In its first term, when it was lagging in the polls and widely seen as listless, the Howard government decided to show its political toughness by bringing the GST back onto the agenda. Some commentators, looking at Kevin Rudd’s first term, are wondering if an emissions trading scheme will be his equivalent of the GST.

In last Saturday’s Australian, George Megalogenis gave the comparison its fullest treatment. As you’d expect, it’s well worth reading; he’s careful not to push the analogy too far, but he points out some very interesting points of contrast.

But the most striking thing about the two issues is how the outlooks of their respective supporters and opponents correspond. In each case, those pushing for change see themselves as victims of a huge and unfounded scare campaign. They claim to be proposing a sensible, non-ideological reform, and to regard the opposition as either rank opportunists or deluded conspiracy-theorists.

The view from the other side is very different. Opponents of the two measures see themselves as the defenders of practical common sense while their opposition is on an ideological crusade. The GST on this view was a move to shift the tax burden from rich to poor; emissions trading is a move to penalise the energy industry in the name of bogus greenhouse science.

This similarity wouldn’t be surprising if the two came from the same political sources, but in fact most of those who supported the GST are now opponents of the emissions trading scheme, and vice versa (although Megalogenis and some other pundits seem to support both). Further proof, if any were needed, that ideological opposites often think in very similar ways.

For what it’s worth, I think the opponents of the GST were mostly right and the opponents of emissions trading are mostly wrong. But maybe that’s just showing where my blinkers are.

The big question is whether the political effects of emissions trading will play out in the same way as with the GST. As I’ve observed before the GST was a classic elites vs masses issue; the political class in Canberra thought everything went smoothly and that it was a great success. The view out in voterland was rather different.

If it hadn’t been for Tampa and 11 September, the GST would have buried John Howard in an early political grave. That’s no excuse for not pushing ahead with good policy now, but Kevin Rudd needs to at least be aware of the risks.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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