One of the delusions of life in Canberra is that laws passed on Capital Hill have a big-bang impact on the rest of the country. In the latest manifestation of this myth, both sides of politics have portrayed the carbon tax as an epoch-defining reform. Labor and the Greens have lifted expectations about the tax’s impact on climate change when, in reality, it will affect national income distribution much more than it will the environment. As Greg Combet has admitted, the government’s policy does not aim to alter consumer behaviour. It will not weaken the public’s preference for carbon-laden goods and energy.
In a shameless display of opportunism, Tony Abbott has predicted a rerun of Biblical plague and pestilence. Yet in practice, the carbon tax is an innocuous money-churning exercise. The funds raised from the tax are being paid back to businesses and consumers in compensation. Prices will rise by just 0.7 per cent, and most Australian households will be better off financially. The tax’s net result is to move money from the rich to the poor, a backdoor way of securing greater income equality. Robin Hood is riding one last time, his green tights masquerading as a green policy.
Carbon Sunday and its aftermath was a chance for Labor to portray Abbott as the Chicken Little of Australian politics — a modern version of Liberal stalwart Bruce Goodluck, who famously entered the House of Representatives chamber in a chicken suit. Unfortunately for the government, its best efforts were foiled by stuntism from its own side. In the animal farm of federal politics, Catman was back.
As Minister for Trade, Craig Emerson has no executive responsibility for the carbon tax. But this did not stop him from travelling (at taxpayers’ expense) to the South Australian backwater of Whyalla for a series of childish pranks. He was seen squatting, in the middle of the day, with the Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, feigning a countdown to the tax which might destroy the town. This was meant to be a body blow to Abbott’s credibility, given the Opposition Leader’s prediction of Whyalla being ‘wiped off the map’.
Catman’s stunt had the creative genius of a dead cat bounce. The carbon tax actually started at midnight, rendering the ministerial countdown redundant. They looked like two middle-aged guys who couldn’t find a toilet. Emerson then achieved the destiny for which he has long yearned: international media recognition. His rendition of ‘No Whyalla Wipe Out’ went viral. There was just a small hiccup — the virus was feline distemper.
As one of the few Australians to have ever visited Whyalla, I am not without sympathy for Abbott’s prediction. The carbon tax may not have wiped this God-forsaken place off the map, but could someone please wipe it from my memory bank? Gray urged me to go there when I was one of Kim Beazley’s shadow ministers, another dismal journey in the cause of Labor. Latham’s Law Number 83: never trust a Bob Collins protégé.
In last Friday’s Australian Financial Review, Geoff Kitney quoted an unnamed ‘senior Labor figure’ as saying, ‘It’s a bit surreal’ — and no, he wasn’t talking about Emerson and Gray. He was commenting on Carbon Sunday: ‘Such a big moment with such a lot of change and yet so little feeling of anything having changed.’
Of course nothing has significantly changed. The government has levied a relatively mild tax and then paid the money back to taxpayers and pensioners. Why, in substance, would the ordinary work of the nation be any different? First Emerson and Gray, and now another Labor figure. Gillard’s ministers are inhaling carbon, not just taxing it.
In the nothing-has-changed department, it has been a stellar week for the Rudd family. The irrepressible Thérèse Rein, fresh from meddling in February’s Labor leadership ballot and costing her husband votes, burst back into print on Saturday. Perhaps she was inspired by Catman, the only media junkie who can match the Rudds for vainglorious publicity-seeking.
Asked by the Fairfax press about Kevin’s comeback, Rein replied: ‘It would be on the proviso that it was completely about the country, the national good, Australia’s place in the world.’ How one forgets. It has never been about Kevin. The vindictive leaks during the last campaign, the destabilisation of every leader under whom he has served, the non-stop networking of Australia’s business and trade union elites, the thousands of Press Gallery briefings, the six bids for the Labor leadership — it was all about the country, the national good, Australia’s place in the world.
And the expert view of Rudd’s colleagues that he is a ‘psychopath’ and a ‘complete and utter fraud’? According to Rein, ‘That’s actually not about Kevin. It’s about the people who are calling him names.’ Nothing, it seems, is about Kevin, the selfless one.
As Talleyrand said of another pretentious family, forever conniving to fulfil its born-to-rule self-image, the Rudds have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.