Spurious claims are appearing about what each major party would do in government should it win the election. This article is part of a series on scare campaigns: their origins, how they are being spread, and how the claims stack up against the stated commitments of the parties.
With the election campaign in full swing, the Coalition has revived a tried and tested attack against its political opponents, claiming that Labor would introduce a carbon tax if elected.
Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan has taken to social media to attack Labor’s climate policy, warning an Albanese government would introduce “a new carbon tax”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made similar accusations on the campaign trail.
The issue surrounds Labor’s proposal to enhance a key component of the Coalition’s existing climate policy framework: the so-called “safeguard mechanism”.
But what is that? And would Labor’s planned adjustment of the mechanism amount to the introduction of “a new carbon tax”?
Origin of the claim
In assessing the origins of the government’s “carbon tax” claim it is impossible to ignore the long and fraught history of the term in Australian politics.
Following the lead of the UK and the European Union, putting a price on carbon through the introduction of an “emissions trading scheme” was first proposed in 2007 by then Liberal prime minister John Howard.
However, that same year, Labor’s Kevin Rudd defeated Mr Howard in a landslide victory on a platform promising strong action on climate change, declaring the issue “the great moral challenge of our generation”.
But when Mr Rudd the following year introduced his own carbon trading model — the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) — the legislation soon became politically toxic, only to be twice voted down in the Senate.
This coincided with the replacement of then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull with Tony Abbott, an ardent critic of the CPRS.
When Julia Gillard replaced Mr Rudd as prime minister, she promised “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. Her government would, however, successfully legislate a price on carbon.
Mr Abbott continued a relentless campaign against the measure, arguing it would burden industry and push up the cost of living for ordinary Australians.
Facing significant internal and external pressure, Ms Gillard would herself be replaced in June 2013 by Mr Rudd, who pledged to “terminate” the fixed price on carbon and move to an emissions trading scheme.
Declaring it a “referendum on the carbon tax”, Mr Abbott went on to win the 2013 election. He axed Labor’s policy, legislating instead the “Emissions Reduction Fund” (which included an effective price on carbon) that forms the basis for today’s policy framework.
However, this would not spell the end of the so-called “climate wars”. Spats over carbon pricing would dog then opposition leader Bill Shorten in the lead up to the 2019 election and continue to spark ongoing rifts within both Labor and the Coalition.
So, when Senator Canavan recently took to Twitter to claim Labor’s proposed changes to the Coalition’s safeguard mechanism amounted to a “new carbon tax”, the term carried significant historical — and political — weight.
How the claim was revived
Although Labor announced its climate policy in 2021, the narrative of a “new carbon tax” resurfaced following confusion over whether coal mines would be included in Labor’s proposal to lower the allowable emissions threshold for big polluters under the existing “safeguard mechanism”.
In an interview with the Nine Network’s Today program, the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, confirmed that coal mines would be included in Labor’s proposed changes — appearing to contradict earlier comments made by his party colleague Pat Conroy.
In a series of tweets, Senator Canavan accused Mr Conroy and the Labor Party of dishonesty and continued to characterise the policy as “Labor’s new carbon tax”.
These comments add to a slew of social media posts that reinforce the message of a “Labor carbon tax” pushed out via Senator Canavan’s social media profiles and garnering tens of thousands of views.
On April 27, while campaigning in Queensland, Mr Morrison also accused Labor of looking to introduce a “sneaky carbon tax”.
The same day, the Liberal National Party of Queensland launched a Facebook advertisement claiming “regional Queensland” would pay for “Labor’s carbon tax”, estimated to have been viewed 250,000 to 300,000 times.
A full-page advertisement authorised by the NSW National Party and published in the May 3 edition of Hunter Valley publication At The Coal Face also claimed “Labor’s new carbon tax risks 10,000 Hunter Jobs”.
How the safeguard mechanism works
The safeguard mechanism is a core part of the government’s climate change policy alongside its Emissions Reductions Fund, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
As environmental law expert at Deakin University Samantha Hepburn told Fact Check, the ERF allows for businesses to apply for funding if they can establish they have a decarbonisation project.
Meanwhile, the safeguard mechanism component of the legislation acts to ensure these gains are not offset by increased emissions elsewhere.
“In really basic terms, large emitters, i.e. companies that produce more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, are supposed to have baselines applied to them.
“The baselines represent business as usual — what they would normally emit — based on historical calculations.”
Under the ERF, if emissions exceed the baseline, businesses would either have to purchase offsets in the form of Australian Carbon Credit Units or renegotiate their baseline, she added.
As the Parliamentary Library explains, baselines are determined on an individual basis by the Clean Energy Regulator and can be adjusted or varied where exceeded. This flexibility in allowing for revisions to the baseline has led some critics to question the effectiveness of the mechanism.
Labor’s proposed changes to the safeguard mechanism
The Labor Party under Anthony Albanese has proposed a more ambitious emissions reduction target of 43 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.
As part of its efforts to achieve this, Labor argues it would better implement the government’s existing safeguard mechanism by accepting a Business Council of Australia proposal to gradually reduce the baseline of big polluters included in the scheme’s existing framework.
According to Labor’s policy document, it would “ask the Department of Industry and the Clean Energy Regulator (which already administers the scheme) to determine revised baselines for each facility in close consultation with industry”.
In effect, this would likely mean the largest polluters would either be required to reduce their carbon emissions or purchase offsets in the form of carbon credits.
Does Labor’s proposal amount to a ‘new carbon tax’?
Considering Labor’s policy represents an enhancement of the Coalition’s existing policy framework, it is fair to ask: is the safeguard mechanism in its current form a carbon tax?
Clearly not, according to a professor of taxation law at the University of Sydney, Michael Dirkis.
Unlike a carbon tax, which he characterised as a “blunt instrument” that normally applied broadly at a fixed price to all emissions over a certain level, baselines set as part of the safeguard mechanism are akin to speed limits.
“Legally [the safeguard mechanism] is not a tax; rather, it is a form of penalty (like a speeding fine),” he said.
“Tax is a compulsory imposition,” Professor Dirkis added. “You earn a certain amount of dollars and you are in a certain tax bracket, you must pay a certain number of dollars … whereas, if you introduce a penalty — like speeding — if you stay within the speed limit you don’t pay.”
So what of Labor’s proposed changes? Sticking with his speed limit analogy, Professor Dirkis compared Labor’s plan to the lowering of speed limits, telling Fact Check “again, it is not legally a tax”.
Furthermore, despite the origins of the “carbon tax” claim being rooted in Ms Gillard’s emissions trading scheme, both Professor Dirkis and Professor Hepburn agreed this wasn’t a true “carbon tax” either.
That’s because Ms Gillard’s emissions trading scheme set an overall cap on emissions. If exceeded, a certain amount of carbon credits could be purchased and traded. A carbon tax places no such limit.
But as director of the Grattan Institute Energy and Climate Change Program Tony Wood reflected, the cost of reducing emissions ultimately fell back on taxpayers regardless of how policies were implemented.
“We shouldn’t be arguing about the label,” he said. “We should be talking about the most effective way to get there.”
The bottom line
A carbon tax is not part of Labor’s official policy platform, nor was Fact Check able to find any evidence suggesting it planned to introduce such a tax.
Labor’s proposed changes to the existing safeguard mechanism represent an enhancement of a policy developed by the Coalition, which experts argued did not amount to a “carbon tax”.