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September 20th 2011 print

John Muscat

Carbon tax betrayal

You would need to be a very blinkered observer, or at least a progressive journalist, to deny that a majority of Australians now believe the Gillard minority government has forfeited its legitimacy.


Despite a lot of hand-wringing about the ‘tone’ of our carbon tax debate, most Australians wouldn’t hesitate to pin the b-word on Julia Gillard’s carbon cabal.


The tax is nothing less than an act of betrayal. For these Australians, words have meaning. On an issue of far-reaching importance, she explicitly ruled something out before the election, but did it anyway. No amount of weasel words, or hair-splitting from media apologists, can change that.

Reducing all politics to a word-game, Labor flacks reject the use of ‘betrayal’ as inflammatory and extreme. Gillard and her allies were duly elected. They are entitled to pass any legislation they like, so long as they can muster the numbers. That’s parliamentary democracy. Some just muddy the waters, posing alternative but inapplicable meanings of the word. True enough, we’re not talking about the technical crime of treason, or collaboration with agents of a foreign power to subvert the national interest. Nor are we discussing law-breaking or malfeasance in office, even of Nixonian dimensions. These qualify as forms of betrayal, and carry severe criminal penalties.

But it’s precious to argue that politicians who abide by the constitution and other laws can never betray their voters. Variations of the idea that governments draw their legitimacy from a ‘compact’ with the governed have been a feature of western thought for centuries. There is surely another category of behaviour warranting the charge of betrayal: when a government’s actions amount to a fundamental breach of faith with the electorate. In this case the sanctions are electoral rather than legal. While history has seen plenty of leaders clinging to power in the face of widespread opposition, democratic countries, subject to the rule of law, enjoy the benefit of an orderly and peaceful process for their removal. Thankfully, Gillard and Bob Brown won’t end up hanging upside-down in a public square like Mussolini and his mistress.

The first two forms of betrayal are easy to identify. They concern types of behaviour which are defined in the constitution, legislation or case law. This third category is different. It departs from the realm of legal process, plunging into that mixture of practical affairs and public morality that is the stuff of politics. Here, the conditions in which a fundamental breach of faith occurs, thus forfeiting legitimacy, can’t be defined in advance. The answer emerges from a series of moral and pragmatic judgements about a course of conduct and surrounding circumstances. Ordinary citizens are much more sophisticated in their political assessments than progressive elites give them credit for. They know that in democratic societies, political power is constrained and limited. Politics is the art of the possible, grounded in compromise. They accept that politicians will often bend the truth, evade and exaggerate. Only in extreme circumstances will they judge that a democratically elected government has forfeited its legitimacy. But you would need to be a very blinkered observer, or at least a progressive journalist, to deny that a majority of Australians now pass that judgement on the Gillard minority government.

So what are the conduct and circumstances which have pushed Australians over the edge?

First Labor hyped climate change as “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, an emergency demanding immediate action, failing which there would be catastrophe. Copenhagen was billed as the last great hope for salvation, but collapsed in a shambles. Then Rudd failed to get his CPRS up in the senate, wobbled and decided to squib “the greatest moral challenge” after all. According to a subsequent leak, Gillard urged him to abandon carbon pricing, just as she assured us there was more chance of her playing AFL for “the Dogs” than replacing him. Not long after, Rudd was ruthlessly cut down with her connivance. Never before had a first-term government pre-empted the voters. In an election derailed by leaks and infighting, Gillard ruled out a carbon price until there was “a deep and lasting community consensus” and proposed a citizens’ assembly. Six days out from polling day, she went further, declaring “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. Falling short of a clear mandate, she ostentatiously hooked-up with the Greens, a party most Australians distrust. With little resistance, she granted them the tax she had renounced. Succeeding months brought a series of ploys to cleanse the taint from this backflip, a “multi-party committee” working with a “business roundtable”, a “climate commission” composed of suitable “experts”, multiple reports from infallible sage Ross Garnaut, leaks to reliable journalists about a cornucopia of jobs and compensation, constant hectoring about “carbon pollution” and “our clean energy future”, Carbon Sunday, an ad campaign and Gillard’s “shoe leather” tour. All misjudged the depth of public resentment, all compounded the original breach of faith, and all failed miserably.

Australians are entitled to feel they have been conned, disrespected and, yes, betrayed.

Excuses drawing on historical analogies fall flat. The carbon tax package is a big deal, monumental in its consequences. No government has sought to enact such a program after having ruled it out in the preceding poll. John Howard vowed “never ever” to legislate a GST before the 1996 election, but did put it before the voters in 1998. He didn’t flag WorkChoices before the 2004 vote, and suffered accordingly, but nor did he preclude it. As for other leaders who haven’t delivered on election pledges, the public distinguishes between promises to do and promises not to do something. Breaking the latter is more culpable, since it takes greater effort and determination.

Contrary to the hopes of elite pundits, sentiment towards the Gillard minority government will not shift, no matter how Australians ‘experience’ the carbon tax. There is no coming back from betrayal. But for those same pundits, it’s not the government’s legitimacy that is in question. In their eyes, leftist governments are legitimised by their superior education and progressive morality, not some ‘compact’ with the governed. After all, the mass of people are too under-educated and hateful to qualify as fit parties to such a compact. It’s not the government, but the people who lack legitimacy. For progressives, the right question is the one Berthold Brecht posed after a popular uprising against East German rule: “Would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”

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