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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 23-Jun-2011

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 17

Wordcount: 1041

Give up an en suite or world goes down toilet


Don’t know about you, but my electricity bill has almost doubled in five years. An early adopter of the denial approach to household bills, I’ve been dazedly compliant, coughing up the increments and thinking of England. Only now, impelled by all this carbon tax chatter, have I done the maths. And it’s as I thought. My usage hasn’t changed. It’s the price that has almost doubled.

That’s a whopping increase, several times even Tony Abbott’s worst carbon-tax bogy.

Compared with this baseline gouging, the carbon tax – this “biggest economic change in Australia’s history” that’s giving us all such conniptions – is piddling.

Which isn’t to say it’s painless. It’s not. More importantly, shouldn’t be. My power bill now packs enough of a wallop to make me consider solar. Even counting subsidies, unreliable as they are, it would still take a decade to break even. But it’s good pain, since the upside is knowing I’m doing my bit for the planet.

Which is precisely Ross Garnaut’s argument for a carbon tax. It’s behavioural change stuff. Shifting to renewables is like losing weight or stopping smoking or having your eyebrows waxed or the cellulite ironed out of your thighs. No pain, no gain.

Most Australians want a carbon price: we elected Rudd for it, four years ago. We even said we’d help pay. Yet to hear the debate now, you’d think the only issue was whether we want to give the government more money, as if it were simply a revenue-raiser. Another GST. Put like that, it’s hardly surprising people oppose it.

Abbott’s plebiscite proposal was a cynical attempt to capitalise on this hip-pocket habit. Nick Xenophon was therefore right to cavil over wording and Steve Fielding was right to dismiss it as a stunt.

Yet still everyone says Abbott is looking strong on carbon and Julia Gillard is looking weak. I beg to differ. Abbott is looking shifty and expedient while Gillard, for the first time as leader, looks principled.

Gillard’s incumbency has comprised a string of cave-ins. On the mining tax, on asylum seekers and now, it seems, on live cattle exports she has behaved like a progressively collapsing mine shaft, where the heroes in some low-rent quest flick, having come across all staunch, are chased down the tunnel by successive explosions; a puff of noise, a bunch of shouting, then silence.

So we have the bizarre spectacle of a Labor (immigrant) PM getting tough on boat people while a conservative opposition leader argues for miners’ jobs. On the carbon tax alone, Gillard so far stands strong. How wrong we would be, then, to dump her for her first principled stand as PM.

Abbott chose a new suburban development in Canberra, the world’s most carbon-profligate city, to declare that a carbon tax will “slug the housing industry”, forcing people to shoulder “an even greater mortgage to afford a home”.

How? Why, by adding all of $6000 to a new house. Never mind that no one’s ever remortgaged their house for six grand, or that for that amount you could install your solar panels and avoid the tax. The obvious remedy for such an impost is to redefine home.

Our houses are the world’s biggest; twice the size (and half the occupancy) of those we grew up in and almost four times the size of new houses in Britain. Our carbon footprint per person is also the world’s biggest, and our waistlines are up there, too.

Even by Western standards our precious way of life is staggeringly, mind-blowingly wasteful.

Abbott should be helping rein this in. As Garnaut notes, “in much of the world … global warming is a conservative as much as a social democratic issue”. Instead he rides the slick line, “if you don’t have a carbon tax you don’t need compensation”. But in truth, if we weren’t so voracious we wouldn’t need a carbon tax.

If the median Australian house price is $470,000, $6000 is a mere 1.2 per cent. Lose one (of four) ensuite bathrooms, a quarter of a home theatre or one (of three) car spaces and you’re done.

So is that what we’re saying? We won’t make even this much sacrifice, won’t dent our precious lifestyles by even 1 per cent, to ensure a future

for our kids?

Change is hard. It’s also necessary and inevitable. Our choice is between soon, slow and voluntary, or later, sudden and forced. The adult and intelligent response isn’t to gripe and resist but to welcome a carbon tax as an incentive to change; to take the medicine, knowing it will do us good.

Unlike most taxes (except tobacco), a carbon tax is designed not to raise money but to change behaviour. Yet of course it will raise money and the question of how to use it.

Compensate the poor, by all means. But to spend carbon revenue on compensating big polluters is to undermine the entire exercise, since they in particular are the ones whose behaviour must change. Surely, rather than compensating gassy coalmines and filthy smelters we should subsidise their shift to renewables, kick-starting the very industries we’ll need for a clean, green future.

Gillard’s announcement last week of $770 million funding to two large-scale solar projects in Moree, and Chinchilla, in Queensland, is welcome, but neither solves the critical question of storage.

The Moree plant is a solar array that powers 45,000 households – but only during the day. The Chinchilla plant, a little more sophisticated, stores heat in boiling water but will depend on a coal-seam-gas back-up.

So neither plant will ever stand alone (unlike such solar arrays in Spain and California, where molten salts provide the thermal mass to guarantee baseload). And neither will drive research to solve solar’s notorious storage problem once and for all. It’ll happen, but not here.

Still, if you need a laugh during the dark days of Abbott’s anti-carbon-tax debate, there’s always his 2009 pro-carbon-tax YouTube clip. It may prove even harder to live down than the budgie-smugglers.

“If you want to put a price on carbon,” says Abbott in the clip, “why not just do it with a simple tax? Why not ask motorists to pay more, why not ask electricity consumers to pay more?”

Two years is a long time in politics, especially for the unprincipled.




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