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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Can any government spend our tax money well on climate ad campaigns?

Information from the ad world is that right now the Federal Government IS seeking an agency for a 'first quarter' climate change awareness campaign. It is reasonable to assume this means Q1 of financial year 2011-12 (i.e. July-September), given that we are already in March and word of this filtered out late last month.

The 'client' would be the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency in Canberra, and the dollars being quoted are '$11.5 million with an annual allocation of $29 million'.

That's some big bucks, so major agencies are sure to be getting their creative caps on! Although in quality terms the recent record in this territory is not great and climate awareness is something of a poisoned chalice.

This call to the market fits neatly with the $30 million allocated by Treasurer Wayne Swan in the May 2010 Federal Budget for a climate change awareness campaign. Seen as a likely pre-election splurge at the time, the money went unspent as the Rudd Government disintegrated on climate change (and then altogether), and an early election on August 21 2010 ruled out a rush job climate ad campaign. You can imagine how that would have gone down at the time!

In recent days travelling Prime Minister Julia Gillard has refused to rule an ad campaign 'in or out', while hard-attacking Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has predicted that the Government will spend big on an ad campaign.

Before the Opposition gets too self-righteously angry about this, it is worth recalling its estimated $25 million 'Be Climate Clever' run in September 2007, just two months before the election the long-serving Howard Coalition Government lost to a resurgent Labor under Kevin (Kevin '07) Rudd. Malcolm Turnbull was Environment Minister in charge then, and the government baulked at the 11th hour on its plan to send a booklet to every home in Australia and just went with a website.

Then in 2008 we had the Rudd Government's estimated $13.9 million 'Think Climate. Think Change' climate awareness campaign. Frankly, this was not a great step forward on 'Be Climate Clever', and neither of them exactly live on in the Australian psyche like a climate version of the 'Grim Reaper' or 'Slip Slop Slap'.

Looking forward to hearing a lot of views on this matter, but to this correspondent's mind it is not of necessity a bad thing to run a substantial public awareness campaign on the most important public policy issue of the 21st century.

What is bad is a Government that can't sell the action we need and an Opposition that does lots of opposing and next to nothing about responding to the great climate challenge.

We don't need the 2011 version of 'Be Climate Clever' or 'Think Climate. Think Change' to slot in neatly with the Greens gaining the balance of power in the Senate and a vote coming on for a price on carbon, be it tax, ETS, or hybrid.

What we could use is a campaign that may be better described as an 'energy awareness campaign', confronting head on the escalating price of electricity, gas and fuel and the energy security challenges that the world and by extension Australia faces.

The Government has the makings of a real strategy for the future here and can sell it ... if it has the will and finds the smarts to do so! It can engage people in the solution as well as the big end of the town.

Here are some key elements to think about:

1. A price on carbon pollution that polluters pay and the $ go to help householders, badly exposed businesses and R&D
2. Scale back/phase out subsidies that tilt energy playing field towards fossil fuels
3. Maintain and ideally accelerate the 20% by 2020 renewable energy target and beef it up politically as an integrated clean energy and energy resilience strategy for the nation in a troubled world
4. Set a national energy efficiency target of at least 30% by 2020 and push it hard
5. Get aggressive about the 'smart grid' - and by that take it to mean a lot more than utility-controlled smart meters - including making this objective a critical component of the National Broadband Network
6. In transport, move to a user pays road pricing model while also promoting plug-in electric vehicles as a key part of the long-term solution (which in turn will require more electricity, an even even smarter grid, and more clean energy in the system). Australia needs an answer to how we rapidly wean our nation off costly foreign oil as reserves decline and the geo-political instability rises, especially in the crucial Middle East region.

Big business and government investment have to be a major part of the solution. But the people have a vital role to play too, especially in the early years, when energy efficiency including through behaviour change across 8 million plus households and hundreds of thousands of small businesses can save the consumers themselves money, take pressure off the grid, and avert the need for more traditional polluting power stations to be built at huge expense.

There's an amazing opportunity here for the taxpayers' $30 million to be spent well. Although past performance by both sides of politics still suggests it will be spent badly.

The energy opportunity outlined above is one view of what the future can be. This needs to be a vibrant discussion. Let's make sure that happens whatever path the next ad campaign takes.

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