Australians to punish carbon tax criticism

November 21, 2011 09:17

Bye bye free speech down under. The Australian government issued warnings to businesses that they will face whopping fines of up to $1.1m if they blame the carbon tax for inevitable price rises.

by Walter Olson at Cato@Liberty

An agency of the Australian government has news for businesses that might be inclined to undercut intended official messaging about the country’s new carbon tax: we’re looking over your shoulder [Andrew Bolt, Melbourne Herald Sun via Coyote]:

[T]he Australian Competition and Consumer Commission … this week issued warnings to businesses that they will face whopping fines of up to $1.1m if they blame the carbon tax for price rises [at least if they do so in a way the commission considers “unsubstantiated” or “misleading”—see below].

It says it has been “directed by the Australian government to undertake a compliance and enforcement role in relation to claims made about the impact of a carbon price.”

…There will be 23 carbon cops roaming the streets doing snap audits of businesses that “choose to link your price increases to a carbon price.”

Instead, the ACCC suggests you tell customers you’ve raised prices because “the overall cost of running (your) business has increased.”

It should be noted that the ACCC in its guidance disclaims any intent to suppress discussion of the tax as such, so long as it can be “substantiated” to the commission’s satisfaction and is not exaggerated or misleading to consumers. But its examples make clear that it will regard as exaggeration what many others would consider difference of opinion, and in particular that businesses that blame a price rise on the tax face the prospect of burdensome “substantiation notices” and may well lose in court unless they can prove that the tax was entirely (not just mostly) responsible for a cited rise in costs.

Columnist Bolt, incidentally, knows a thing or two about the tendency of the advancing regulatory state to trample freedom of speech. And readers with longer memories will be aware that there was a time when our own Federal Trade Commission was interested in regulating corporate “issue” advertising in a very similar way, so that ads that explained a company’s position on, say, environmental controversies would become legally hazardous unless each assertion therein could be “substantiated” to the regulators’ satisfaction.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. Prior to joining Cato, Olson was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and has been a columnist for Great Britain’s Times Online as well as Reason.

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