Our political debate has been doused in petrol. But how is it, when peak oil talk is saturating the airwaves, that the subjects of renewable energy, infrastructure and climate change aren’t rating a mention? Instead we’re talking about 5 cent discounts, FuelWatch leaks and lopping off the GST. 

“I’ve watched this debate with total despair…” Clive Hamilton, author of Scorcher and former executive director of The Australia Institute told Crikey. “This tells us that large increases in energy prices are off the political agenda for at least a decade. And so we’re stuffed. Because we have to act within a decade.”

Blame Brendan Nelson first. The opposition leader has finally managed to drag discussion to the petrol pump, and he’s inhaling deeply. Ferguson’s FuelWatch leak, plus Oakes’ latest revelation, meant the government finally fell over.

The Rudd government must “…shift public perceptions so that they don’t revolt over higher petrol prices and energy prices and engage the opposition so that it doesn’t descend into a petrol price war,” says Hamilton. 

Instead, “the opposition has pursued the petrol price issue in crudest possible terms and the government has capitulated… Now I fear the government will be so terrified of a petrol price backlash that they will erode the integrity of an emissions system.”

But aren’t politicians underestimating working families, given that they rate climate change as one of their top concerns? According to The Climate Institute’s April polling, climate change is still in the top five concerns for people. So why can’t we connect the dots of fuel prices, energy consumption and climate change in the public’s mind?

“I think it shows that the shift in public sentiment on climate change remains superficial,” says Hamilton. “Public sentiment is there to be led… Over the last two years an opportunity has been created to get the public to accept that prices must rise.”

But an acknowledgement of climate change doesn’t necessarily translate into the public preparing for pain at the hip pocket.

“Awareness is an abstract one at the moment, removed from what people have to do personally,” says Hamilton. “the second step, which is harder, is to drive behavioural change, stimulated by policy.” 

This is where government steps in. In theory.

“We’re very disappointed in both sides of politics,” Erwin Jackson of The Climate Institute told Crikey. “In Bali we saw a level of maturity from both sides that this was a serious problem… And now we’re heading back into the dark ages of climate policy.”

“… short term politicking over fuel will create a public perception that politicians will buckle under these kinds of pressures … therefore the public won’t take steps such as buying fuel efficient vehicles,” says Jackson. 

And there are solutions beyond tax cuts. “Australians don’t want to have to rely upon their car for everyday needs, Sydney’s overwhelmed train system is testament to that. However the lack of a world-class public transport system makes it virtually impossible not to,” says Greenpeace Climate and Energy campaigner Simon Roz.

“Funding for roads should be reallocated to include all transport, with half going towards public transport. This should support the installation of high quality, high-speed passenger rail links between the major centres,” says Roz. But none of the “available options that will be required to end our dependance on the car look to be developed anytime soon.” 

In the meantime Rudd, too busy plugging leaks, has missed a political opportunity. “They could have outflanked the opposition. They could have said we’re not going to sacrifice the environment” but we are going to shift income assistance to low income families who are hurting, says Hamilton. 

Instead, “this is the worst short term vision imaginable. In this process the Rudd government has undermined its claim to be looking to the future of Australia.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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