It’s a bizarre election campaign when the economic flat-earthers in the Greens make more sense than the Government. But their attack on the Liberals’ proposal to subsidise low income earners for higher energy bills as a consequence of emissions trading is exactly right.

As the Prime Minister noted on Sunday night, addressing climate change will actually entail costs for consumers. That’s exactly the point, really, because only costs, not good intentions, will cause consumers to make decisions with lower carbon impacts. You can’t stop a runaway greenhouse effect with a few fluoro light bulbs and the occasional bike ride to work.

But Howard promptly undermined this by announcing a climate change fund, sourced from proceeds from emissions trading, to subsidise low income earners’ power bills, which an emissions trading scheme will – or should, if it actually works – increase. Of course, we are talking here about a proper emissions trading scheme, not Morris Iemma’s version that exempts the biggest carbon producers because they’re mates of the government.

Quite how you encourage people to reduce their carbon emissions when you’re subsidising their power usage isn’t clear. It’s like subsidising a smoker’s cigarette costs because of all the taxes you’ve imposed on tobacco.

Greens senator Christine Milne has pointed this out, arguing that funding energy efficiency measures in low income households will provide a more permanent and effective guarantee against higher power bills. Even better, she calls the Liberals’ proposal “a bandaid cheque”, which is the best entry so far in the “Mixed Metaphor of the Campaign” competition.

Perhaps the Government has had its preferred inventor of greenhouse fictions, ABARE, produce some evidence that carbon emissions from low income earners have less of a greenhouse impact than those from everyone else. But on that basis, the Government wouldn’t justify its refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol because it leaves out China and India. Clearly carbon emissions from foreign low income earners have to be addressed, even if ours don’t.

Then again, the real point of the proposal is the continuation of the Government’s reliance on politically-targeted spending. Handing out money to its mates and sections of the electorate in danger of straying has been the most dominant feature of the Howard Government. This gimmick is just another version of the same trick.

And you can bet plenty of the “low income earners” to which the climate fund subsidies are directed will be farmers and communities in National Party electorates.

Which is nicely ironic, given that farmers, via a century of land clearing, have done more than most to contribute to the greenhouse effect.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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