After weeks of silence, the Prime Minister responded to the Coalition’s accusations that his Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) is a ‘great big tax’.  The PM’s counter punch mimicked the Coalition’s attack, but argued that it is the Opposition Leader whose climate policy would impose a ‘mega-tax’ on Australians. Labor has since recalibrated its message, branding the Coalition policy a ‘climate con job.’ Fortunately this change in tact spares the public from an infantile debate about who has the biggest… tax that is.

On a serious note, by basing the initial attack on the potential of the Coalition’s policy to increase taxes, Rudd and Labor had fallen for a conservative framing of taxation. According to American linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, political conservatives use now-familiar terms like ‘tax burden’ and ‘tax relief’ to frame tax as an affliction. The framing allows conservatives to pursue their political objectives of constraining progressive governance while positioning themselves as heroes, liberating the public from the perceived burden of paying taxes. First cutting taxes, then cutting services.

The conservative frame has the effect of obscuring other ways in which tax can be understood. Contrary to conceiving tax as a totally negative concept, progressives conceive it as a public good and frame tax in terms of investment and a due.

The ‘tax as investment’ frame increases the salience of taxation as a mechanism for social investment in vital infrastructure and services. These investments, ranging from basic infrastructure like roads to services like healthcare and education, protect and empower citizens. This view of tax is represented by the progressive Australian think tank Per Capita, who ‘…approach tax as a form of investment in social value creation. This includes an examination of how tax functions as a revenue raiser for the provision of public goods and services, and as a tool for redistribution and market stabilisation’ (Per Capita 2009:4).

Framing tax as a ‘due’ adds nuance to the ‘investment’ frame. This frame communicates tax as a kind of membership fee. It acknowledges the historical role public investment has played in building a foundation for shared prosperity, and emphasises the ways individuals benefit from the nation’s infrastructure. Presenting tax as a due calls attention to the obligation (civic duty) of citizens to pay their dues with investments in the future. The great American president Franklin D. Roosevelt summed up this thinking when he said that ‘Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.’

Rudd’s use of the conservative tax frame misrepresents public opinion towards tax. According to a recent report by Per Capita (2009:9), ‘…the Australian public [has] incrementally moved toward a preference for higher public spending (particularly in areas such as health and education) over tax cuts.’ While tax cuts were popular with the electorate in the 1980s and 90s, the electorate’s preferences have since shifted.

Rudd’s tactic also carries a potential political risk. Using the conservative framing in a high-profile public policy debate might inadvertently stir-up anti-tax sentiment in an election year. This sentiment could constrain the Government’s tax reform agenda in the wake of the highly anticipated Henry Tax Review.

So how might Rudd have responded to the Coalition’s attack without advancing the conservative framing of tax?

Labor was well positioned to quickly undermine the Coalition’s new climate policy—to acknowledge that direct measures to reduce carbon emissions are worthwhile and point to efforts that the government has already taken. How could the Rudd Government forget the $4.5 billion they allocated in last year’s national budget to advance clean energy in Australia?

The Clean Energy Initiative included $1.5 billion investment in the construction of up to four large-scale solar-thermal power plants to create 1000 megawatts of clean electricity. The package invested a further $465 million to ‘…promote the development, commercialisation and deployment of renewable technologies’ (DRET 2009), as well as $2.4 billion for contentious carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects. In addition to this, practical measures like the construction of bike paths and subsidising household insulation that where part of last year’s economic stimulus package further support this narrative.

This tact would have allowed Labor to position Abbott as a policy copycat and argue that only a combination of direct measures and carbon pricing amount to comprehensive climate policy. Labor could then resume their argument that carbon pricing would help drive long-term decarbonisation of our economy with the all-important benefit of avoiding the conservative tax frame.