Democracy means doubt
Those business leaders bleating Tony Abbott's promise to repeal the carbon tax should remember one thing. That's the price of doing business in democracy. If they want certainty, they can move their company to Russia.
They should also ask themselves what would be the reaction of their shareholders if they, as a chief executive prior to their re-election as a director at the company's annual meeting, promised not to do something and then, following the meeting and the re-election, they went ahead and did it anyway? And if they did it against the wishes of most of their shareholders?
The double standards in the debate about the repeal of the carbon tax are delicious. A spokesman for Climate Change Minister Greg Combet claimed a few days ago that "business needs certainty" and blamed the Coalition for being "irresponsible". Presumably that spokeman wasn't working at the ACTU when Comber was campaigning to overturn the Howard government's Work Choices legislation.
Kevin Rudd promised to get rid of Work Choices, and he did. In principle, there is no difference between Labor repealing Work Choices and Abbott (if he becomes Prime Minister) repealing the carbon tax. There are 11 million employees in Australia, all of whom are governed in one way or another by the nation's industrial relations system.
The goverment likes to claim that only "big polluters" will pay the carbon tax. This is what Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in July: "Around 500 big polluters will pay for every tonne of carbon pollution they put into our atmosphere."
You'd think those companies who wouldn't be required to pay the tax if the Coalition wins the next election would welcome Abbott's promise. Not so. Apparently some of those companies are unhappy that both sides of politics can't agree to impose the tax.
According to AGL Energy chairman Jerry Maycock, "Clearly, if you had a bipartisan view on the price of carbon it would reduce uncertainty." So there you have it. Australia in 2011 is the scene of a world first. Company executives complaining they may not have to pay a tax.
Politicians aspiring to introduce new taxes in future should remember what we've learned from the episode of the carbon tax. When faced with a choice of the certainty of Labor imposing a tax and the uncertainty of the Coalition removing a tax, some Australian business leaders prefer the former. Maybe they have calculated the advantages to their companies from having to pay the tax. Their own business might suffer but a competitor's business might suffer more.
Or maybe they've worked out how much better they'll be after receiving billions of dollars in government handouts to compensate for the tax.
The problem for a future Coalition government is, of course, that the carbon tax isn't just a tax. It is a tax, an emissions trading scheme, an accounting process, and a bureaucratic regime all rolled into one. Plus it's been designed to be integrated into the personal income tax system and the social security system. Plus it attempts to invent an entirely new category of property rights. And it's governed by more than 300 pages of legislation administered by 1000 public servants in the Climate Change Department.
It is much, much more than just a tax on 500 companies. A "price on carbon" is the vehicle of the economic "transformation" of the Australian economy - which is exactly how Penny Wong described Rudd's emissions trading scheme when she was climate change minister. Gillard's carbon tax is no less transformative than Rudd's ETS.
It's precisely because of the enormous impact of the tax that it should not have been implemented the way it has. Something such as this tax, that has as its objective the kind of economic transformation Labor and the Greens hope for, should only ever be implemented with support from both sides of politics. Such measures should also have some degree of public support. Neither of these condition apply to the carbon tax.
It's true that unwinding the tax and all its apparatus will be complicated, time consuming, potentially costly, and will cause headaches for companies. If business wants to blame someone for this mess, it should look to the people who are proposing the tax in the first place, not those promising to repeal it.