Okay, I have to admit that the words ‘Turnbull is right’ are ones I do not normally write. Usually I disagree with Mr. Turnbull. I think he’s wrong on the question of a republic. He seems too Keynesian for my liking. I don’t trust him on the boats. And I didn’t like his support for an ETS when Opposition leader.
But let’s be clear. When Mr. Turnbull says there is ‘no such thing as a cost-free way of reducing carbon emissions’ he’s right. That’s the whole point of all these government-mandated schemes. The idea is to lower our usage of carbon dioxide-producing energy inputs by making them more expensive — sticks and carrots to change behaviour.
So Turnbull is also correct when he goes on to say, ‘Whether it’s a regulation, whether it’s a renewable energy target, whether it’s an ETS or whether it’s a carbon tax – a fixed price – all of those can be seen to be a cost on the business of generating energy therefore a cost on households purchasing energy and therefore in that sense a tax’.
Alan Tudge, Prime Minister Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, who should know better, is accordingly wrong to say that a government mandated renewable energy target is not a tax of this sort. Most consumers want the cheapest source of energy. Government requires a certain proportion of electricity to come from renewables, which are more expensive and have to be subsidized. These costs do not disappear into the ether. You cannot wish them away. They get passed on to you and me.
Hence in the sense of imposing big costs on the overall economy, this too is a tax. Only in some fairytale world can you force people to use higher-cost electricity and yet pretend that’s not a tax of sorts. Sure, if you play Bill Clintonesque games with the meaning of ‘tax’ – hence, ‘I did not have tax with those wind turbines’ – you can say, Tudge-like, that it’s only ‘a tax [if] you’ve got a charge for consumption’.
But that’s sophistry, Jesuitical casuistry. It treats something directly imposed as distinct from something indirectly imposed.
Instead of descending to the level of debating angels on the heads of pins we need more Coalition MPs to be reading Matt Ridley in the recent Quadrant (“The Climate Wars’ Damage to Science”) and absorbing anything Bjorn Lomberg writes and then stating: ‘All of this is a terrible use of public money. We are accomplishing next to nothing in terms of reducing the rate of increase of the world’s temperature. You could empty Australia of every sentient being, every living mammal, and it would still make next to no difference to the world’s temperature. Nor are other countries paying any attention to us, as some sort of moral world-leaders on the climate front. So enough with all this crap. Even the Abbott government’s direct action plan will do nothing about the world’s temperature. It may be a more containable option long-term, more easily wound-down. But it’s moral masturbation too.’
This is all about preening, about moral posturing, about bumper-sticker moralizing. The Abbott government is fighting against it with one hand tied behind its back, because it won’t say that none of these ‘taxes’ (sorry Mr. Tudge) will achieve anything at all.
Meantime there are arguments about what qualifies as a tax, and on that topic I’m with Turnbull.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and the author of Democracy in Decline