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Oz puts tax on carbon

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BRISBANE -- Carbon tax or collective psychosis -- Australia formally adopted at least one of them at midnight Saturday as we joined a growing list of countries who stop greenhouse emissions at a tollgate before waving them onward to the heavens.

Australia has for decades walked in lockstep with Canada on public policy, but now we part company on one of the most intriguing government-backed proposals of the 21st century.

Both countries, sharing similar economic and population profiles, can now enjoy the luxury of viewing the other as one might a laboratory experiment, seeing where each path leads.

Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta may have their own versions, but at a national level Canada was unequivocal in its rejection of a federal carbon tax in the 2008 election.

Australia wasn't given a choice on the novel concept of placing a levy on ethereal emissions, with both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition leader Tony Abbott ruling out the carbon tax in the 2010 federal election campaign.

But the electorate returned a hung parliament and Gillard formed a government with the help of the Australian Greens who wanted the tax.

And suddenly, as we say in Australia, "all bets were off.''

Last Saturday at the stroke of midnight, the tax arrived, pricing carbon dioxide and a host of more dangerous emissions including methane and nitrous oxide, at $23 a tonne.

Conservative opposition Senator Barnaby Joyce, who has been one of the loudest opponents, noted the temperature Sunday morning had not reduced significantly.

Joyce and his boss, Tony Abbott, this week stepped up their already aggressive, year-long assault on the tax, which polls say up to two-thirds of Australian disapprove, and which Abbott pledges to roll back if he becomes prime minister next year.

To the government, "carbon pricing'' (it's not referred to as a tax in the government) is a responsible response to a global problem, using market forces to usher in a clean energy future.

To the opposition, the tax is a financial fraud hampering households and industry with a crippling expense while many other developed countries, including Canada, finds less financially painful ways to reduce dangerous emissions.

The colourful Senator Joyce, from the northern state of Queensland, also suggests the policy might have more than an echo of that '"doomsday'' psychosis which lurks in the collective consciousness.

In past centuries, where Hollywood blockbusters were a rare commodity, most of us settled for a preview of the approaching cataclysm by reading the last chapter of the Bible -- the Book of Revelations.

It does seem odd that the demise of Christianity and the dismounting of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse was coupled, in the latter half of the 20th century, with the sudden appearance of more plausible versions of Armageddon.

Since the end of the Second World War, the developed world has cowered under the threat of nuclear annihilation, a devastating "population explosion'' extensively canvassed in the 1970s and an approaching ice age.

Now we shiver in terror at the unfolding scenario, which would have us slowly frying in global warming's earth-bound version of Hades.

Others with a more multicultural approach to Armageddon insist the Mayan Calendar has got annihilation penciled in for this coming Dec. 21 (a Friday for those who wish to make a diary note).

Few thinking Australians doubt the industrial age has thrown up emissions deeply harmful to the environment, but Joyce and Abbott are finding a receptive ear in a country deeply suspicious of a tax, which even the mighty U.S. has so far resisted.

Many Australians (especially since the decade-long drought began to break in 2008) are now not entirely sure climate change is about to usher in a 21st-century version of the Rapture.

Taxing something that allegedly threatens the future of humanity, and waiting for market forces to banish it, also suggests our leaders believe the threat may not be as dire as we first thought when Al Gore first scared the bejesus out of everyone with his road show.

And, as Senator Joyce is fond of saying, "If taxes cooled the planet, the place would already be an icebox.''

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2012 A13

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