Some minor carbon-ation

I was interested on Sunday to hear Prime Minister Julia Gillard begin what I thought was a way of working up to a really simple analogy to explain the carbon price. She said:

At the moment, those big polluters can release that pollution into our atmosphere for free. We will require them to pay a price per tonne.

What immediately sprung to mind for me was how this was like tip fees. When I was a kid (I believe) it was free to take stuff to the dump. Now you have to pay. Because it costs the government money to get rid of the stuff you dump and there are environmental hassles — for a start, the land used as a dump eventually gets filled up.

This to me seems to be a really simple way to explain the whole thing. Just like you have to pay tip fees (albeit to your local government, not the federal government) to put your rubbish on common land, now big polluters will have to pay to put their rubbish into common air. But I’m yet to hear anyone from the government describe it in that way. I guess they’re too busy trying to explain the complicated tax cuts and compensation deal.

If you want to take the analogy further: In addition to charging for access to the tip, the local government introduced measures like household recycling collection and free green-waste disposal to encourage people to have less landfill all together. Gee, that sounds like encouraging renewable technologies, doesn’t it?

In the lead up to the big announcement of detail, one of the (many) leaks about the carbon tax was to do with fuel being exempt. Well, some kinds of fuel. But before that, there had been some talk from the Opposition about how petrol might go up by 6c a litre. SIX CENTS A LITRE!

I’ve been driving for not quite 10 years now. In that time, the price of petrol has ranged between about 90c/L and 170c/L. It’s now settled (in my city anyway) to about 130-140c/L — a fluctuation of 10 cents that can change weekly. Sometimes the price jumps 17c/L in one afternoon.

I know I don’t have kids demanding to be fed or banks demanding mortgage payments, but in much of that driving time I’ve been on a tight budget too. I coped with the price rises by saying well, I can afford to put $50 of petrol in the car so that’s what I’ll do. Some weeks that was a full tank and some weeks it was half a tank. If absolutely necessary, money got scrimped from elsewhere to fill it that bit more.

Somehow I just can’t get worked up by the prospect of a 6c/L price rise.

No wonder there’s confusion over the compensation — different tables I’ve seen in various publications (including the government’s own one) seem to tell me different things for my situation. (But one did helpfully tell me that government mainly cares about “breeders”. Gee, thanks for that helpful piece of propaganda.)

I’m not sure that’s it’s actually going to be possible to explain it in a way most people will be able to understand. And even if they do understand, people just don’t really like change anyway. But my thinking is that once the change is in place, everyone will just get on with business and eventually won’t remember what it was like before (although that does sound a bit Orwellian).

I was just becoming aware of an interested in politics when the GST was coming in, but I kind of remember the debates. I do remember being given it as the topic of a short satire play I had to write for English. (We had a farmer who was upset about this G’st from the government who wanted to come and take his stock away.) The mood then, and now, strikes me as similar to when I was in France just as the preparations for changing from francs to euros were beginning. There were the same worries about shopkeepers ripping people off, confusion about conversions, and stress over what it would mean for keeping the books in order.

But we’ve coped with and adapted to the GST, just as the French (and other countries) have with the change to the euro. I suspect we’ll find we do fine with the carbon tax.


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