The public cry for clarity regarding the so-called carbon tax, and Labor’s problem with communicating clearly, continue to threaten its existence.

Building a clean-energy future is a good step towards framing the policy in positive terms, but “carbon pollution” language is confusing people.

If we are going to introduce a tax in a world where conservative media frame taxes as bad, the public needs to understand it is a pollution tax — that is, something we should tax. Pollution is what happens when we burn coal. Australians don’t want pollution ruining their kids’ health, our air, our water, and making climate change worse.

A carbon tax is just another tax with no clear rationale and carbon pollution confuses people. It’s gold for Tony Abbott.

Carbon pollution takes a simple, powerful concept and turns it into something complex and unclear. Carbon pollution works a bit like noise pollution — most people don’t understand that you are talking about pollution in the conventional sense of the term.

In communications world, carbon pollution and a carbon tax are “weasel” words. No one gets them.

Tabloids seize on “carbon” and tell us CO2 is natural — just like climate change. We are back in a complex debate, contesting the existence of the problem.

During Q&A with Julia Gillard, a sympathetic audience member asked: “Why is it explained so poorly? Even the word carbon … my parents don’t understand …” Similar complaints can be heard from people of every demographic in every state. I recently sat in focus groups with soft voters, who said: “If it’s about ‘pollution’ then why not say so?”

The rule in communications is to keep it simple. Carbon pollution fails the test horribly. Abbot’s unrelenting simple sloganeering election campaign keeps building momentum.

Here is some good advice: just say “pollution” and “price on pollution”. When carbon tax is used, say “pollution tax”. It’s so big polluters pay a price for their pollution. Do you think it should be free to dump pollution in public space?

It’s great we are finally getting on with the job. Let’s not fail simply because we didn’t explain it properly.

*Alex Frankel is a communications researcher and strategist (formerly GM at Auspoll) and led the climate campaign research for The Climate Institute, ACF, ACTU, ACOSS and Get Up in 2009 and 2010

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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