Thursday, 11 August 2011

Janet Albrechsten - Cabon debate has just begun.

If you read the Gillard government's $4 million mail-out last week about what a carbon price means for you, one lingering question remains unanswered. How will a carbon tax on the Australian economy combat global warming?

The government informs us, more than once, that the carbon tax will "cut 160 million tonnes of pollution from the atmosphere each year". But not once does the government inform us by how much the carbon tax will reduce global temperatures. The reason for the silence is simple. The carbon tax will make no difference to global temperatures.

And that explains why the debate about a carbon tax is far from over. The government, the Greens, climate change scientists and propagandists may wish it otherwise, but there is plenty left to say about a carbon tax and global warming. Speaking of debates, we had one of those rare events in Sydney last week.

Rare because it's hard to recall a similar event where the pros and cons of a carbon tax have been so publicly debated. Far better than the government's 18-page spin document, real information was forthcoming when the Spectator Australia magazine and the Institute of Public Affairs conducted an Oxford-style debate where the motion was "a carbon tax is needed to combat global warming".

As the Spectator Australia editorialised: "We realise many of these people lead busy lives and the Speccie is hardly the centre of the universe. But it is a tad coincidental that so many of the high priests of global warming orthodoxy seem so keen to avoid a debate about what Mr Combet has called the most radical reform in a generation to deal with what Kevin Rudd described as 'the greatest moral challenge of our time'." Equally disappointing is the refusal by our taxpayer-funded national broadcaster to interview Lawson, an economist and prominent member of the Thatcher government, on its premier political programs, ABC1's Lateline or 7.30 .

While Lawson did speak with ABC Radio National's Fran Kelly and the debate will be broadcast on ABC1 at some point, Aunty's main political forums rebuffed Lawson. What are they afraid of? But back to the Spectator Australia debate. Siding with Lawson to argue against a carbon tax were geologist Ian Plimer and former Keating government minister Gary Johns. Arguing in favour of a carbon tax was former Liberal leader John Hewson, climate scientist Ben McNeill and former Labor leader Mark Latham.

When the climate scientist rose to speak in favour of a carbon tax, McNeill told the audience he would not talk about the science. The audience murmured a quiet "huh?". And herein lies the problem. The climate change scientists prefer not to engage dissenters about the science. At least McNeill fronted the debate. One invitee who declined huffed in response: "I don't participate in events put on by or for climate deniers . . . this event and others will more or less explicitly help to give [Lawson's] denialism credibility".

Actually, Lawson is not a denier and the emergence of a carbon tax does not end the debate about the science. Science is an ongoing journey of contestable ideas where even dissenting voices should be openly debated. After all, debate has a tendency to raise interesting questions.

Take this from one member of the audience. Curious about the assertion by the climate change proponents that the carbon tax will drive innovation, one young man said he was all in favour of innovation "but when one looks back on the history of human innovation, when Henry Ford invented the mass-produced automobile, he didn't need a horse tax to do it. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he didn't need a tax on whale oil to do that". So why , do we need a heavy-handed carbon tax to drive innovation?

Or this equally pertinent question from Latham who supports action to combat climate change. He likened the carbon tax to a government trying to tax cigarettes by giving most of the tax dollars back to smokers, compensating the handful of tobacco companies who were required to pay the tax and not requiring many other tobacco companies to pay anything. How, asked Latham, can the Gillard government claim a conviction about global warming when it has an ersatz policy that does nothing to change human behaviour?

These are questions that the government cannot answer. To do so is to destroy their case for a carbon tax. Alluding to his own disastrous 1993 election loss when he failed to explain why Australia needed a goods and services tax, Hewson joked that he felt as if his side had been trying to explain the carbon footprint of a birthday cake. Alas, the carbon tax is no GST.

There are two reasons why politicians fail to sell a policy to voters. Either, it's good policy badly explained to voters. That was Hewson in 1993. (When explained well, John Howard received a mandate to introduce the economically sensible GST in 1998.) Or it's a bad policy that defies explanation. That is Gillard right now. No wonder she and her ministers do not want to debate the carbon tax.


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