Now, here’s a test. Name one leading trade union figure in the US or Canada who is calling for a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme (including the cap-and-trade version). Just one.
The fact is that no prominent member of any North American union is advocating such policy. Nor has action on climate change been embraced by the employee organisations’ key bodies – the American AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labour Congress.
The story is quite different in Australia. Barely a week passes without the president of the ACTU, Ged Kearney, or its secretary, Jeff Lawrence, publicly endorsing Labor’s carbon tax, which will eventually become an emissions trading scheme.
Yesterday the formation of Manufacturing Australia was announced. Funded by some of Australia’s leading manufacturing companies, it is headed by well-known businessman Dick Warburton. In his first interview, on Radio National Breakfast, Warburton declared it would be “quite wrong” for Australia to go ahead with a carbon tax when the rest of the world was pulling out of carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes. His case was if Australia introduced a carbon tax or scheme before its competitors it would suffer a commercial disadvantage “that would lead to probable losses of jobs and probable plant closures”.
A statement by a prominent business figure expressing concern about possible job losses might be expected to have a certain appeal to trade union leaders who, in the final analysis, are dependent on workers paying union dues to maintain their positions. But apparently not where what is termed ”action on climate change” is concerned.
The national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Dave Oliver,took the first swing. He accused Warburton of being a “mouthpiece for Tony Abbott”.
Next up was the national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, Paul Howes, one of Australia’s most impressive union leaders and among the first of his colleagues to realise that a carbon tax or trading scheme could cause manufacturing job losses. On April 14 this year, Howes said: “If one job is gone, our support is gone.” Within a couple of months, however, he was reassured. On July 18, he went on the Lateline program to declare the AWU’s support for the carbon tax legislation, saying that “no matter who’s in government, carbon pricing is an inevitability”.
He argued that the AWU had to get the best deal for its members and he was “confident that the package, as announced by the government, will not cost the jobs of any of our members”. (Howes is particularly pleased by the proposed $300 million package for the steel industry, scheduled to last for four years.)
The position of union leaders such as Kearney, Lawrence, Oliver and Howes is built on faith. They maintain that Australian businesses will not suffer if a carbon tax is imposed upon them because, in the short to medium term, other nations will do the same. Viewed in this light, Australia will benefit from being first and, as Oliver put it yesterday, Australian manufacturing can benefit from catching the new wave of climate change jobs.
On the available evidence, this is mere wish fulfilment. Of all the OECD economies, Australia most closely resembles that of Canada. There are also similarities between the Australian and US economies. There are few similarities between Australia and the economies of the European Union, including Britain.
Thomas Nides, who is a deputy secretary of state in the US and reports directly to Hillary Clinton, addressed The Sydney Institute on September 6, saying: “I wish I could say that we could pass climate change legislation in the United States. I couldn’t. I can’t. We can’t get that through.”
In view of this quite emphatic statement, it is difficult to see how the US will be trading emissions at a national level any time soon. Under Barack Obama’s administration, an emissions trading scheme is off the agenda. If a Republican happens to defeat Obama at next year’s presidential election, it is even less likely. The recently re-elected Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has indicated that Canada will not introduce a scheme before the US, its major trading partner.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s commitment to alternative energy has been significantly discredited by the collapse of the solar panel firm Solyndra. Solyndra received a staggering $US530 million loan from Washington in March 2009 and filed for bankruptcy in August this year.
When the conservative New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key, visited Australia recently he was praised by Julia Gillard for overseeing New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme. The Prime Minister made no mention of the fact that, not long after coming to office, Keys scaled it back. On September 15, Wellington announced that the implementation of the scheme had been slowed down.
Last week the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, warned that the world could be facing its worst-ever financial crisis. This is hardly a time for Australia to be a world leader in implementing a carbon tax. Warburton understands the potential job losses involved in such a risk strategy. His position seems to be understood by trade union leaders in the US and Canada – but not in Australia.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.