Published by On Line Opinion, Australia’s leading e-journal of social and political debate.

Recently, the Australian Greens challenged the Rudd Government to “break the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) deadlock” by implementing an interim price on carbon. The move no doubt stunned many with its pragmatism and has since won the backing of the government’s former chief climate change adviser Ross Garnaut. While the move may give the Greens a PR boost, the proposal will work to strengthen the Coalition’s recent framing of carbon pricing as a “great big tax”. This of course has implications for Labor’s climate policy agenda in an election year.

The Greens proposal would impose a $20 per tonne “price” on carbon emissions for two years, starting from July this year. According to the Greens, the interim measure would allow the nation to start addressing its ballooning carbon emissions and provide the Parliament with enough time to resolve differences over the government’s emissions trading legislation. While this sounds like a sensible proposition, it plays into Abbott’s strategy of framing Labor’s emissions trading scheme and other carbon pricing measures as a “great big tax”. Without the presence of carbon trading, Coalition MPs will have an easier time convincing the public that “carbon pricing” is in fact a form of taxation.

New polling data from Essential Research sheds light on the Coalition’s CPRS strategy. According to the poll, economic management and protecting Australian jobs and industries are considerably more important to voters than protecting the environment and addressing climate change. Framing the CPRS as a “great big tax” that is bad for our economy and bad for jobs allows the Coalition to appeal to concerns among the electorate while drawing on their electoral strength on economic management to attack Labor’s credentials on jobs and industry.

The Essential Report (PDF 116KB) also suggests that Labor is loosing the CPRS messaging war. Even after several years of public debate establishing emissions trading as central to tackling climate change, only 30 per cent of those polled considered a price on carbon as “crucial to addressing climate change”. This figure is woefully low considering the groundwork put in by the government and supporters of emissions trading. In contrast, the Coalition, which has been branding emissions trading a tax for several months, would be happy to learn that 45 per cent of respondents agreed with them – that the CPRS is a tax.

So what options are there for the Rudd Government? How can they navigate the new political terrain and avoid a damaging election year defeat on climate policy?

Rudd’s options are limited. Tony Abbott has claimed “direct policy measures” to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions, so the government risks giving the new Opposition Leader a policy victory if it reorients its climate policy away from emissions trading and towards alternative measures. Adopting the Greens interim pricing measure will serve the Coalition’s attempt to brand “ETS as tax”. Alternatively, Labor can submit CPRS to the Senate for the third time, but it is certain to be rejected unless they adopt Greens amendments, which they won’t.

The best way forward for the government is to implement direct measures but reframe them as part of a nation building agenda, denying Abbott the policy victory he is searching for. The government can explain its decision to put the emissions trading agenda on hold by pointing the Coalition’s obstructionism, the failure of the Copenhagen summit to produce a meaningful agreement, and recent political developments in the United States that will almost certainly delay cap and trade passing the Congress.

By framing the new climate agenda as a nation building enterprise comparable to the Snowy Mountains Scheme is good politics and good policy for the Rudd Government. Drawing on its political legacy as the party of nation building, Labor can tap into the high priorities of the electorate and put Australia on track to reducing its contribution to climate change. The government can demonstrate the benefits of sustainable development by building a renewable electricity grid, funding adaptation projects and investing in clean technology R&D and deployment.

This approach to climate policy will support Australian jobs and industries, including the burgeoning clean energy sector, and build the foundation of a clean energy economy. Additionally, the approach will allow Labor to capitalise on its lead in the Essential Research poll as the best major party for jobs, industry, environment, and climate.

So what are the chances of a nation building initiative that requires billions of dollars of investment winning public support? Recent polling on Tony Abbott’s “green army” proposal estimated to cost $750 million a year provides some idea. Abbott’s promise to fund a large-scale project to improve the health of the Murray-Darling Basin was supported by 59 per cent of respondents and opposed by a mere 15 per cent (26 per cent were undecided). The result shows that the public is willing to support investments in projects that deal with environmental challenges of national significance. The popularity of economic stimulus measures that helped Australia stave of recession last year and the fact that $43 billion the government will invest over eight years in the national broadband rollout has escaped widespread public criticism, further support this assessment.

Ultimately, the government taking an investment-centred approach to climate policy will lead to debate about how to fund the initiatives in the long run. And such a debate can be used to legitimise carbon-pricing legislation in the future. Central to this, is the question of whose responsibility it is to pay for such measures. Is it the responsibility of all Australian citizens and businesses to invest our common wealth in climate change mitigation and adaptation, or is it just the responsibility of polluters through carbon-pricing mechanisms?

The Labor Government now faces a choice. It can adapt its climate policy to take advantage of the political realities of 2010, or face a third rejection of its CPRS in an election year.

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