“In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march; On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem; On desperate (death) ground, fight.” – Sun Tzu (544–496 BC)
“The ancient commanders of armies, who well knew the powerful influence of necessity, and how it inspired the soldiers with the most desperate courage, neglected nothing to subject their men to such pressure” – Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)
If an election were held now the Labor party would be swept from office. Polling released yesterday confirms that the Gillard government has taken a hit since launching its push for a national carbon price. Both Nielsen and Essential polls show that the Labor’s primary vote is down, so too is PM Gillard’s approval rating—the lowest since taking the leadership. The latest polling comes just one week after Newspoll showed Labor’s primary vote at an historic low of 30 per cent.
When it comes to the carbon pricing agenda, PM Gillard and her Labor government are fighting on death ground—the terrain that the military strategist Sun Tzu described more than two thousand years ago in The Art of War. As The Australian’s Paul Kelly notes, Gillard “has no viable option but to press ahead with her carbon price policy … to retreat would repeat the mistake that ruined Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership.”
If there has been a time for Labor to unite and fight, it is now.
Labor has work to do to gain public support for its key climate change initiative. The carbon price has not yet achieved majority support in public polling. Essential Research polling shows that 38 per cent of those polled support a carbon price being introduced from July 2012. Public support for immediate action on climate change is at 47 per cent, and 54 per cent support a carbon price that compensates low and medium income households. Though the last statistic offers Labor some solace, Opposition leader Tony Abbott is on the warpath.
Abbott is aggressively arguing that the government’s carbon price will increase electricity bills and the cost of living. The upsurge in support for the Coalition would indicate that his arguments are gaining traction. According to seasoned political commentator Mungo MacCallum, Tony Abbott is winning the carbon price debate and “will continue to do so unless and until Gillard and her climate change minister Greg Combet …get off their arses and take off the gloves.”
When we consider the advice of strategy masters Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, Labor’s poor polling has a potential upside: it can unite the party, instill discipline, and administer a good dose of the fighting spirit. The Prime Minister has previously been criticised for not standing for anything, but now she and her government are hitched to the carbon price. Successfully passing the measure is key to maintaining stable government and a shot at reelection in 2013.
Gillard implemented a polarisation strategy in the days after launching the carbon price architecture to create clear battle-lines. The PM appeared on rightwing talkback radio programs where she was lambasted for breaking her election pledge on carbon taxation. This was followed by the many of the same radio hosts throwing their weight behind anti-carbon tax rallies and Abbott’s call for a “people’s revolution”.
The hastily-organised rally at the weekend demonstrates that it’s not only Labor who are fighting on death ground. The combination of the government’s poor polling and polarisation tactics—the fear of Labor losing its minority government and anger against climate deniers—has upped the stakes and brought allies into the fray.
The progressive campaign organisation GetUp! led an alliance of environment groups at a rally to support the government taking action on climate change. The groups put aside their varying positions on carbon pricing so the event could overpower the anti-carbon pricing rally also scheduled that day. Consequently, GetUp!’s event at the Prime Minister’s Melbourne offices attracted an 8000 strong crowd; far out-numbering the 200 or so that rallied against a price on carbon at Gillard’s electoral office. While the government’s polling numbers are low, the visuals in the media show that support for national climate change policy is strong.
Having been absent for much of the last week, it’s time for PM Gillard to join her allies. In the national carbon price debate, taking the gloves of will involve making the case on policy details. Skillful and persistent communication is needed expose these flaws in Abbott’s alternative.
Labor can focus the debate on the merits of the competing climate policy proposals. The Gillard government can contrast its preferred policy of a price on carbon (to complement the existing renewable energy target) with Abbott’s “direct action” measures. Coalition policy would not impose costs on the carbon emitted by Australian industry and rests on storing substantial amounts of carbon in soil, even though it is not currently recognised in international carbon accounting.
Labor can also challenge the Coalition on the value of a policy that only offers a short-term fix. Coalition climate policy would not create any structural changes to disincentivise carbon emissions in the long run. According to Lenore Taylor, Frontier Economics, the firm that reviewed Abbott’s “direct action” plan, admits that the policy was “never developed as a long-term plan” and “only makes sense as a transitional plan … either as a way of easing in to a carbon price or as a precursor to a much more developed direct action response.”
Ultimately though, when it comes to a challenge with the scale and urgency of climate change, the policies of both major parties are suboptimum. They simply aren’t capable of driving the rapid decarbonisation of Australia. The current debate, it seems, is just about first steps.
This piece was republished by ABC’s The Drum.