oppose pricing carbon and would likely be a climate denialist to boot.  In fact, action on climate change is a major issue for him, and appears to have been decisive in his choice to support Gillard over Abbott in the days after the 2010 election:

INDEPENDENT MP Tony Windsor says Tony Abbott "begged" him to back the coalition for minority government after 2010 election, pledging to do "anything" to gain power.  [...]
"One could draw a conclusion from that that if we pulled a tight rein and said `Well, you've got government if you put a carbon price on' he would agree with it - that was the inference from his statements."
Mr Windsor said he had made a "character judgment" about Mr Abbott after the discussions.
This is the second pleasant surprise I mentioned at the start.  It's so very rare for personality to factor in so vitally in world events and so nice to see them do so in a way that works to the greater good.  As I noted above, Abbott got his job because the previous Liberal leader was willing to accept a price on carbon, and here he is begging a normally insignificant back-bench independent MP to support him, and willing to promise to sell out his deepest principles to attain it.  It's no wonder the Australian tea baggers are threatening him, after this revelation.

All this makes Australia a place to watch in the climate fight over the next few months.  If Gillard can keep her 1 vote coaltion together in the House of Commons and pass her bill, it will go on to the Senate.  Currently it doesn't appear that Labor and the Greens have the votes to pass it, but on July 1st, the new Senators elected in 2010 take office giving Labor + Green a majority (and fortunately Australia has no filibuster).

Substantively it isn't clear yet what exactly Gillard's proposal will be and how much it will reduce Australia's emissions, and of course Australia's emissions are not some great fraction of the world total.  But it will be an important milestone for a major economy (Australia is in the G20) under heavy domestic opposition to have taken real steps to address the climate crisis.  

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the update. it'll be very interesting to see if Labor and Greens can pull it off

    I was reading the Australian Medicare entry in Wikepedia. The Medicare that Labor passed in 1975 was called Medibank. Medibank was altered by the conservatives in 1976 and that led to Medibank's closure in 1981. Wiki says that was "the only government in the world to have dismantled an existing universal health care system." Labor passed the original again in 1984 and named it Medicare.

    The conservatives wanted to privatize it in 2007.