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Issue #1512      3 August 2011

Polluters mount campaign against climate action

The Australian Trade and Industry Alliance, an industrial coalition headed by the coal industry, is launching a strident public relations campaign against the Gillard government’s carbon tax package, arguing that it won’t affect greenhouse gas emissions and will cost thousands of jobs.

These polluting industries have media and parliamentary spokesmen. Recently, while Tony Abbott was barnstorming on his nationwide “big bad tax” tour, rabid right-wing Sydney radio broadcaster Allan Jones declared that those responsible for the tax should be put in a hessian sack, taken out to sea and dropped overboard.

Former Howard government minister Senator Eric Abetz was questioned about this during ABC TV’s Q&A program. Instead of saying that such a statement should result in a prosecution regardless of who says it, he merely said he wouldn’t express an opinion because he himself hadn’t heard what Jones said.

The statement has certainly been taken as an encouragement to violence, and Jones’ seeming immunity from prosecution has created an impression that almost anything goes in opposing climate change action.

Recently a public call was made to take up arms, quite literally, against the carbon tax. At a public meeting where most of the audience opposed the tax, a courageous Greens Party member declared her support for it but was shouted down, harassed until she left the venue and then pursued down the street until she called the police for protection – all on national TV.

A significant beginning

The polluters’ campaign against the carbon tax program may seem like a gross overreaction, in view of its restricted application to 500 companies, its exemption of vehicle emissions and other weaknesses (See Guardian July 13 and 20). However, the package’s provisions to fund renewable energy development and close Hazlewood and Playford, the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power stations, are actually excellent initiatives which the polluters hate.

It is also possible that the taxation measures will have some impact on the profitability of certain industries, thus motivating them to begin seeking less polluting methods of production. For example, corporations involved in aluminum and steel smelting, two of the worst polluting industries, may decide not to pass on the tax to purchasers.

Then there is the corporations operating coal-fired power stations, which produce almost half of Australia’s carbon emissions. Most of the carbon tax on these corporations will be passed on in higher prices, because consumers lack alternative energy sources, and because there are no government price controls, so the compensation offered to consumers is a standing invitation to the corporations to jack up their prices by at least an equivalent amount.

Some households may decide to convert to gas for cooking and hot water, but gas companies are also likely to pass on any tax they incur to consumers. Installing solar panels to generate power is not feasible for most people, because of the high installation costs and poor returns on the investment.

In the past, state governments have offered grants and rebates to encourage consumers to “go solar”, but when these schemes flourished the financial incentives were reduced or the schemes were terminated.

One of the most notorious of these backflips was the attempt by the NSW O’Farrell government to discontinue a solar rebate scheme for new applicants. The scheme had been very successful because the rebate was 60 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), and even in the colder April to July quarter ten solar panels in Sydney are likely to generate 320 kWh, earning a total rebate of $210.

The government also declared it would reduce the rebate for people who had already subscribed to the scheme from 60 cents per kWh to 40 cents, but backed down after enraged subscribers threatened to mount a legal class action.

Nevertheless, the government has now spitefully decreed that if subscribers who still get the original 60 cents rebate add extra panels to their solar arrays, the new panels will receive only the 40 cent rebate – and the rebate for the original panels will also drop down to 40 cents!

This and similar stories from other states demonstrate the subordination of conservative governments to the interests of the fossil fuel industry. The governments might be keen to win green votes, but when the chips are down their allegiance remains with the polluters.

Everything solid melts into air

At the moment the electricity generation industry is fractured between various conservative state governments and the profit-obsessed private sector. The national grid demands a national approach to energy generation, which is crucial for our national development and our contribution to the global climate change struggle – and that means nationalisation of the industry.

In contrast, the coal and power generation industries reject climate change science, and want no change whatsoever to the arrangements under which they have reaped astronomical profits.

These industries are reacting not just to aspects of the carbon tax program that would definitely reduce carbon emissions, i.e. closure of dirty power stations and the development of renewable energy, but also to the fact that the package sets a precedent for more vigorous action in future.

Moreover, they’re terrified at the tectonic shift that is beginning to taking place in Australian politics, as new alliances develop between left and progressive political parties and other organisations, for example between farmers and the Greens in opposition to development of coal seam gas fields.

There are even splits occurring within the Liberal Party, as demonstrated by Malcolm Turnbull’s sharply pointed statement about the need to reject the claims of climate change deniers.

The power and coal mining corporations bitterly resent any loss of profits, even from something as frail as the carbon taxation measures. They also see the proposed winding down of Australia’s dirtiest power stations as a portent of the end of their grimy stranglehold on power production. Let’s hope they’re right. And let’s work towards that objective.  

Next article – Qantas: slippery slope of privatisation

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