Psychology behind Carbon Policy language

Psychology behind Carbon Policy language

By Stuart Bruce, 19/11/2014

China and the US have reached a crucial bilateral agreement to reduce emissions and now Australia should face increased scrutiny of its climate policy from overseas. Our position as G20 host and president magnifies the potential damage for our reputation. Clive Palmer recently allowed the Direct Action policy to pass into law on condition that the Climate Change Authority was funded for 18 months of research into emissions trading schemes. The same Clive Palmer who voted a few months ago to abolish Labor’s emissions trading scheme. How is an emissions trading scheme (labelled a carbon tax) a waste of consumers’ money yet somehow handing $2.5 billion of taxpayers’ money to polluters is not?

It is partly to do with the ‘carbon tax’ label itself and how the issue is handled communicatively. This point bears repeating as we review how we got to the situation where a coal baron is deciding our climate policy. In cognitive psychology, the elaboration-likelihood model describes two routes through which people process issues and are persuaded in a contest. The route where a person thinks carefully about the debate and is influenced by the relative strength of the arguments is called the central route. The route where a person does not think carefully about the debate and is instead influenced by superficial cues is called the peripheral route. People who have low knowledge and/or interest in the complexities of carbon reduction and economics are likely to process the carbon tax issue through the peripheral route.

The peripheral route involves the use of simplistic thought processes known as heuristics – mental shortcuts all people use to make sense of the world around them. A relevant shortcut here is called a schema, which is a frame of understanding relied upon as a quick way to organise prior knowledge and process new information. Unfortunately, most people have a negative schema around tax so the language of taxation around this debate was devastatingly effective at bringing negative associations to the surface for a lot of people. Whether it’s Eddie Maguire proclaiming poker machine reform to be a ‘footy tax’ or the Greens recently saying the data retention policy is a ‘surveillance tax’, there is a reason the word tax is applied when it is incorrect, it activates the negative schema.

From the perspective of those opposing an emissions trading scheme, once the media was using the term ‘carbon tax’, the battle was already won. All the opposition had to do was get the tax label associated with the policy and that would trigger enough of an irreversible foreclosure on the policy psychologically. Furthermore, when Abbott framed climate policy as a hip pocket issue and Labor engaged on those terms, they also tacitly affirmed a superficial rendering of the policy contest. The grand conundrum at the heart of our prosperity – that our energy system has tipped the vital balance of the life systems on the planet – became nestled amongst other issues, like the mining tax or debt and deficit. Those with low knowledge and/or interest who were processing in the peripheral route and with the negative tax schema were assured to perceive it in the negative.

Once these factors were at play, they were very hard to counter. Julia Gillard acknowledges that one of her biggest mistakes was going along with Tony Abbott’s false ‘carbon tax’ language when the mechanism at the core of the climate policy was specifically a pricing mechanism. When you lose control of the constructs like that, you allow your opponents to dictate the narrative and define the meaning of each element in the debate. She mistakenly thought she would get brownie points for straight-talking but it only opened her up to the mother of all scare campaigns.

In contrast, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey navigated the semantic battlefield with far better results. The tax to pay for the Paid Parental Leave Scheme. It’s a levy. The $7 fee to visit the Doctor? Not a tax. Re-indexation of fuel prices? Not a tax. Increased revenue from bracket creep? Nope, no tax there either. They even stand by the paid parental leave levy as evidence of an implied increase in taxation generally-speaking and avoid constructs that admit specific tax mechanisms; allowing them to deny breaking the “no new taxes” promise.

We now have a policy that rejects a pricing mechanism (with minimal cost to consumers) and approves a huge $2.5 billion cost to taxpayers. It didn’t have to be this way. Labor and all supporters of competent public policy and climate action, needed to be much firmer in defending the use of correct labels and descriptors. Instead they ran with those from opponents which had the failure of the policy embedded in them. I cannot win an argument against the carbon tax. It never technically existed actually but was still this mythological demon of taxation that wreaked havoc as a toxic tax on everything. That I cannot defend. However, a temporary fixed price on pollution for an emissions trading scheme – where polluters pay and they pass less costs on over time – so that Australia can proudly carry its weight on this threat to human prosperity. That I can defend.


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