Australian carbon tax is levied

Australians now pay AU$23 per tonne of CO2.

The Australian carbon tax came into effect on Sunday, at a price of AU$23 per tonne of CO2. The tax is supported by just a third of Australians, and has driven support of the Labor party, which leads the coalition which introduced it, to a forty year low, but many campaigners consider it a forward-looking measure.

The price will rise by 4 per cent a year for the next two years, before the tax becomes an emissions trading scheme in 2015. From then on, the cost of a tonne of carbon will be set by the market. A number of concessions had to be made to get the tax through the legislature at all, including exempting agriculture entirely and issuing large rebates – of up to 94.5 per cent – to industries like steel and aluminium mining, which take the largest hits from being undercut by foreign businesses.

The target is to reduce the countries emissions by 5 per cent by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050, from 2000 levels. As it stands, Australians create more CO2 per capita than any other developed country. The country is responsible for 1.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, just 0.2 per cent less than Britain, which has three times the population.

The tax itself has been set at a relatively low figure. The Stern review, the seminal 2006 report by the economist Nicholas Stern, is commonly thought to have lowballed the damaging effects of climate change, and still suggested that the social cost of a tonne of carbon was in the order of $85 (AU$83). It is also intended to be revenue neutral, and in order to avoid what would otherwise be regressive effects, most of the money is being used to effect major cuts to income tax. The threshold for income tax raised by over $10,000 to $18,200 yesterday, and even direct payments into bank accounts under the name "Clean Energy Advance". Overall, any household earning udner $80,000 should be better off after the changes.

All of which appears to have done nothing for the popularity of the tax, which is hurt by the sheer strength of climate scepticism in Australia. Not only is the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, a climate skeptic, but the views of right-wing shock-jock Alan Jones are representative of a relatively large section of the population:

What [Prime Minister Julia Gillard] has done ... is to diminish the image of parliament and politics in the eyes of the public. The notion of global warming is a hoax, this is witchcraft. . . There are stacks and stacks of eminent scientists all over the world who've argued it's witchcraft. . . I have interviewed every one of them on my program and not one syllable they have uttered has been produced on any other media outlet anywhere in Australia. . . There is a conspiracy in this country to deny the other side.

Nonetheless, the government – made up of a coalition between the Labor party and the smaller Greens – has hope for the policy. Greens leader Christine Milne says:

I think people will shrug their shoulders and say 'what was all that about'. People will start to get angry with the Coalition [the opposition party], for having made all the claims they've made.

Even Milne seems to be anticipating a Coalition victory in the next elections, and no surprise. If there were an election today, they would win in a landslide. But as she says, the tax is in place, and it may be that by the time of the next election, there are more important questions to answer.

Protesters don't like Julia Gillard. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.