It’s hardly surprising that the carbon tax has become one of the most politically charged issues of the decade — after all, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have staked their political futures on the tax.
But emotions aren’t just running high in Canberra.
Brad Kitschke, head of the Australian Sporting Goods Association and leader of the Fair Imports Alliance that is fighting to get the government to reduce the GST threshold on imported goods, has claimed that Abbott’s office effectively told him that the opposition would support his group on the GST issue if it came out against the carbon tax.
Kitschke this morning told SmartCompany that three days before the carbon tax package was released by the government, he was asked by Abbott’s office in an email for the Sporting Goods Association’s position on the carbon tax.
Kitschke says he responded by saying that he would need to consult with the association’s membership before deciding on a position.
In his reply, he also asked for Abbott’s office to clarify its position on the GST threshold.
He says he was shocked by the response from a staffer.
“They felt that it was hypocritical to ask for relief on that when we weren’t kicking up a stink on the carbon tax.”
A spokesperson for Abbott’s office this morning told SmartCompany that “the allegation is completely false.”
But Kitschke is standing by his story and says the idea of horse-trading over policies is “completely foreign” to him.
“Most members of Parliament from whatever side approach an issue from the level of importance it deserves.”
Kitschke says he was also disappointed by the fact that The Sydney Morning Herald‘s initial article on the claims revealed he was a member of the Labor Party. He says he has always acted completely professionally and points out that many other industry group spokespeople are also members of political parties.
SmartCompany contacted several other industry groups, including the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA), the Franchise Council of Australia, the Australian Retailers’ Association (ARA) and the National Retailers Association to find out if they had been offered a similar deal to that alleged by Kitschke.
None had. ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman said that it was not their experience “that political blackmail with industry exists on either side of politics”.
However, it is clear that emotions are running high over the issue as both sides battle for the hearts and minds of the industry groups.
COSBOA chief executive Peter Strong says while he has not had direct contact from the Abbott camp, he has been “made aware” that the opposition is disappointed that COSBOA didn’t come out and strongly attack the carbon tax.
Instead, COSBOA has concentrated on calling for more details on how small and medium businesses will be affected.
“What we are absolutely desperate for is information on the impact of this on our business,” Strong says.
The key plank of Labor’s pitch to the industry groups has been financial.
While the planned increase to the instant asset write-off for small businesses is arguably the headline element of the government’s carbon tax assistance for the sector, this is only the second item mentioned on the “Helping Small Business” page of the Government’s Clean Energy Future webpage.
Instead, the highlighted item is $40 million in grants that will be given to “industry associations and non-government organisations” to “deliver tailored information about the impacts of a carbon price on small businesses and community organisations and practical steps to manage these impacts.”
Unsurprisingly, even groups such as the ARA, which carpeted the carbon tax on its release, welcomed the $40 million in training grants.
In his press release entitled Carbon tax spells disaster for retailers as consumers left out of pocket Russell Zimmerman “applauded the government’s $40 million scheme to provide information to and small businesses on how they can reduce their energy costs”.
When asked whether the $40 million in grants was a sweetener from the government designed to get industry groups on side, National Retailers Association spokesman Michael Lonie said: “I would suggest that maybe it is. It will be interesting to see where that goes.”
The carbon tax debate does raise questions about whether the Coalition almost naturally expects that business lobby groups will naturally support it on business and economic issues.
Kitschke believes this is the case.
“They believe that if you work in the business sector, the default stance should be opposition to the carbon tax.”
However, COSBOA’s Peter Strong says that while the Coalition may have once counted on the support of business groups, most industry groups are now regularly critical of both sides of politics.
He also reminds political parties that it is naive to think that Australia’s 2 million small business voters somehow vote as a group.
“Small business reflects the rest of the country. Some will support it, others won’t. Right now I reckon business owners are as confused about the carbon tax as anybody.”
*This item was originally published in SmartCompany.