SYDNEY — Christmas is the best time of year for Australian governments to announce bad news. So when Canberra says this country will spend big to help stop world pollution, holidaying citizens are less than stunned.
After all, Australians are too busy ignoring the global recession by spending their record savings on Christmas shopping to care. Besides, the holidays are upon us, the summer sun is hot, and everyone wants to surf the South Pacific.
With most Australians enjoying a long holiday season, the Rudd government has quietly got its shocks out into the public arena and can feel pleased that the reaction is muted, as planned.
True, the comments exploding from vested interests in the pollution debate are pretty savage. Like the coal miners warning of a collapse of the country’s biggest export industry from too-tough laws. Or the Greens who claim a too-weak Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has sold out on his pre-election promises.
The Greens, with their tiny electoral support and loud protest marches, have struck one chord of public sympathy. “Appalling and disgusting failure of the Rudd government to do their duty,” screams Greens leader Sen. Bob Brown, stoking fears of losing the Great Barrier Reef to unchecked, man-made pollution.
The reef stretching down the Queensland coast is a United Nations World Heritage-listed treasure of natural beauty. Many Japanese tourists fly there to snorkel among the undersea coral reefs. Much of the multicolored coral, however, has died, and conservationists blame man-caused pollution. They see tougher anti-pollution laws as the last chance to save the world’s largest coral reserve.
Queensland’s Labor Party Premier Anna Bligh says it will take more than Canberra to save the reef. “Australia could stop all its emissions tomorrow and still the reef will be at high risk,” she warns. That sounds like the old complaint: “We’ll stop polluting as soon as the United States and China stop polluting.” Scientists tend to agree with Bligh, and in the vexed world of pollution laws to stop global overheating, it’s rare for scientists to agree.
Were it not for current holiday season, the angry debate over global warming and who is most to blame would have burst out afresh over the Rudd plans. Even so, the doomsayers and the skeptics still standing are giving fair warning of the row ahead in 2009.
Already government and opposition arguments are snarling along party lines. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull is reserving judgment on Rudd’s punitive measures until experts cost the carbon emissions tax scheme. His own coalition partners in the Liberal and National parties are less restrained.
“I remain unconvinced about the need for this scheme, given that carbon dioxide is vital for life,” said the Liberals’ Sen. Cory Bernardi. “Many predictions made by climate-change alarmists, including Al Gore, have been demonstrably false.”
The Nationals’ Sen. John Williams is warning that the proposed carbon tax of $25 to $40 a ton of pollution emitted could force manufacturers to move overseas.
The Greens are furious at “a sellout” and will give no support to Rudd. He will have to lean for support on the poll-watching Turnbull, whose polling among Liberals is already dismal.
Even the moderates — and they are few in this debate — are unhappy. “Pure Howard” is how one Canberra watcher, Paul Kelly, describes the Rudd measures. John Howard, long-serving prime minister until voters threw him out of politics a year ago, was noted for moderation in all reforms.
Rudd has been far less moderate in his first year in Canberra, the first year of Labor rule in more than a decade. Apart from wanting to be known as a world diplomat, Rudd will be remembered locally as a social reformer, as evident in his latest handouts to the poor that have cut a huge Howard-legacy budget surplus a year ago to a deficit.
But will the emissions trading scheme be his undoing? Not as Rudd has planned it. The plan to be legislated in the new year is for an emissions reduction target of between 5 and 15 percent by 2020. “Given the global financial crisis, we make no apologies for responsible medium-term targets to bring down our greenhouse-gas emissions,” Rudd says.
But industry leaders are already warning that jobs will go, investments will dry up, and the as-yet slow financial downturn will go into overdrive. Conservationists counter by claiming taxpayer compensation to “dirty” industry will total $12 billion by 2020. These conflicting claims will reach a climax in mid-2009,
For Tokyo, the to-and-fro rumblings will be worth following. Japan’s steel mills and power plants import much of their iron ore and coal from Australian mines. As heavy polluters, these mines will be fined for their carbon emissions. The costs will have to be passed on to Japanese importers.
The supply of coal to Japan and China will need to be watched. The global recession has already resulted in more than 5,000 Australian miners being laid off from work. Rio Tinto, a world mining giant, has announced it will cut 14,000 workers from its workforce. Australian-owned Macarthur Coal and Swiss-owned Xstrata have slashed numbers. Incoming pollution fines must exacerbate the supply fall.
What all the gloom will do to the Australian economy is yet to be felt. So far, money is still flowing as if the Wall Street hucksters had never started a world crash. But Christmas shopping figures are still to reveal if Australian optimism can continue on merrily.
To help it, Rudd has given pensioners and parents $10 billion from the former budget surplus, urging them to “go out and spend.” But will they really spend and make the economy look good?
Unfortunately, the Australian retailers association says most shoppers will use the handout to service huge mortgage and credit card debts. Still, Christmas shoppers traditionally know no bounds.
Alan Goodall is a former Tokyo bureau chief for The Australian.
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