Small Dutton energy

The leader of the Opposition has drawn the battlelines over big cars, in his small-minded attempt to quash fuel efficiency standards

Peter Dutton has never seen a scare campaign he hasn’t liked. Nor does he walk past an opportunity to create one. It’s an easy political strategy for someone largely bereft of imagination or any semblance of policy ambition. So, we find ourselves at the dawn of a new anxiety-inducing political battle in the guise of fuel efficiency standards and what they’re likely to mean for all those driving around in the inefficient monoliths crowding our roads. The government’s proposal is to require carmakers to reduce emissions across new vehicle sales by more than 60 per cent by 2030, to bring Australia into line with other economies such as the United States and the European Union. 

Dutton could be seen behind the wheel of one such monolith yesterday as he visited a car yard in Parramatta. In a slight variation to his usual “People I talk to…” schtick, Dutton told reporters, “I don’t know any tradies in the country at the moment who can afford to pay Albo’s $15,000 tax on a Toyota HiLux, and there are many families who are struggling to pay their bills at the moment. And how out of touch can the prime minister be that he’s proposing to jack up the price of new cars and to drive down the choices that people have?” It’s the stuff of nightmares. 

Except if you look at analysis based on overseas experiences of fuel efficiency standards, indications are that Australians could save up to $720 a year on fuel bills for new cars, and up to $1250 a year for new utes. In Australia, transport makes up 19 per cent of carbon emissions, with 60 per cent of those emissions coming from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles. So what Dutton is really trying to do here is argue against lower fuel bills and better quality of air for our children to breathe. 

The proposed reform has the support of crossbenchers such as Senator David Pocock. “For years Australia has languished at the back of the pack. The absence of fuel efficiency standards have made us the world’s dumping ground for the most fuel inefficient vehicles,” Pocock said recently. “Australians will save up to $1000 a year as a result of these changes, which will go a long way in the current cost-of-living crisis.”

But, as the Coalition knows all too well, the strategy of campaigning with relentless negativity, free from facts and rarely based in reality, has a pretty good track record in Australia, and there’s every sign it’s only going to become more Trumpian the closer we get to the next federal election. As recently as this week, Dutton has been caught out bending the truth about the government’s spend on Operation Sovereign Borders, and based on his campaigning strategy in last year’s Voice to Parliament referendum, it looks like he will continue the Bannonesque strategy of flooding the zone with shit. It’s not a strategy used to enforce a single narrative, but rather to disorientate voters with a range of competing narratives, with the aim of generating large-scale distrust and resignation in the electorate. There is also the hope that some of the narratives spouted may stick in some voters’ minds if they pander to their pet peeves. Fuel efficiency standards are ripe for such a strategy.  

It helps that Dutton is aided by much of the media. One breakfast TV show this week spouted the line, “Aussies could pay more for utes and SUVs under new rules”, an assertion that was propped up with a biased interview with the head of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, the peak representative body for companies that distribute new passenger vehicles, light commercial vehicles and motorcycles, and all-terrain vehicles in Australia. The Chamber’s website indicates that Australia’s top-selling vehicles in January were the petrol-guzzling Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux, Toyota LandCruiser, Isuzu D-Max and Toyota RAV4.

It’s been a longstanding tactic for the Coalition to sidle up to any vested interest group with a campaign against reform and pot of cash ready to spend. Whether the reforms these interest groups are opposing are in the national interest is, at the very best, a secondary consideration. It is no doubt why Dutton will be addressing the Australian Pharmacy Professional Conference and Trade Exhibition in March. It seems the new 60-day dispensing reforms still need be opposed by a negative campaign, and so of course Dutton will be there to cash in. 

Who knows what a Dutton prime ministership would look like? If it were to be anything like that of the second most negative man in Australian politics, Tony Abbott, it would be all Australian flags and ducking press conferences in the hope that actual governing would sort itself out. Either way, expect a lot more SDE –  small Dutton energy – between now and the next election.

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