Come in Spinner: Second time luckier

If Kevin Rudd had approached his mining tax, and the emissions trading system, in the way Julie Gillard is approaching the carbon tax he might still be Prime Minister.

That’s not to say that things can’t go wrong with the Gillard approach but rather that, from a communications point of view, the beginning already looks a lot better than most of the previous campaigns.

On the face of it the carbon price campaign has got most of the elements of a successful public awareness/education campaign.

The Prime Minister has made a commitment to having a carbon price, framing the debate at the outset, but has left the details for further down the track

The Government has established two official consultation bodies – a group of business people and a parliamentary committee – which can start looking at detail and thrashing out options to present to the public.

There is a high level committee, headed by Tim Flannery, which can undertake a public education program at the grass roots level. Most significantly, the committee includes an expert in scientific communications to laypeople rather than just hiring some PR people who may or may not be listened to. Flannery is also not exactly an amateur when it comes to engaging and educating people. After all what other Australian scientist is quite so familiar with every variation of Australian rhyming slang. Given the committee membership we can expect a sustained campaign to recruit more credible ambassadors, creative use of social media and lots of emphasis on word-of-mouth communication in local communities.

The staged release of the Garnaut updates provides a regular series of newsworthy announcements, and an ongoing source of education, and the Government has been careful about recruiting third party endorsements – particularly from business – which adds to the drip, drip, drip of messages.

Messaging so far has tackled some of the major initial barriers. The government has made it clear that we need a carbon price; and, the hoary myth that Australia couldn’t rush in to it all before the rest of the world has been countered with hard evidence that we are already lagging behind and will get further off the pace if we delay.

What the messaging will be in the next stage can’t be known without knowing what the qualitative research is showing, but we do know from the published quantitative research that opinion appears to be fairly evenly divided on the subject. This shift away from support for climate change action may be partly due to the Abbott ‘great big new tax’ mantra. More effective, however, has been the obfuscation practised by the climate change denialists. Counter-intuitively, the best way to make a problem go away is not to simplify it, but to complicate it as much as possible. The more confusion and doubt the more people switch off and/or are receptive to suggested ‘solutions’ which require no pain. The campaigns by Abbott, the Lavoiser Society and the various front groups set up by energy and other industries around the world have been doing exactly that.

On the other hand the proponents of action are not being quite as precious and considered as they have been, and a growing number of them are pointing out that the extremes we are experiencing are predicted by the models.

They are also taking the doubters head on. Nobel Laureate, Professor Peter Doherty, has been explicit in linking the climate change opposition to the sort of activities exposed in the recent book Merchants of Doubt, by historians Naomi Orestes and Erik Conway, and pointing out that many of the ageing scientific pundits the denialists draw on haven’t done any serious research in the area for some time. In the past ageing scientists past their research best turned to politics and metaphysical musings – neither of which caused much harm. Today, sadly, many of them turn to pontification on climate change which does. To be fair, I should say in passing, that climate denialists accuse Flannery of not being an expert in the area although at the same time promoting their own – such as Christopher Monckton – as experts.

On balance the new Gillard campaign strategy, with some effective next stage messaging, could shift public attitudes.

But things could still go badly wrong. Industry opponents of a carbon price are threatening a campaign like the mining tax campaign. The problem with that is that the mining tax campaign teaches us little – indeed it is not that the miners’ campaign was that good but that the government’s campaign was so hopeless. More importantly, the mining campaign is one of the few successful industry campaigns since the post-War bank nationalisation campaign. Most of them fail and, in one profound way, this one has too. We will have a resource rent tax – just as the GST became inevitable after it got on the agenda – and even Tony Abbott’s successor as leader and probable next Coalition PM will accept that.

A bigger problem is probably the indication from the PM that she is considering offering massive compensation to affected industries. This could split the pro-carbon price campaign as effectively as John Howard split the republican campaign.

A simple answer to that problem – and any extension of the resource rent tax – is to make an election promise that as soon as the budget returns to surplus the government will set up a sovereign wealth fund from some of the surplus revenues – post transitional arrangements – from carbon taxes and resource rents. There are already voices in industry and politics putting this issue on the agenda.

The denialists may rely on uncertainty, complexity and the scientific professionalism of climate change researchers who responsibly qualify their findings, but a bet on a combination of Greg Combet (even given interference from Martin Ferguson) and Tim Flannery is not a bad one to make if you get reasonable odds.

Ritual declaration of interest: The author has worked for the mining industry and has been guilty of obfuscating issues through complexity.